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Who's Monitoring These Companies? Newton Learning Still Operating in City Schools One Year After Violations
By DORIAN MERINA
 
 

Who is monitoring outside tutoring companies? Newton Learning still operating in city schools one year after a series of violations
By DORIAN MERINA


The same tutoring company charged for violating state guidelines last year by New York City investigators is still operating in 102 city schools, according to city officials and the tutoring company itself.

Newton Learning was cited for “a number of questionable activities” by the Special Commission of Investigation for the New York City School District. Newton is a division of Edison Schools, one of the nation’s largest for-profit education companies led until recently by the deputy chancellor, Christopher Cerf, whose newly named chief of staff, Joel Rose, was a manager for Newton during the investigation. In order to continue with its contract, the company promised to make several internal adjustments that were subsequently approved by school officials.

The report listed violations that included: failing to conduct proper fingerprint and background checks on workers who had direct contact with students; offering money to schools based on the number of students recruited into the program; offering $100 and $50 gift certificates to students for attendance; and directly soliciting students after the Department of Education told the company to stop the practice. Newton is one of several companies identified in the report.

The report was released in March 2006, following a school year in which Newton was paid more than $9.6 million by the city, according to the New York Times. In general, tutoring providers were permitted to bill a maximum of $2,181.65 per student for 100 percent attendance in programs during the same year, the Special Commission report stated.

Six months after the report was sent to the schools chancellor, Newton was one of the over 90 private companies and community groups that parents of kids in failing schools could choose for free tutoring as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The tutoring mandate is funded through Title I money. It was hailed as an integral component of the federal law when it was passed in 2002.

Private tutoring companies, called Supplemental Educational Service (SES) providers, believe they are in a unique position to bring flexibility and creativity to a struggling education system. “If you haven’t made adequate yearly progress with your children three years in a row, obviously we have to do something different,” said James Buchanan, vice president for business operations and strategic learning at Newton Learning.

Recently, however, SES has come under increasing scrutiny in a year when the most sweeping educational law in decades is expected to undergo Congressional reauthorization. The criticisms focus on a lack of oversight of the private tutoring companies, the program’s inability to raise test scores, and problems with access to the programs, particularly by low-income parents.

* * *

The oversight problem was raised in New York City last year when Newton Learning came under scrutiny. Company officials responded by making some internal adjustments. “We took issue with a number of aspects of the report,” said Buchanan. Since the report came out Newton has changed some personnel and instituted an internal audit system that evaluates the program, said Buchanan. It has also redesigned its curriculum for third through 8th graders. He noted that his company has not had any compliance problems this year.

In New York City, private companies cited for violations must provide proof of change in practices, according to the Special Commissioner of Investigation office.

“[The Department of Education] will meet with representatives from the companies in question and will have to give assurances that they will comply in the future,” said a spokesperson from the office. In the case with Newton, DOE officials met with the company and accepted the changes, according to the spokesperson.

The incident has had wider implications as well.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said procedural changes have been made in the ways parents can sign up for tutoring services since last year’s violations occurred. For example, now parents have to directly authorize private companies to submit their enrollment forms. The DOE also evaluates each tutoring company and files a report annually with the state, according to spokesperson Andrew Jacob.

In addition, Jacob said, “we’re one of only a handful of districts that monitors SES programs during the school year to ensure that providers are complying with federal and state regulations and with their contractual obligations.”

The city is required to offer contracts with all providers that the state approves, which makes them no-bid contracts, according to the city comptroller’s office.

In a March speech at Fordham University, city comptroller William Thompson outlined the increase in no-bid contracts with the Department of Education, citing that one year after NCLB went into effect, “the number of no-bid contracts expanded to 94 [from 38 in 2001], with a total value of nearly $45 million.”

Thompson specifically mentioned Platform Learning, another tutoring company identified in the Special Commissioner’s report last year for violating guidelines. The Department of Education contracted with Platform to provide $7.6 million in services over two consecutive contracts, from 2003 to 2008, but by September 2006, the company had already earned nearly 9 times that amount, or more than $62 million, according to the comptroller.

