Mandate Aside, Private Tutors Aren't Always An Option

Fred Smith, an ex-Harlem Globetrotter and founder of the nonprofit Save Our Kids: Academics Through Sports, jokes with Malik Dukes, 9, after a basketball practice in Arkansas.
Fred Smith, an ex-Harlem Globetrotter and founder of the nonprofit Save Our Kids: Academics Through Sports, jokes with Malik Dukes, 9, after a basketball practice in Arkansas. (By Mike Brown For The Washington Post)
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

When Amber Howe began ninth grade in Mandaree, N.D., her parents were thrilled that the federal government had forced her school to offer private tutoring free of charge. With nine classmates, Amber left school at 2 p.m. twice a week, traveled in a van three hours southeast to Bismarck, practiced English and algebra for two hours, and then rode three hours home.

The 328-mile round-trip treks to a Sylvan Learning Center lasted until that October, when Amber's mother and the other parents decided that their children were too exhausted to keep going. In the year and eight months since then, the Mandaree school district, housed in a single building on an Indian reservation where poverty runs high and test scores run low, has provided no tutors.

It has not found any willing to come.

As part of the No Child Left Behind Act, Mandaree and other schools whose students are making little headway are required to hire outside education companies to give extra help. Across the country, educators say, many poor, rural schools are having trouble following the law. Private tutoring firms are reluctant to work in remote places where children are few and the opportunity to make money is slim.

With such scanty options, some schools have turned to grass-roots tutoring companies that have sprung up with little track record, such as a small Arkansas firm started by a former basketball player. Some are trying online tutors. But many, such as Mandaree, are doing nothing at all.

"For us, it's sort of a fake help, because it's just not there," said Linda McCullough, superintendent of public instruction in Montana, where 20 of the 14,000 eligible students this year at 66 schools are getting the tutoring the federal government envisions.

The tutorless schools illustrate a tension in an essential aspect of the 2001 law intended to overhaul public education. The law seeks to create a marketplace of help for youngsters in failing schools, but private enterprise does not always mesh smoothly with the needs of poor, struggling students.

Private tutoring emerged as a compromise after Congress resisted the Bush administration's voucher plan to allow parents to send their children to private schools at public expense. Under the law, schools with many low-income students must offer tutoring if they fail to make enough academic progress three years in a row. At first, those schools may provide that help directly, but after a year they must contract with outside companies and nonprofit groups, paying them with part of their federal subsidies.

Debate over "supplemental education services," as the law calls the tutoring, has focused largely on issues in urban settings: how to rein in aggressive marketing practices by rival companies, how to motivate schools to encourage parents to sign up their children, and how to gauge whether the extra help does much good.

Less noticed has been the more fundamental issue that many rural schools -- about one-third of the nation's public schools -- are having trouble simply finding tutors. When federal officials paid a visit to Nebraska last year to see how tutoring was going, state educators "showed them the letters of the companies that refused to serve us," said Marilyn Peterson of the Nebraska Department of Education.

In North Dakota, 20 schools, including Mandaree's, are required to hire extra help. But half of the schools -- small schools in out-of-the-way places -- have not found a company that is prepared to come.

Administration officials acknowledge the problem. Noting that state officials are responsible for screening companies and determining which schools must offer tutors, Stacy Kreppel, a senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Education, said: "There's not a lot they can do if a provider turns around and says, 'No, we are not going to serve.' . . . We may need to examine . . . where the gaps are and if there are additional strategies we can take."

Often, tutoring companies require a minimum number of students. Mary Szwec, superintendent of a district that covers three small towns in mid-coast Maine, contacted all six companies permitted to work in the state. She found that some required 1,000 students -- five times the enrollment at Searsport District Middle School, the school that needs to offer tutoring.

With some national education companies shunning such schools, small entrepreneurs are sometimes stepping in. Fred Smith, a former member of the Harlem Globetrotters, moved home to Arkansas and, two years ago, created a controversial program called Save Our Kids: Academics Through Sports. Believing that youngsters need incentives to do extra schoolwork that is voluntary, Smith has designed his program to reward work on reading and math with pizza and sports. Every child who signs up gets a basketball and a T-shirt. They spend four hours a week on academics, and if they fulfill that they are allowed to practice basketball with him at the end of the week. He is working with half a dozen school districts in the poor, rural delta of the Mississippi River.

At Lakeside School District, two of whose three schools have to offer tutors, Assistant Superintendent Billy Adams found that Save our Kids was his only choice after most companies on Arkansas's list turned him down and after one firm, for which several parents had registered, "just didn't show up."

Adams complains that Smith, like many companies that go into rural places, has hired public school teachers who cannot, under the law, tutor directly for the school system. In the Marianna, Ark., school district, where Smith is being paid about $90,000 for work he began in February, Superintendent Wayne Thompson said, "We have someone who comes in, basically does not have any real educational background, and hires our teachers who already have been on the job and haven't been able to do the job either."

Smith said he takes principals' advice to hire the best teachers he can find and pays them $30 per hour, more than what other companies pay in the state, so he can get the teachers he wants.

For Smith's company and others around the country, the process of finding adults in small communities who are qualified to work with struggling students takes time. It was February before 18 children began to get tutored at the elementary school in Gunnison, Colo. Suzanne Oliver, a school administrator, said the one company she could find, A to Z In-Home Tutoring LLC, first had to hire eight instructors, all but three of them employees of the school district.

To get around such difficulties, federal officials promote the use of companies that provide tutoring online, and such firms have been proliferating. "We think the online program is eliminating the geographic divide," said Jeffrey H. Cohen, president of Catapult Learning LLC, a national company that has in-person and online divisions. "There are no minimums. If one student signs up, that's okay, because the teacher is not local." Catapult provides every child who signs up a computer, which can be used only for the tutoring sessions until the lessons are completed.

In Searsport, Maine, about two dozen students work with an online company, and Szwec, the superintendent, said she is especially pleased that the firm, Brainfuse, has consulted with local teachers about which skills the students need to improve most.

Other educators are less enthusiastic about tutoring by computer, saying that it can be hard to motivate students to learn online -- and that some of their families are too poor or too remote to have Internet connections. "People don't see it as a positive thing," said Laurie Matzke of the Department of Public Instruction in North Dakota, where no parent has signed up a child for an online tutor.

Educators are searching for ways to cope. In Alaska, state education officials are recommending that parents at a given school join together to select a single company, rather than each choosing separately, in hopes that such a move will create a critical mass of children for the company to tutor. With a small federal grant, Catapult and an association of regional education service agencies are trying to form buying groups of several small schools. As in several other states, state officials in North Dakota are urging local college students to become tutors.

But, in the meantime, Michael and Lorraine Howe worry about their daughter Amber, a bright girl who is drawn to reading and music but is repeating ninth grade this year because she has poor motivation and does not concentrate well in class.

Tiring as the trips to Bismarck were "she was just kind of into it" at Sylvan, said Michael Howe, who is troubled that Amber uses some of the same textbooks he used at the Mandaree school a generation ago. Finding a tutor, he said, "would make a huge difference."

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