Ruling Leaves Thousands Behind
by Corey Murray, eSchool News, December 23, 2004
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decision by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) gives a huge
lift to private companies that supply after-school tutoring and
other supplemental education services (SES) for the nation's
schools--but it also could result in a disruption or loss of
service for tens of thousands of students in the Chicago Public
Schools (CPS) and other districts of similar status.
In a Dec. 8 letter to Illinois state officials, ED demanded that
CPS, along with 10 other districts across the state, stop
serving as their own providers of tutoring services to
struggling students. The letter, which came from Undersecretary
Eugene Hickok's office, informed the districts they were in
violation of the stipulations set forth under the federal No
Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Despite demonstrated progress over the last several years,
federal officials say the districts still fall short of meeting
the standard for adequate yearly progress (AYP), a series of
benchmarks used to determine how well schools are faring under
the law. Until improvements are made, ED said, all 11 districts
named in the letter must rely on tutoring solutions only from
third-party service providers--or else they will lose federal
funding for these NCLB-mandated services.
In an interview with eSchool News, Nina Rees, ED's assistant
secretary for innovation and improvement, said the law has
always held that a school system labeled "in need of
improvement" cannot serve as its own SES provider.
A district is considered "in need of improvement" if it fails to
meet the accountability statutes proposed by the state for two
consecutive years. Because each state submits its own plan, ED
does not have a set formula for determining whether a district
meets the federal standard.
If a school or a district is in need of improvement, it cannot
be a provider, according to ED. But teachers within those
schools can be, as long as they are hired out by a
Illinois state officials asked the agency for a federal
exemption that would have enabled CPS and 10 other districts in
need of improvement to provide such services themselves. The
letter, Rees explained, was intended to inform state
administrators that their request had been denied. "We can't
simply waive a regulation," she said.
The news elicited outrage from CPS Chief Executive Officer Arne
Duncan, who branded ED's ruling "a slap in the face" and an
"appalling disservice to the children of Chicago." CPS, the
nation's third-largest school system, plans to challenge the
ruling "through every possible means," Duncan added.
In Chicago, district officials say the decision means federally
mandated tutoring services will have to be halted for some
80,000 children, about 40,000 of whom are being tutored directly
by CPS and another 40,000 of whom are being tutored by private
vendors paid by the district.
"Some of those students chose to be in the CPS program, so now
we have to start over, have parents reapply for services, and
then reallocate the available tutoring services based on need,"
said Duncan, who called the decision "ludicrous."
If forced to go solely with private providers, the district
estimates it will have enough money to purchase tutoring for
just 24,000 students--a far cry from the near 80,000 who are
receiving help today.
"The federal government has ensured that the cost of providing
these tutoring services will skyrocket," warned Duncan, who said
the district saved a significant amount of money--and reached
far more struggling students--by providing the required services
on its own.
While CPS spends an average of $400 per child to tutor students
itself, officials contend the cost jumps to nearly $1,500 per
kid whenever a private SES provider enters the mix.
"If this is what the law calls for, then the law should be
changed," Duncan said, requesting that federal officials be more
lenient in their enforcement of NCLB--especially in a district
like Chicago, where more than 74 percent of students reportedly
showed improvements in test scores last year.
In defense of ED's ruling, Rees said CPS should have taken more
time--and made sure it was in compliance--before deciding to
tutor students itself. She also placed some of the blame on the
state, saying state officials should have taken a more proactive
approach in letting the district know where it stood under the
A boost to for-profit providers
As state and school district officials continue to wrestle with
what is and what isn't acceptable under the law, a host of
educational service providers are ramping up their efforts to
exploit what has become a very profitable revenue stream.
The SES provision of the law has opened the door for a myriad of
for-profit companies, many of whose services rely on
sophisticated technology to deliver targeted instruction and
track students progress, to cash in on millions of dollars in
federal funding earmarked for low-income students. Under the
law, every school that fails to meet AYP for three straight
years must set aside a portion of its Title I funds to purchase
tutoring services for eligible students.
Though the programs--selected by parents from a state-approved
list of providers--come in all shapes and sizes, from online
courses taken at home to face-to-face tutoring sessions with
certified teachers, the goal is the same: To help struggling
students achieve higher test scores--and eventually boost the
overall performance of the school.