The oversight process should be improved, said Thompson.

“The New York City Department of Education currently follows no formal rules when procuring goods and services, in great contrast to the stringent requirements of other New York State and New York City agencies,” said Thompson.

A comptroller’s office spokesperson said that the Department of Education is not subject to the procurement policy board because it is not a typical mayoral agency. The board, which oversees contracting with city agencies, is made up of representatives from both the mayor’s office and the comptroller’s office and includes an opportunity for public input.

Getting students to sign up for the free tutoring is another challenge. Less than half of eligible students in New York City enroll in the program, according to a report released by the Foundation for Educational Reform and Accountability, a non-partisan research group based in New York.

Transporting students to and from tutoring programs, language barriers and lack of familiarity with the program make it difficult for some parents to take advantage of the services. The report called the program’s application “inconsistent” throughout the state and concluded that “its impact has been largely negligible.”

“There’s sort of this assumption that anything that’s private is better,” said Chad d’Entremont, assistant director at the Center for the Study of the Privatization in Education at Teachers College in New York City. “But that assumes a bunch of things.”

For one, said d’Entremont, applying a standard protocol to private companies is often a complicated process.

Under the state’s Department of Education contract with SES providers, companies are required to provide equal services to students with limited English proficiency, conduct background checks on all their staff members and regularly report student progress to both the school and the parents.

But for many states, the method of evaluating companies is either not in place or is poorly managed. A 2006 report by the General Accounting Office found that 85 percent of states nationwide reported “needing assistance with methods for evaluating SES.”

“If you think about it from a research perspective, it’s pretty hard,” said Angela Minnici, a researcher with the Center on Education Policy. Minnici added that a lack of staff at the state level has hampered efforts to do comprehensive assessment.

“There’s definitely a relationship in that funding has been flat and the needs are growing,” said Minnici, who noted in a report that Title I funding in New York has decreased in recent years.

In the report, released in March 2007 by the Center on Education Policy, Minnici wrote that “many states (38) are unable to monitor ‘to a great extent’ the quality and effectiveness of SES providers.” The report identifies inadequate state funding as a primary challenge to the monitoring process.

This part of the problem may be getting needed attention. A bipartisan panel, chaired by former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, studied the No Child Left Behind Act and recommended that more money be designated to assess the impact of the program. The panel, which submitted its findings to Congress in February, also recommended reserving 1 percent of funds spent on SES for administrative costs and allowing the program to kick in after a school has failed to meet standards after just two years instead of the three that is now required.

It is unclear, however, how these changes—if they were to be reworked into the reauthorization of the law—would affect the program at this point.

* * *

The market for private tutoring exploded directly following the passage of NCLB in 2002. In just one year, revenues of the elementary and secondary school division of the education service giant Kaplan doubled, according to the Wall Street Journal. By 2005, the number of private companies offering tutoring services grew by nearly 100 percent. But with the growth of the market came increased competition and a range of services and quality of instruction.

And the relationship between participation in the program and academic performance is still unclear.

One of the few states to conduct a full assessment of SES providers was Georgia, which in August of 2006, released a report including data from all of its 97 SES providers. The report matched students who received SES services to similar students who did not. It found that for all matched pairs of students, SES students performed better than the other student on reading tests less than half of the time (44.7 percent). Typically, when SES providers show data about the progress of students in their programs, they compare the scores from students on a pretest and a post test that have been developed by the company itself.

“It’s really a question of what kind of tutoring you are providing,” said d’Entremont from the Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Research shows that one-on-one tutoring, which some SES providers do offer, is “very effective” in boosting student performance, said d’Entremont. But overall, providing one-on-one tutoring for all the students in need is a financial challenge. As a result, many tutoring companies offer a mixed selection of small group sessions or computer-based learning.

“In terms of the types of tutoring services generally provided through this program, we’re not sure it’s effective,” said d’Entremont. And, he added, “If 20 percent of Title I funding is going to the program, it’s really a question we should answer.”