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Junior Maria Rodriguez outside her classroom at Manhattan International High School. Photo by DORIAN MERINA

An Uneasy Partnership: Private Tutoring in Public Schools

Maria Rodriguez twisted in her seat and shut her eyes, waiting for her school-mandated tutor to return her quiz.

The junior at Manhattan International High School had expected to fail.

“I don’t like math,” said Maria, 17, whose quick smiles in the hallways frequently vanished into worried frowns once inside the classroom.

Rodriguez looked at the score. By just two points, she had passed. Maria flipped through the pages peaking at her mistakes, asking for help from her tutor, who is also her school math teacher—the best possible combination, as far as Maria was concerned.

She is eligible for free tutoring as mandated by the Supplemental Educational Services program in the federal No Child Left Behind Act because her school is considered headed for failure. The law requires that schools hire only private tutors to comply with the law. But Manhattan International appealed to the Department of Education, and won the option to mix private tutors with public school teachers.

Maria’s tutor, Yelena Blumemberg, leaned over the table and explained the items, covering parts of the equations with her thumb and repeating her explanations. Blumemberg had created the quiz herself and administered it in her first period class earlier that day. Now Rodriguez, who struggled with the quiz five hours earlier, began asking questions.

“I don’t think without very specialized attention, Maria can learn,” said Blumemberg.

So Maria has been encouraged—by her teachers, parents and administrators—to attend the special tutoring sessions held at the high school on 67 th Street. She comes four days a week: Mondays and Wednesdays to sessions led by Blumemberg and other faculty and Tuesdays and Thursdays to sessions conducted by TestQuest, a private tutoring company.

Maria vastly prefers the connection she has with her own teachers to the disconnected experience with the outside tutor.

Over 90 private companies and community groups contract with the city to provide after school tutoring. Nationally, the number of private tutoring companies funded through the provision has nearly doubled since 2002, when NCLB first opened the market to private companies. NCLB, which is expected to go through reauthorization this year, pledges to eliminate the achievement gap by 2014. The SES program, which has been given $2.5 billion by the Department of Education in Title I funding this year, is a key component of the goal.

But four years into the law, those involved in the program point to a number of problems that still hamper implementation, including a disconnect between the tutoring companies and the specific curriculum of the local school and a general lack of oversight of the tutoring companies themselves.

* * *

Vice Principal Gladys Rodriguez, left, confers with Principal Allan Krull, right, at the Manhattan International High School. Photo by DORIAN MERINA

Maria has a tepid opinion of the private tutors she sees every other day. “They teach you if you need it, but if you don’t need it, you just walk around,” said Maria one afternoon standing in the hallway after a pizza break from a TestQuest session. “These are not my regular teachers.” But, she added, they try to help.

Johnny Reinhard, a professional musician and part-time tutor with the TestQuest program at Manhattan International, sees his work as a valuable addition to an imperfect educational system.

“They’re getting something they otherwise wouldn’t have,” said Reinhard during a session with eight students. “I try to work on whatever’s not focused on to make a rounder package here.” At one point, Reinhard, 44, brought in a bassoon to play for the students because, he said, the school is not able to give them music lessons.

Maria said that such attention does help sometimes because at home it is noisy and she’s easily distracted. But, she added, with her own teachers, such as Ms. Blumemberg, she is able to study for specific tests and work on material from class.

“That’s the difference,” she said.

Recently, Blumemberg had the chance to observe Maria in a social studies class. Maria’s good verbal skills and critical thinking convinced Blumemberg that her student was “really smart” but had an especially hard time remembering formulas and rules in math. So Blumemberg created special index cards with important formulas that Maria could refer to when her memory failed her.

“With Maria I diagnosed she can’t add and subtract so I made the cards for her,” said Blumemberg. “I saw what her weakness was and where she lacked knowledge.”

Manhattan International’s principal said that the teachers are an invaluable resource.

“For me, if there are schools that are not performing well, go in and help the teachers,” said Alan Krull, the school principal. Krull is regularly barraged by emails and packets in the mail from tutoring companies seeking contracts with his school. For Krull, the private tutoring effort is part of a larger movement at a centralization of decision-making that overlooks the specific needs of a school or student group.

“That troubles me because to me that shows a lack of trust in leadership and in teaching,” he said.

Others see the tutoring companies as filling a need that the schools are not equipped to handle. “If the schools were doing a good job, we would be out of the picture,” said Jasleen Sabharwal, director of the Queens-based company, Tutors on Wheels, founded in 2003 as part of the growing market created by NCLB.

“I had no idea how broken the system was,” said Sabharwal. Still, she said, sometimes expectations for the tutoring companies and the students are unrealistic.

“If they don’t have foundations they can’t just go to tutoring sessions and ask them to patch it,” said Sabharawl. The tutoring sessions can only do so much. “They work more like vitamins,” she said. “You need to have food.”

And for Manasi Ghate, director of special projects at TestQuest, there are advantages to having more financial independence from the entrenched bureaucracy of schools.

