Report questions private tutoring

Published March 15, 2007

A year ago, big words scared Tayvahn Jordan. He didn't like reading out loud. He didn't like reading in class. His mom said when reading time rolled around, he'd hide in a shell.

Now the first-grader at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg reads a book a day. And his mom, Tomeca Demps, says private tutoring made all the difference.

The tutoring was "marvelous," Demps said Wednesday. "He's not afraid of those big words anymore."

Tayvahn's tutoring came free of charge, courtesy of the No Child Left Behind Act. The 2002 federal law requires school districts to offer private tutoring to any child whose school fails to meet federal standards three years in a row. Last year, 585,000 students nationwide - and 34,000 in Florida - got free tutoring, at a cost of $400-million.

But is it really helping?

A national report released Wednesday says nobody really knows.

The vast majority of states have not been able to monitor the quality of private tutors, concludes the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, an independent advocate for public education. In a survey last fall, education officials in most of those states said they either didn't have the staff or funding to evaluate tutoring companies, as the law requires.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on an unaccountable project," said Jack Jennings, the center's president, before testifying in Congress on the reauthorization of No Child. "The irony is that politicians would not allow public schools to spend hundreds of millions of dollars without accountability."

Jennings said the solution is more federal support. The tutoring industry agrees.

"The assumption is, there is no data, it must not be working," said Steve Drake, a spokesman for the 600-member Education Industry Association. "It's in our best self-interest to say, 'Let's get on with it.' "

In response, the U.S. Department of Education noted President Bush has called for more tutoring - and more money for No Child.

"We know these tutoring services are working," department spokeswoman Rebecca Neale said in a written statement, "because we have heard from parents and administrators from around the nation who tell us" it is.

Wednesday's report does not offer a state-by-state breakdown, because state officials were offered anonymity so they could comment freely. But Florida education officials said they do not anticipate problems evaluating tutoring providers. They also said a comprehensive evaluation of the state's 199 providers will be out within weeks.

The tutoring provision in No Child has been controversial from the get-go. Supporters say it forces districts to give struggling students extra help - and to give them an educational option often reserved for affluent families. But critics say it has spawned a massive tutoring market with little proof students are benefiting.

Even supporters are troubled.

"That's one of the deficits in the program," said Martin Rainey, a St. Petersburg activist who hammered the Pinellas school district two years ago for not better notifying parents about the tutoring option.

The tutors are limited to students in high-poverty schools. Parents choose from a list of providers. In Pinellas, students in 33 schools were eligible this year, and 3,200 signed up.

Demps signed her son up with the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, the local teachers union. Its tutoring regimen offered instruction in small groups and a focus on reading basics.

Union chief Jade Moore said the union's tutors are certified teachers who take specialized training in working with struggling students. "If anyone's going to be effective, it's going to be us," he said.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.