CPS corners tutoring market but runs risk of losing it all

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Putting it charitably, last year’s effort to provide the tutoring required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was a rocky learning experience.

The signup letter the School Board sent parents read like a legal document and didn’t go out until just before school started. Some of the private tutoring companies couldn’t find enough teachers or classroom space. In many cases, tutoring didn’t start until January, February or even later. In many schools, children never got the tutoring that their parents had picked.

In the wake of these difficulties, the Chicago Public Schools put new administrators in charge, improved the sign-up process and tried to bring some order to the competition for students.

It also transformed its role from that of a tutor of last resort—one aimed mainly at bilingual and special education students—to the largest tutoring provider in the city, an unanticipated and, to some, unwanted development. The move raises questions about the amount of choice parents are getting and the quality of tutoring.

Meanwhile, the accountability provisions of NCLB have put the future of the CPS program in doubt even as it expands. In July, the Department of Education notified CPS that the district had fallen short of annual test score goals in 2003, according to Karen Craven, spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). If CPS fell short again in 2004—which it won’t know until winter—it becomes a district “in need of improvement” and, as such, may use only outside providers for NCLB tutoring, according to federal regulations.

State and federal officials already are discussing what would happen then, according to Craven. One possible option, according to an insider who asked not to be identified, would have CPS transfer control of its program to another legal entity.

Regardless, CPS is forging ahead. “We haven’t been told that we can’t be a provider,” says Erica Burroughs, CPS tutoring program manager. “It would be irresponsible for us not to go forward.”

In contrast, New York City has decided not to run the risk of having its program discontinued. Rather, it is now aggressively placing its students with outside vendors.

Elsewhere in Illinois, another nine districts have sought and received permission to mount their own tutoring programs.

‘Can’t wait for parents’

A year ago, CPS was slated to serve about 450 of the 15,000 children who had signed up for the free tutoring, since parents overwhelmingly had chosen private providers such as Sylvan Learning (now Catapult Learning), EdSolutions and The Princeton Review.

By spring, however, CPS was serving almost 50,000, having signed them up itself after getting parents’ permission. This brought the total to about 64,500.

This year, CPS is on track to serve some 72,000 children, or more than 80 percent of the estimated 90,000 students it expects to receive the service under NCLB. The entire program will be paid for with $45 million in federal Title I dollars.

Along with the school choice option, the tutoring requirement is one of the most controversial elements of NCLB. A remnant of the private-school voucher option that the Bush administration proposed as an escape hatch for students in struggling schools, the tutoring requirement (officially called supplemental educational services or SES) gives parents at eligible schools the right to select their children’s tutors from state-approved providers that may include private, for-profit and even faith-based providers.

Last year, there were 11 state-approved tutoring options for CPS students, including CPS. This year, there are 28.

Detractors labeled the requirement the “Sylvan amendment.” However, the program is proving to be more of a boon for CPS than for any of the private tutoring companies.

Following weak signup results last fall, district officials developed and unveiled their own $20 million Academic After School Program in December and January. Eventually, it would serve almost 50,000 students in 231 schools.

“We can’t wait for parents to sign up any longer,” explained CEO Arne Duncan.

In May and June, CPS started ramping up for an even bigger program this year. It urged principals to recruit as many children as possible before the school year ended. About 15,000 signed up then, and another 1,000 signed up during the summer.

Initially, 361 schools were to get the tutoring option. The total has since been revised to 343 and may be revised again as official test scores are released.

In late July, CPS also unveiled a revamped selection system that lets principals decide which private companies will be allowed to provide services to their children on site.

“We’re trying to give parents more choices earlier on and to make them more concrete,” Duncan explained. “And we’re trying to make sure those options are real.”

Limiting choice

However, some advocates question whether parents are getting the choice that the law intended. Those who have signed up thus far have received virtually no information for making an intelligent choice. The district-generated signup form used last spring didn’t list specific private providers like Sylvan or EdSolutions as options, but rather offered only a generic “private tutor program” to be named later. Further, CPS got the coveted first-place listing.

The current signup form being used at some schools doesn’t list any on-site tutoring providers other than CPS, and a brochure produced by CPS lists fewer than half of the approved providers.

All but 2,600 of the 16,000 who have signed up chose CPS, according to CPS.

“It’s not sufficient to offer [only] some kind of tutoring to those kids,” says Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change. “They have a right to private tutoring, which is what the law promised them, and they should receive it.”

So far, though, neither state nor federal education officials have objected to the CPS limitations.

It remains unclear whether parents will be able to reconsider their choices in the fall. Some providers say they have been told parents are “locked in.”

CPS officials say that parents can change until Oct. 8, though they will be limited to the on-site providers that their schools’ principals have approved, to off-site options (if they have their own transportation) and to online options (if they have their own computers and Internet access).

The programs differ in a number of ways, including schedules, curricula, teacher preparation, instructional methods and where the tutoring takes place. Some programs are provided off site.

Some use teacher aides who work under the supervision of certified teachers. CPS has produced a brochure that describes some of the programs for this year.

Last year, average class sizes ranged from about 12 with some private providers to 20 in the CPS program. “At that size, why do they even call it tutoring?” asks Madeline Talbott, head organizer for ACORN Illinois, a community advocacy group.

CPS is aiming for a maximum of 15 this year.

While all programs generally use teachers who have taught or are teaching in CPS, some critics, such as Derrick Harris of the North Lawndale Local School Council Federation, question the practice of using teachers at the schools found wanting under the strict NCLB standards to provide “outside” tutoring required by NCLB.

However, CPS officials report that students, parents and tutor coordinators ranked the CPS program favorably in surveys about last year’s service. CPS is working on an evaluation that will break down the impact by provider.

Recently, Duncan said he thought the tutoring helped raise test scores this year.

Indeed, some parents prefer that their children get tutoring from familiar teachers at a familiar school.

Alma Duarte, a parent at Cardenas Elementary School, was pleased with the tutoring the school gave her 3rd-grade daughter Jessica last year. “It was good,” she says. “She knew the teachers and the school.”

And many CPS schools have extensive experience providing tutoring. “We’ve learned how to make things work for our parents and students,” says Sylvia Ortiz, principal of Cardenas. “They want our tutoring.”

CPS under scrutiny

The extensive CPS program has won the district both praise and scrutiny at the U. S. Department of Education. “We’re impressed with how aggressive Chicago has been about getting the word out to parents and not waiting for schools to become eligible,” says Mike Petrilli, deputy director of the Office of Innovation and Improvement, noting that several other urban districts, including New York City and Los Angeles, have become major providers, too.

“We’re watching [these districts] closely to make sure that there’s a fair playing field,” he adds. Even private companies acknowledge that CPS is well positioned to deliver services efficiently. “It’s centrally supported, it’s well known, and it’s got an established infrastructure,” says Gary Solomon, vice president of educational partnerships for The Princeton Review, one of the 28 approved providers.

The district also stands to benefit financially: The fewer parents who sign up for outside tutoring, the more federal money stays inside the school system. At the school level, the more parents who sign up for CPS-provided tutoring, the more after-school jobs principals can control and the less intrusion from private tutoring companies. In effect, parents choosing CPS tutoring are generating additional federal funding for their schools, just as they do by signing up for free- and reduced-price lunch.

CPS officials report that other after-school programs, such as After School Matters, are continuing at roughly the same funding levels as before, and that the new tutoring program is not replacing any old programs, which would violate federal law.

Alexander Russo is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.