Minneapolis, St. Paul schools: Learning what not to do from NCLB tutoring program

/ 12 December 2011 / jennifer

Alleen Brown, Twin Cities Daily Planet, December 12, 2011 –

© Dmitriy Syechin – Fotolia.com

Minnesota’s No Child Left Behind waiver application is in, and school districts are positioning nails over the coffins of some of the legislation’s onerous requirements. One target: a federally required tutoring program. The program pays up to $85 an hour for tutoring with no proven record of helping students — and doesn’t allow school districts to tell parents which of dozens of tutoring programs competing for their children, and taxpayer dollars, has actually delivered results. [Emphasis added]

Supplemental Education Services tutoring is one program that the waiver would boot. SES tutoring providers argue that they deliver valuable help to kids who need it, butresearch from the University of Wisconsin shows minimal impact on test scores, and district employees are quick to say they could a better job. Minneapolis and St. Paul district officials say they don’t know yet where the SES funds would go, but district-led tutoring programs are one option. Even without the waiver, No Child Left Behind will likely be revised in the near future, and the failures and successes of SES will help guide what happens next.

No Child Left Behind requires districts with schools branded as not making Adequate Yearly Progress for three years to set aside 20 percent of their Title 1 funds for supplemental tutoring. This year, it’s $4.7 million for St. Paul and $4.6 million for Minneapolis. The tutoring must consist of non-homework academic help provided by non-profits, faith based organizations or for-profit companies. Some of that 20 percent goes to NCLB’s School Choice, which requires districts to bus kids attending AYP schools to another school if they choose. Since Minneapolis and St. Paul districts already have some school choice built into their systems, most of the money goes to tutoring.

The idea is that kids who attend bad schools should be able find help elsewhere. Title 1 funding typically goes to schools with large populations of low-income kids. With SES, funding is transferred from the public sector to the private, to tutoring organizations that apply to the state for SES approval.

But the system is messy, and kids who could use extra help bear the consequences. It is based on a flawed funding formula that all but guarantees that kids don’t get enough time with tutors. The program’s prioritization of choice prevents district and state officials from guaranteeing the accountability and quality instruction that NCLB aimed to champion.

Most research shows little to no impact of SES tutoring on test scores – a problem for a program that comes out of NCLB’s test score-based accountability system. Researchers, district officials and even tutoring providers themselves say quality varies significantly among Minneapolis’s 40 tutoring providers and St. Paul’s 28. But providers say districts couldn’t deliver the level of service that at least some SES tutoring organizations offer.

An unsound formula

SES tutoring targets kids who fall into the income achievement gap. It goes to students who receive free or reduced price lunch at schools that aren’t making AYP. And last year, since the number of kids applying for SES exceeded funding, demonstrated academic need was added to the list of eligibility requirements.

Each eligible kid in Minneapolis this year can receive $1,637.67 worth of tutoring. In St. Paul, it’s $1,640.84. But there isn’t enough money to go around. The per pupil allocation is based on the district’s total amount of Title 1 money divided by the number of “formula students” in the district who meet certain income criteria, to get a dollar amount that can be spent on each student for tutoring. Only 20 percent of Title 1 funds go towards SES, and that total would be the same regardless of whether there were two AYP schools or 50. This year, St. Paul can only afford to fund 2,756 of its 12,000 eligible students. Minneapolis can fund 2,824 of 16,000 eligible students.

Luckily, 12,000 students probably will not sign up. Until last year, SES never had high enough enrollment to require a wait list. Unused funds were rolled back into Title 1 for the next year. But after both districts ramped up their recruitment campaigns, enrollment went way up, and districts ended up with long wait lists. Since many enrollees in St. Paul did not use their maximum tutoring hours last year, the district eventually found placements for all wait-listed kids. Minneapolis used funding from the Obama administration’s stimulus plan to tutor students who weren’t placed before the Title I funds ran out.

This year, Minneapolis is only in its first of two enrollment periods, and director of funded programs Nicole Norton said the district has 5,700 applications. St. Paul assistant director of school choice and SES Sherry Carlstrom expects to put 950 kids on a wait list after placing the first round of applicants.

Even those that don’t get stuck waiting are unlikely to get enough time with tutors to make a quantifiable difference. Numerous studies show that kids need 40 to 45 hours of tutoring to make a difference in test scores. But as part of the program’s pseudo free market philosophy, SES providers can charge whatever hourly rate they like. In Minneapolis, the median number of hours provided is 33, at $50 per hour. The most expensive Minneapolis provider charges $85 per hour. In St. Paul, the most expensive is $75. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin found no correlation between SES providers’ hourly rate and the effectiveness of their services.

What accountability?

St. Paul SES point person Sherry Carlstrom is one of three employees who monitor the district’s 28 providers. She calls providers when invoices are late. She monitors how long it takes for a student to receive services after they’re placed. She visits new providers.  She’s asked providers to adjust learning plans she found inappropriate, and she’s even succeeded in convincing a few providers to bring their prices down.