“When you have increased cash flow you have the means to be more innovative,” said Ghate. TestQuest, which also provides one-on-one in-home tutoring, uses a pre-assessment and post-assessment test for each individual student to design a specific curriculum that will meet their needs, according to Ghate.

“We try to do the best we can and we always urge parents to contact us,” said Ghate. But she also noted that there isn’t a clear method of maintaining quality that extends citywide.

“There is no standard oversight,” she said. “There is no assessment being done to evaluate, are these things working?”

A report by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College in New York cited an estimated $2 billion annually that private companies are making through contracts as SES tutors.

“The biggest problem with SES is that it’s very unregulated,” said Chad d’Entremont, assistant director at the center.

The increasing competition and growing costs of doing business have also forced some tutoring companies to modify their services to save money. One company eliminated live tutors and replaced them with specialized computer programs. The company, Catapult Learning, enrolls about 30 students at Manhattan International. Last year, Catapult Learning restructured its group tutoring programs because, as then-president Jeffery H. Cohen said, it was too labor and cost-intensive. Now, Catapult is listed in the city’s provider booklet as offering on-line tutoring only.

Students at Manhattan International who sign up are given a computer, which they can keep if they complete the required hours. Administrators at the school said that it is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, but they have noted some problems with the installation of equipment and access to the Internet in some of their students’ apartment buildings.

“Are companies pushing these methods because they’re effective or because they’re cost effective?” asked D’entremont. More innovative approaches to teaching can benefit students, D’entremont acknowledges, and private companies are sometimes in a more flexible position than public schools to pursue them.

“In one sense the variety is great,” said D’entremont. “But on the other hand it pushes tutoring further away from what we know works.”

* * *

Furthermore, the training of tutors is often inconsistent among the various companies. Some programs have strict requirements for credentialed staff. But others do not. About a quarter of the companies on the SES packet of information given to parents include college students and paraprofessionals as staff who do not necessarily have a New York State Teaching license.

Sue Skye, 55, who grew up in Queens and attended a high school in Manhattan herself, said she is applying to be a tutor.

“I have not yet taught a class,” said Skye. “A challenge for me would be coming up with a lesson plan.”

Skye, who said she has some background tutoring privately one-on-one, is still cautious about the companies that she is applying to.

“What I’m looking for if I do join an organization is training,” she said.

Some tutoring companies said that it is unrealistic to expect 100 percent of the staff to have teaching credentials. At TestQuest it simply isn’t practical, according to director, Manasi Ghate. With the company working with 285 schools and 5 to 6,000 families citywide, the need is too great.

“There’s no way with the amount of tutors we could have credentialed teachers,” said Ghate. “They’re not credentialed, but we choose appropriately.” Part of that process, added Ghate, requires that all tutors be finger printed and go through a background check with the Department of Education.

In the end, many parents find the process of selecting a tutoring program a daunting task. Coordination between parents, the school and tutoring companies is sometimes fraught with competing agendas and excessive beauracy. One-third of parents cited “cumbersome paperwork or the confusing sign-up process” as the most frustrating aspect of enrolling in the program, according to a study by Eduventures, a Boston-based research and marketing firm.

In Region 9, where Manhattan International is located, only 33 percent of eligible students enrolled in the free tutoring program, according to a 2006 report by Advocates for Children, a Manhattan-based advocacy group. Citywide, the number hovers just below half.

Of those who are served, the results remain mixed. Reinhard, who spent careful attention with each student as he walked around the room, maintained that the improvements were apparent. He pointed out two students who he had been tutoring since November of last year whose grades, he said, had improved.

Vice Principal Gladys Rodriguez of Manhattan International, however, said that it is difficult to gauge how much each student is learning with the private company. She said that the internal assessment data that TestQuest provided to the school did not correlate with the school’s own curriculum, making it impossible to monitor how much each student was learning. Because the companies are private, they are able to develop their own assessment data, which sometimes serves more of a promotional tool rather than a genuine reflection of student achievement.

The confusion is a key criticism of the tutoring programs. There is little communication between the tutoring company and the school and schools often lose much of their decision-making power in the process. True accountability of the programs is not always apparent. For Rodriguez, who said that her invitations to TestQuest teachers to join curriculum development meetings have met little reponse, the partnership could be improved.

“We give them five classes and move our teachers around, but we don’t control it,” said Rodriguez. “It’s obvious that the expectations aren’t very clear.”

Manhattan International is researching other tutoring programs for next year, according to Rodriguez. But that may turn out not to be necessary. The school has been charting gains on its Regents exams and expects to be removed from the list of schools that need improvement, making them ineligible for the tutoring programs.

In the meantime, Maria Rodriguez continues to attend the tutoring sessions four days a week. And her teacher, Ms. Blumemberg, is there with her.

“Even before it was required, I was always here,” said Blumemberg. “Twice or three times a week.”

As for Maria, she has plans of her own.

“We’re poor, we’re not rich,” she said of her family. “And we have a dream.” She hopes to go to college, maybe in Georgia, and someday become a lawyer. Her eyes light up when she talks of the future.

“I want to take my family out of the poorness,” she said. “I want to be—not superior—but I want to have a better life than my parents.”