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Schools Watch Archives

  • October 2005
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    National Tutoring Voucher Program -- A Scandal

    By Peter Downs

    Filed Sunday, October 23 at 10:12 PM

    St. Louis School Board member Bill Purdy called the program "a national scandal" and "a travesty" and refused to vote for it at the school board meeting on October 11. Fellow school board member Ron Jackson replied that while much of what Purdy said was true, "we have to vote for it anyway." Jackson did, and so did four of the other six school board members.

    The "it" in question is the "supplemental education services (SES)" component of the federal No Child Left Behind law, under which school districts are required to offer children in certain low-performing schools the option of going to a private company for after-school tutoring.

    Lynn Spampinato, the chief academic officer of St. Louis Public Schools, had requested the vote on offering the tutoring services to St. Louis public school students. She said that the federal law requires that the district spend 20% of the funds it receives for disadvantaged students, known as Title 1 funds, on SES. This year, the school district can provide tutoring itself, "but for us to do it we have to give parents the option of choosing from every SES provider approved by the State," she said. There are 30 other tutoring providers approved by the State beside the St. Louis Public Schools.

    Spampinato also lamented the "serious flaws" in the law. She said there was so little accountability of the private companies offering tutoring that "if they tell us they tutored a student, we have to pay them the full amount," even if the company really only saw the student once. The state-mandated payment in Missouri for tutoring is $1,541 for each student. "We can't even verify attendance," she said.

    Perhaps she exaggerated.

    On June 13, 2005, the U.S. Department of Education issued new instructions to states and school districts in the for of a "Non-Regulatory Guidance," as Education Secretary Margaret Spelling announced a new "common sense approach" to implementing No Child Left Behind.

    Under the new instructions, school districts can regulate private tutoring companies through contracts. Those contracts, according to the Department of Education, can specify achievement goals for each student the company tutors [Section 1116(e)(3)(A)], tests for measuring achievement [Section 1116(e)(3)(A) and (B)], reduced payment if the student misses sessions [Section 1116(e)(3)(D)], and a clause for terminating the contract if the student does not progress to the goals in the time specified [Section 1116(e)(3)(C)]. The section numbers reference sections of No Child Left Behind.

    According to Patty Sullivan, director of the Center for Education Policy, most school districts already provider attendance claims. She said Spampinato's claim that the St. Louis school district does not have the right to do that is "very unusual."

    As for measuring the effectiveness of a provider's tutoring, the Department of Education instructs school districts that, "The best practice would be to specify, in the contract between the LEA [the local education agency] and the provider, the assessment or assessments that will be used."

    States also were given more room to regulate tutoring companies in June. According to the Department of Education, state boards of education: "have a responsibility, through the approval and monitoring processes, to ensure that high-quality services are delivered. . . . Specifically, [they] must develop and implement standards and techniques for monitoring the quality, performance, and effectiveness of the services offered by approved supplemental educational service providers. Such standards and techniques, as well as any findings resulting from such monitoring, must be publicly reported."

    State education departments, according to the feds, "must ensure that each provider it approves:

    1. Has a demonstrated record of effectiveness in increasing student academic achievement [Section 1116(e)(12)(B)(i)];
    2. Will use instructional strategies that are high quality, based upon research, and designed to increase student academic achievement. . . [Section 1116(e)(12)(C)];
    3. Provides services that are consistent with the instructional program of the [local school district] and with State academic content and achievement standards. . . [Sections 11116(e)(5)(B) and 1116(e)(12)(B)(ii)]. . ."

    Before June 13, 2005, however, Spampinato's comments might have been right on the mark. The SES provision of the federal No Child Left Behind act essentially set up a national voucher system for tutoring –– one without regulation or accountability, much like the school voucher or private school scholarship plans that have been proposed in the state legislature.

    The first draft of regulations from the Department of Education would have prohibited states and school districts from exercising any oversight over tutoring services. States were prohibited from setting a minimum standard for tutor qualifications, and prohibited from requiring some evidence that a tutoring service worked. The Education Department justified its prohibition on state accountability requirements by stating such requirements would limit the choices parents could have.

    After fierce lobbying from educators and state education officials, the final regulations still prohibited any regulation of tutor qualifications, but they did let state officials ask tutoring services to document that their programs are based on scientific research.

    John Jennings, president and chief executive officer of the CEP, looked at the lax regulation of supplemental education services and the huge sums of money involved – $2 billion nationwide – and called it "an area with tremendous potential for fraud." Sullivan, director of the CEP, said that events have proved him right.

    Sullivan said, "the deputy commissioner of education in Washington State has complained of private tutoring companies wining and dining school superintendents." Federal law lets school districts recommend to parents which tutoring service they should use.

    In Clark County, Nevada, private tutoring services went door-to-door to sign up students for SES services, with one company even offering a free TiVo to every student who signed up.

    And, in order to get the maximum profit out of the program, some online tutoring companies set up their tutoring centers in India, paying workers about $1 an hour to tutor U.S. students over the internet.

    Amidst the chaos, some school district officials decided to take action even if the feds seemed to oppose it. Philadelphia Public Schools canceled its contract with one tutoring company after one of that company's tutors raped a student.