“Those are the measures that don’t really a make a difference for student achievement,” Carlstrom said. “At the end of the day I still don’t feel like I have a lot of control over the quality of the service.”

Neither the state nor the district has much say in what providers look like. States can require background checks for tutors, but they cannot require a specific level of training. Applicants have to show research backing their curriculums, but states can’t deny a provider based on curriculum quality. The state is the only entity that can refuse contract renewal, but they have little authority to evaluate providers. Unless a district reports gross contract violations, even ineffective providers continue tutoring.

Carlstrom can’t tell the providers how to train their tutors. She has no say in what curriculum is used or how individualized it is. She can’t force providers to deliver 40 hours of tutoring. And if she did have a say in all those things, Carlstrom said some of the providers she works with might not have a contract.

“While I think maybe they have good intentions, I don’t think that all of the providers are capable of doing the work that I would like to see them do,” she said. “I think possibly for some providers, they’re more interested in the money than providing the services that they need to be providing.”

A mixed bag

Providers range from large, national for-profit companies to tiny non-profits and faith-based organizations. Some do one-on-one in-home tutoring, while others work with groups of up to 10. Still others send kids computers and Internet access instead of tutors. In theory, districts could be providers, but since both Minneapolis and St. Paul are designated as not making AYP, they no longer qualify.

The large number and the variety of providers are meant to create an atmosphere of competition, where parents choose their kids’ education. The legislation requires that the state encourage high participation by numerous providers. Parents who may have limited time and resources are expected to sort through dozens of providers. District employees are not allowed to give more than rudimentary advice about which to choose. They cannot tell parents which providers deliver more effective tutoring.

In Minneapolis, the company with the largest share of participants last year was ATS Project Success, a national, for-profit company that provides online tutoring through laptops that families get to keep. University of Wisconsin researchers found that online providers tend to produce fewer gains in reading and math than offline ones. Part of the difference can be attributed to the fact that online providers tend to charge more. At $85 per hour, Learn It Systems is the most expensive provider in Minneapolis. Because of its high per-hour rate and the limit on per-student funding, the company can deliver less than half of the 40-45 tutoring hours that research shows are most effective.  In St. Paul, the company charges $75. Although the curriculum is individualized by a placement test, all instruction is delivered by a computer program. Last year, both districts had to refuse payment for tutoring sessions from online providers with login times between 12 and 3 am, or during the school day.

Providers aren’t universally mediocre. Club Z! is one of very few providers whose services were shown to improve test scores. Franchise owner John Fahey credits a one-on-one, in-home tutoring model, which uses certified teachers and individualized curriculums, for the program’s success.

“There’s nothing that’s been shown to be more effective than one to one tutoring,” said Minneapolis executive director of research, evaluation and assessment David Heistad. “Companies that are really doing this for a profit may not find that that’s profitable for them.”

Those that aren’t in it for the money may have a hard time getting in at all. University of Wisconsin research found that small Minneapolis providers produced better results than big providers. But MIGIZI Communications director of programs Graham Hartley, said it’s hard for small, community based-organizations to get their foot in the door. MIGIZI is a nonprofit organization whose work focuses on Minneapolis’s American Indian community. The organization offers small group, after-school tutoring sessions as well as some in-home tutoring.

This year MIGIZI is guiding tiny nonprofit Midwest Community Development through the process of becoming a provider. The organization works with Somali women and families on the West Bank. According to executive director Amira Ahmed, the organization lacks the experience, staff and funding to complete SES’s lengthy application and ongoing provider requirements without help. The organization plans to apply next year, if the program still exists.

Ahmed said she sees a huge need for in-home tutoring in the Somali families she works with. “Some of the mothers, especially nowadays, they’re not comfortable sending their kids out to the various organizations,” she said. Midwest Community Development used to offer in-home tutoring using volunteers, but consistency was a problem. “You can imagine the cultural differences if you bring a different volunteer each month to those families. They don’t feel comfortable with it.”

Ahmed said in-home SES tutoring could be invaluable to her community. She doubted that the district would be able to meet the specific needs of the families she works with.

“To take this program away doesn’t make sense to me,” Club Z!’s Fahey said. He argued that districts don’t have resources to provide the level of service that organizations like Club Z! do.

Heistad disagrees. He said that more control from the district could mean a research-based, accountable and consistent tutoring program. “I think if we’re allowed with the waiver to provide our own services again we can learn from these studies,” he said. The short-lived Minneapolis Reading and Math Partners Program that tutored un-placed SES kids last year contracted with just three district-selected providers.

“It won’t look like [the current NCLB tutoring program], because, frankly, I don’t believe it’s really done a lot of good for our families,” St. Paul’s Sherry Carlstrom said. “In fact I almost feel like it provides false hope.”