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Here's a word problem for you: There are two tutoring programs in a Wichita school. One is very structured, complete with math worksheets and teachers giving direction. The other focuses on helping students explore learning with such techniques as playing with dough. Both are part of a $1 million federally mandated experiment. Which one will be the most effective in raising students' assessment test scores?
Answer: No one will know until next year. And that's the real problem, some local educators say.
In the Wichita school district, 583 students from schools with a high percentage of low-income families are enrolled in such after-school tutoring services.
The federal No Child Left Behind law, which aims to make all students proficient in math and reading by 2014, requires that school districts pay for these private tutoring services. In Wichita, the bill to taxpayers is $1 million.
But monitoring the students' progress and holding tutoring programs accountable has been an issue since the law's inception. The law is up for reauthorization by Congress this year.
The Kansas State Department of Education selects these "supplemental educational services providers." Critics say there isn't a provision for measuring whether their programs do any good.
Once parents sign a contract with the tutoring provider, the school district has very little say.
"If parents choose it, we have to go with it," said Susan Smith, the Wichita district's Title I director. Wichita is spending an average of $1,800 per student.
In the middle are the parents, who want to ensure their children do well in school, and the students who need help in reading and math.
State education officials concede that the system needs work.
"The big issue is evaluating the effectiveness," said Judi Miller, the state Department of Education's assistant director of state and federal programs.
Hamilton Middle School, which has been praised for closing the academic achievement gap between races on assessment tests, has 106 students signed up for private tutoring. The district is required to pay for it using part of its Title I money, federal funding for schools that have high percentages of low-income students.
Only parents of students whose family income qualifies them for free or reduced lunches can sign up, and only if they attend Curtis, Hamilton, Marshall, Mead or Pleasant Valley middle schools or Caldwell Elementary — all Title I schools that did not meet certain minimum standards on state tests for four years. The district has several other Title I schools.
Parents chose tutoring providers for their students after attending an informational meeting.
At Hamilton, two providers — Achievia Tutoring and Applied Scholastics International — help students with math. This is the first school year that both have worked with Wichita students.
Achievia, the company that most Hamilton parents chose, uses schoolteachers as tutors. Students work on math problems individually, using cards that are similar to worksheets, while their tutors offer guidance.
Parent Poppilyn DeLano said she has already seen some changes in her sixth-grader's grades.
"He comes home and he's more eager to do homework," she said. "He's not struggling with comprehension of math."
Applied Scholastics uses a different approach, targeting why kids can't learn.
"Students come in with many gaps," said Mary Duda, director for research and development. "So when they have skipped gradients, students feel confused. We teach students about barriers so that they are independent learners."
In a recent visit, students were tracing pictures out of a book and working with playdough to learn about why they are not succeeding. "They understand that learning depends on them. When they have that," Duda said, "they realize that it's very liberating."
Deloris Fogle's sixth-grader is being tutored by Applied Scholastics. She preferred tutors who didn't already know her son, she said; she wanted to see if they could help in ways his teachers couldn't. He's been in the program for two months.
"I don't feel he's been there long enough" to see significant change in his school work, she said. "But what I have noticed is that he's comfortable doing assignments."
There are five other tutoring providers working in the Wichita district: ATS Project Success, Club Z Tutoring, Huddle Learning, Jefferson Learning and Urban League of Kansas.
Each one functions differently. ClubZ, for example, does individual tutoring in homes, but ATS Project Success sends home a computer and there is never any direct human contact, Smith said.
"They have to have a pre- and post-test, but that's pretty much it," Smith said.
The state uses federal criteria to determine whether an applicant can become a Kansas tutoring provider. Requirements include showing the program is:
** High quality and research-based
** Designed to increase academic achievement
** Consistent with district curriculum and state standards
** Secular, neutral and non-ideological
They also have to detail how they will ensure children are learning and how they will measure it.
Which method is best?
The Wichita district does spot checks and has set some basic ground rules for working with its students. But when it comes to the companies' approach or tutoring curriculum, the district can't interfere, said Jackie Farha, the district's Title I improvement supervisor.
Monitoring the private providers isn't written into the law, said Jeff Simering director of legislative services at the Council of Great City Schools, which represents 66 of the nations largest urban school districts, including Wichita. And he doesn't know of any data that says additional tutoring by a private company works better than a teacher's additional face time.
Miller, of the Kansas Department of Education, agreed that even if a student's test score increases, there is no way to tell why: Maybe it's the tutoring program; maybe it's something a classroom teacher is doing.
Or maybe it's something else altogether: Perhaps the student's home life is less chaotic or a health problem has cleared up and he's better able to focus on school.
Although it doesn't have direct authority, the Wichita school district is monitoring on its own. It does spot checks to make sure providers show up and that the district is being charged for tutoring and not baby-sitting, Smith said. It is watching students' academic performance closely.
"Every kid is being tracked, because if it's not working, there will be changes," said Wendy Lowmaster, Hamilton's tutoring program coordinator.
The district will report its findings to state education officials.
Smith said the district already has a reputation among tutoring companies of being "hands on."
"We have a vested interest," she said.
And parents with concerns are being encouraged to contact their school principal, who will give the message to her office, Smith said.
The state review occurs annually, when — and if — providers reapply to work in Kansas.
Miller said she hopes to have a system for increased state oversight in place by next school year.