    However, the biggest challenge to the federal government's "anything goes" policy erupted last year in Chicago.

    In mid-March, Chicago Public Schools expelled Platform Learning from seven Chicago schools over persistent complaints that tutors did not show up and there were insufficient materials for the number of children enrolled in the tutoring classes.

    Ten weeks earlier, the U.S. Department of Education had ordered Chicago Public Schools to stop its own tutoring program, but the district had refused. Besides its own tutoring program, Chicago Public Schools offered eligible students 28 other programs to pick from.

    In both cases, the Illinois education department sided with Chicago against the federal government, and the state even gave the school district funding for tutoring after the feds said it could not use federal money.

    Spurred on by the controversies in Chicago, the Illinois State Board of Education prepared new rules governing tutoring companies in public schools. The new rules included better monitoring of tutoring services through data collection and site visits, and new financial reporting requirements to ensure that tutoring companies do not charge districts more than their actual costs for services.

    Three days before the Illinois board of education adopted the rules, and potentially set the stage for a stand-off with the federal government, the federal education department released the new guidance that gave states and school districts more oversight of tutoring programs. Since then, the feds also issued new rules to give school districts more leeway to offer their own tutoring services to students, and accepted Chicago's program.


    Moving Away From Group Punishments

    By Peter Downs

    Filed Thursday, October 20 at 9:44 PM

    October 17, 2005 -- Kudos to the staff at Shaw Visual and Performing Arts Elementary School for moving away from group punishments, and for trying new techniques for maintaining order in the lunchroom, and kudos to the principal for showing a willingness to work with parents.

    The new discipline initiatives emerged after several parents complained to the principal about teachers and other adults in the lunchroom yelling at children, and then punishing everyone for the transgressions of a few.

    "I could not believe it when my daughter came home and told me she had to stand against the wall and miss recess when she didn't do anything," said Tawnya Braun, the mother of a first grade student new to the school this year. "But I checked it out and found out she was right. Her whole class was punished because two kids were talking."

    The problems with group punishments are two-fold: everyone recognizes that they are unfair, and they encourage children to misbehave. After all, if you are going to be punished whether you behave yourself or not, you might as well get to enjoy acting rowdy or talking loudly.

    The principal invited Braun and some of the other parents to volunteer in the lunchroom, and that led to discussions about how to improve the atmosphere of lunch. Taking a leaf from the hospitality industry, they decided to play music during lunch. The result? "It's a lot quieter now," said one student.

    They also decided to set aside a lunchroom table for lunchtime detention. The staff has been instructed to no longer mete out group punishments, but to discipline children who misbehave by moving them to the detention table for a week.


    Dewey Parents Pitch In

    By Antonio D. French

    A common rap against St. Louis Public School parents is that they don't get involved. Somebody forgot to tell the parents at Dewey International Studies Elementary School.

    On the weekends of October 8 and October 15, scores of Dewey parents volunteered their time to assemble and install new playground equipment at the school, equipment purchased with money raised by the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO).

    Marianne Duersch, president of the Dewey PTO, estimated that the parent labor saved the PTO about $7,500, which was money they plowed back into buying more equipment for the kids to play on.


    Annual Halloween Party Loses Community Education

    By Antonio D. French

    Contributed by Anne Nabor

    For the past 10 years, Micah House students from St. Louis University have produced an annual Halloween party for the students of Sherman Elementary Community Education Center. Micah House is an four-year integrated living and study program in social justice. Students are required to fulfill community service as part of the program. Throwing the party for Sherman students, thereby providing a safe place for them to celebrate Halloween, was one of their service projects.

    For those ten years, the Community Education Center paid for the party supplies. Each CEC is given $25,000 per year to spend on serving the needs of its community. The CEC councils in the past have decided how to spend this money.

    This fall the CEC was removed from Sherman to the nearby Mullanphy Biological Sciences Investigative Learning Center magnet school. Micah House students were told this week that the $300 annual allocation for the party will not be available this year. All funding will now be reserved exclusively for programming at Mullanphy. Few neighborhood children attend Mullanphy. There are no plans for a Halloween event there. No explanation was given for the move or the exclusive reservation of the funding.

    The CEC Council chairperson resigned in protest over the move to Mullanphy last spring, and council members have not been given their customary opportunity to vote on the allocation of funds.

    Meanwhile, community members are trying to raise the $300 from private sources so the party can go on.


    Textbook Committee Meets

    By Antonio D. French

    A new textbook committee began meeting October 17 to evaulate social studies textbooks for middle school. As of October 12, district administrators were still looking for parents to sit on the committee, but as one parent said, "if you wanted to do a good job, you'd couldn't do anything else for the week."

    The committee meets in the Carr-Lane Middle School's library from 4-6:30 every day. A different publisher presents his or her company's products each day. Committee members are supposed to examine them and then fill out a form each night grading the products that they have seen. On Friday evening they will see one more publisher, tally the results of their grading, and vote on a recommendation to the chief academic officer.