Last year at Public School 329 in Brooklyn, N.Y., about 300
students enrolled in supplemental courses provided by New
York-based Platform Learning, which provides after-school
tutoring to students in 17 states and more than 300 struggling
Just one year into the program, Assistant Principal Salema
Dawson said students on average have demonstrated a 75-percent
improvement in test scores.
Driven by a statewide directive to promote balanced literacy,
school officials adopted Platform's Learn-to-Succeed program to
assess students' skills and reinforce key concepts through a
combination of face-to-face instruction, individualized
planning, and online data tracking.
Had it not been for federal money set aside for supplemental
services, PS 329 would not have been able to foot the bill for
the project, said Dawson, who added, "These programs are greatly
Through a combination of technology and face-to-face
instruction, Platform Learning deploys certified educators with
a college degree and at least one year of classroom experience
whose job is to target students' weaknesses and boost their
self-confidence in hopes of achieving sustained progress.
The program provides assistance to students in both reading and
math. Driven by small-group instruction and individualized
planning, the service groups students according to skill level
and need, allowing them to move at a pace more conducive to
their own individual learning style, contends Platform Learning
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Eugene Wade.
The company uses a student information system to monitor student
performance and behavior. For example, student absences are
noted and a company call center contacts parents to advise them
when students don't show up.
With the aid of the online tool, teachers and mentors also can
follow students' progress through the use of a unique resource
that gauges each child's success related to pre- and post-tests
handed out by teachers throughout the duration of the program.
Wade said the idea is to empower students. "We're not just a
tutoring company," he said. "We're actually in the business of
changing kids' beliefs and attitudes about learning."
Though tutors use the data collected by the schools to tailor
their instruction to students' individual needs, he said, the
program is about much more than number crunching.
"We want to use data to inform the learning process," said Wade.
"You've got to make a plan, and you've got to work that plan."
Minnesota-based PLATO Learning is another educational service
provider aggressively pursing state approval for supplemental
services in struggling schools.
Currently approved in more than 41 states, PLATO's Supplemental
Services Education Program is a face-to-face tutoring service
staffed by highly qualified teachers and anchored in the
company's Achieve Now curriculum for both reading and math. Each
program includes a mix of interactive software, school and home
learning activities, teacher materials, and student assessment
Like some of its competitors, PLATO also provides an online
assessment tool that enables educators to track students'
progress during the program and record their success based on a
battery of assignments and incremental testing measures.
Before entering the program, students take an online pretest to
help determine where they need the most help, said Bernice
Stafford, the company's vice president of school strategies and
"Just because a child has difficulty reading doesn't necessarily
mean [he or she] must go back to the basics," she said. By using
the online assessment feature, Stafford contends educators can
pinpoint students' exact weaknesses and provide a more
customized approach to remediation.
The online system also communicates students' gains back to
school administrators so they can update school and student
profiles and plan accordingly, she said.
While the company's SES program still is in the early stages of
implementation in most schools, Stafford said it already has
seen some gains in places like Alabama and the District of
Columbia--though "it's still too early to say if those gains are
sustained," she said.
PLATO's tutoring program currently is offered at 13 schools in
Chicago, providing services for 1,100 students across the
district. Stafford said the company has yet to receive official
word whether Chicago plans to halt its services until the
situation there is resolved. No matter how it shakes out, she
said, PLATO is looking forward to building its relationship with
Despite being a third-party provider, Stafford said, PLATO
doesn't view itself as an outsider looking to take financial
advantage of an uncomfortable situation. Still, she knows the
company has to earn peoples' trust.
"When we go into a district as an SES provider, we're not going
in for the first time," she pointed out. "You have to have a
knowledge of the district ... you have to know its needs."
While any company can go into a district and begin recruiting
customers, she said, the key is to listen to what stakeholders
are saying and come up with a solution that is unique to the
Then, she said--and only then--will you begin to see results.
Chicago Public Schools
PLATO Learning Inc.
U.S. Department of Education
7920 Norfolk Ave., Suite 900
Bethesda, MD 20814
(800) 394-0115 - Fax (301) 913-0119
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