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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tutor This

I have a few long posts in my head about the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's series on MPS high schools this week, but, given work things, I will start with a response to something from Sunday's "Crossroads" section instead.

Eugene W. Hickok, a paid shill for the "supplemental education services" industry, has an op-ed lamenting the fact that parents don't make use of supplemental education services. Kind of like the Jiffy Lube guy complaining that you get your oil changed at the dealer.

Leave aside for a minute that the guy in question, as an Undersecretary of Education, "was an architect of the No Child Left Behind Act" (the sort of thing that always reminds me of the marketing philosophy of "create a niche, then fill it"--the man created a cash stream for these SESes and now he's profiting from it). Leave aside the additional willy-generating fact that the company's business model is to lobby for changes in education law that benefit the private-sector companies that pay for their services (and people complain when NEA lobbies for the public schools!).

Consider simply the fact that the op-ed is bone-headedly offensive.

The basic idea behind the SESes in question is that schools identified as "in need of improvement" under NCLB must divert a portion of their federal Title I money to outside groups, which can include everything from for-profit companies to faith-based organizations, who then tutor children in the basics like reading and math. This is supposed to help the students not with their schoolwork, but to achieve better scores on state tests. And, given today's release to the public about Wisconsin's failing schools, you'll probably hear more about it soon.

Hickok doesn't live in Milwaukee and hasn't seen what goes on here; I do. I've seen these SESes in action. But first, here's his complaint:
These school administrators claim that of the 1.4 million children eligible for such tutoring during the past school year, only 233,000 (17%) had parents and guardians who found this offer worthy of acceptance. All the rest apparently declined free tutoring for their children.

That is simply preposterous. [. . .]

The law says schools [. . .] are to notify parents of their children's eligibility for the services, inform them of the names and varieties of tutoring services available, and make it easy for parents to enroll their children for the services.

But in far too many places this simply isn't happening. Why would only 17% of eligible children be enrolled in this program?

In far too many places, it's not the parents' fault or an oversight that's to blame. It is the people in charge of the schools, who, in far too many cases, think that the money set aside for free tutoring is money that ought to stay with their schools and districts instead--that it's their money to manage as they see fit. [. . .]

Too many children in this country are failing to get the education they need and deserve. What a tragedy it would be if, years from now, we learned that those responsible for providing that education to our children were the very ones responsible for their not getting it.
The omitted litany of complaints, though written from a cozy office in DC, is published in the Milwaukee paper, leading many, I would guess, to assume that these problems exist in Milwaukee--that MPS is trying to cheat parents out of an opportunity for their children. This is not true, and to imply it is an insult.

I've seen the district letter that goes out to parents about my school. Even though we have generally been improving in one or more areas every year we miss Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the letter pretty clearly makes the case to parents that our school sucks rocks. This year, when parents get their letter ('cause my school is on the list! yay!), parents will not be told that our math and reading scores were up ten or more percentage points over last year. Nope. Just like last year, they didn't hear about how we missed AYP simply because three too few special education students could be rounded up to take the test. Instead, parents just get a letter full of alarming rhetoric about how the whole school is doomed! Doomed, I tell you!

The letter does not set firm deadlines. In fact, though every year there's a supposed deadline, the SESes that inhabit my school keep recruiting kids year-round. They are in the lobby for the ninth-grade orientation. They are all around at parent-teacher conferences. The people running the programs are in the building constantly trying to drum up business.

Perhaps one reason why Milwaukee might have a low participation rate--in 2004-2005, it was about 20%, not significantly better than the national average Hickok cites--is because many parents never get their letters.

I was at one of the school-closing meetings (see this post) last week, and Tyrone Dumas, who's running the process, said that a mailing to every parent in the district that his office prepared had a returned-undeliverable rate from the post office of more than 1 in 5. That's 20% of parents who may not be getting the letters in the first place.

Another reason why participation may be low is something hinted at above: The "tutoring" is not supposed to help students be successful in school, but rather successful on state tests. For any student who is past November of his or her sophomore year, this tutoring--while it may be needed to brush up rudimentary skills--seems useless, since the test is over. I've had many students tell me that when they asked for help on work I assign, they can't get it from these tutors. This upsets students and parents, both.

The tutoring is also of questionable quality; at my school, I have observed or have been made aware of activities at these SES sessions that should worry parents:
  • teachers ignoring tutoring students to conduct after-school, paid activities with different children (double-dipping, anyone?)
  • incentives such as TVs and cash given to students for mere attendance, rather than performance
  • tutors trying to recruit students from my school to attend the private school where they teach
  • abuse, misuse, theft, and vandalism of school property during the after-school sessions
  • students being called out of class during the school day for meetings about incentive trips to places like the Mall of America
  • students missing days of school to attend such incentive trips
  • teachers asked to evaluate students they have never personally worked with--on forms that would be filed with DPI!
This is not the sort of thing that would make a parent confident in the ability of these services to improve a child's basic skills.

I'm not suggesting that all SES providers everywhere are scam artists or completely useless. I just haven't seen enough to encourage me about their effectiveness, certainly not enough that an industry shill like Hickok can pursuade me.

Apparently, the state hasn't seen enough, either. Last August, the state raised red flags:
When asked if there is any current, objective way to judge whether kids are doing better in school or on state tests, Mary Kleusch, the assistant director for the Office of Educational Accountability, who oversees the program, said simply: No.

[. . .T]he law puts the task of approving--and evaluating--providers squarely in the lap of the state, not school districts.[. . .] Currently, the state requires providers to report the number of students they served, the degree to which they attended and how much progress the students made. "The limitation is that it's a self-report," Kleusch said.
This year MPS decided they would disrupt the learning even more at my school--and other sites served by SESes--by making us give more standardized tests during class time at the start and end of the school year. These tests were somehow supposed to tell someone somewhere whether the SESes were working. Why the burden fell on us--and not the groups being assessed--I don't know. I just know I lost four days of teaching this year because of it.

I have no idea what the results will show, or whether the state will ever develop any kind of a rigorous accountability model for these groups. But until they do--and until someone shows me data to suggest that the students in these programs are improving at something more than test-taking ability and that my tax dollars are being spent wisely--I will not sit idly by and let someone making a pretty penny off those same tax dollars blame me for the failings of his damned law.

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