    Hazelwood Public Schools Rejects Applied Scholastics

    By Antonio D. French

    Filed Friday, October 14 at 4:22 PM

    Chris Wright, the superintendent of Hazelwood Public Schools, has written a sharply-worded letter to the chief executive officer of Applied Scholastics rejecting her claim that the company is working with Hazelwood Public Schools to tutor students from low performing schools.

    In the letter, dated October 4, 2005, Wright characterizes the claim by Bennetta Slaughter of Applied Scholastics as "patently false."

    Wright continued: "We have repeatedly indicated that we are not interested in your services, not willing to participate in your training programs, do not want your materials, and will not enter into any association with Applied Scholastics."

    Adding that Hazelwood Public Schools intends to provide any tutoring required by federal law itself, Wright concluded her letter to Slaughter stating: "We do not need or want an association with Applied Scholastics."

    In a separate letter to Kent King, commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Wright explained her rejection of Applied Scholastics. She said that the company, which has its world headquarters in the Hazelwood school district, has approached the district many times during the last three years about working together. "We investigated them thoroughly . . . and found that they were closely connected to the Church of Scientology. We made the decision that this connection was not in the interests of our children and refused all efforts to "partner" with the District."

    Ellen Mahler-Forney, a spokesperson for the Church of Scientology in University City, said Wright's attitude reflects a misunderstanding of the church. "We are a new religion," she said, and "any new religion has a lot of misunderstanding to overcome."

    While taken aback by the tone of Wright's letter, the officers of Applied Scholastics said it does not affect their plans to tutor students from Hazelwood Public Schools. "It is not [Wright's] decision," said Mary Adams, senior vice president for external affairs at Applied Scholastics. "The choice is the parents. If they chose us to tutor their children, the school district has to pay for, because we are an approved provider in Missouri."

    Wright, however, is urging King to reevaluate the approval of Applied Scholastics. "As the Department reviews renewal applications from potential providers for Supplemental Education Services this year," she wrote, "I hope that you will evaluate those programs which have already been approved and establish some criteria for their approval."

    Wright's was not the only letter King received last week urging him to reevaluate Applied Scholastics. David Touretzky, research professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University, also sent a letter detailing his claims that: "What Applied Scholastics calls secular "study technology" is actually covert instruction in the Scientology religion."

    Adams and other representatives of Applied Scholastics and its parent company, Association for Better Living and Education International, denied that Applied Scholastics covertly instructs students in the Scientology religion. They said the Church of Scientology does use "study technology," but only as a way to help church members study their religious texts, not as part of the religion itself.



    By Antonio D. French

    St. Louis Schools Watch is on the radio: Wednesdays at 7 a.m. on the Lizz Brown Show on WGNU 920 AM. Programs are archived at www.whiterosesociety.org

    October 20, 6:30 p.m., Parent Assembly meeting, Metro High, 4017 McPherson.

    October 22, 6:30 p.m., Local 420 C.O.P.E. Trivia Night, Glaziers Union Hall 5916 Wilson, $15 per person includes beer, soda, chips; to reserve your table 775-9992 or email nfc11@sbcglobal.net

    October 28, 8 a.m. to noon, St. Louis School Board's "Conversation on Urban Education," place to be announced.


    Union Leader Praises Williams

    By Antonio D. French

    A leader of the union representing teachers and other staff in the St. Louis Public Schools Tuesday evening thanked Superintendent Creg Williams for his actions in the Applied Scholastics controversy.

    As previously reported in the Argus, two middle school principals in St. Louis Public Schools had sent their teachers to the Applied Scholastics campus in Spanish Lake to learn the teaching ideas of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.

    Last month, after complaints from some of the teachers involved, Williams ordered a stop to those principal-mandated training visits.

    Byron Clemens, the first vice president of the St. Louis Federation of Teachers and School-Related Personnel, said that the principals at Fanning and Long Middle Schools then launched a hunt to find out who had complained about Applied Scholastics. He said they interrogated teachers without a union representative present, and began to harass those they thought had complained to their union and to school board members.

    Clemens said he and union president Mary Armstrong first found out about hunt during a visit to Applied Scholastics. The chief executive officer of the company, Bennetta Slaughter, mentioned they were trying to find out who complained about the company's training, and displayed some emails about teacher interrogations.

    Union leaders later met with Williams about the complaints of harassment and interrogation of teachers. Williams then told the principals to stop.

    "Thank you for stopping the witch hunt," Clemens said to Williams at the school board meeting Tuesday.

    School board member Bill Purdy said he supported Williams' action. "We have policies that prohibit retaliation against any employees who exercises their right to complain to their union," he said.

    Clemens also raised concern that Applied Scholastics could get money from the school district for "tutoring" students. Applied Scholastics is on a list of companies approved by the State to provide tutoring services under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The school board would vote later in the evening on a resolution approving the tutoring option for children in low performing schools.

    Clemens urged the St. Louis school board to exclude Applied Scholastics from the tutoring program as, he said, Hazelwood was doing. Ken Brostron, the school district's attorney, had advised the school board that federal law required that the district let parents choose a tutor from the entire list of companies approved by the State.

    The school board approved the tutoring option, with Applied Scholastics included, by a vote of 5-1-1.


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