'No Child Left Behind' Benefits Tutoring Business

Hear Part One of the Series

The No Child Left Behind Act requires low-income schools that haven't met performance targets for three years in a row to provide tutoring services to their students. The tutoring industry is benefiting from the influx of federal money, but critics worry about the quality of the services. In our second and final story on the rise of tutoring, Elaine Korry reports.

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Among its many effects, the No Child Left Behind Act is subsidizing a growing industry, tutoring. The federal education law set aside billions of dollars to provide free tutoring to low-income children. The money can help kids whose schools fail to meet the law's standards. In our second story on the rise of tutoring, NPR's Elaine Korry reports that some critics question what all that money is buying.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

If the goal is to help a child who's faltering in school, then educators agree high-quality tutoring is one of the best ways to go. In a good program, a tutor like Michelle Casio(ph) will tailor instruction to each child's needs.

Ms. MICHELLE CASIO (Tutor): So what you're going to do is change one vowel from tap into--What's that?

Unidentified Child: Top.

Ms. CASIO: Top, so write `top.'

KORRY: That's the approach at the Sylvan Learning Center in Piedmont, California. Each tutor is a credentialed teacher who focuses on reading or math skills with a maximum of three children. Jack McAvoy runs this center and five others like it in the Bay area. All the students here have individual learning plans and McAvoy says they are rewarded for their progress.

Mr. JACK McAVOY (Sylvan Learning Center): You see the kids getting little blue tokens at the table. They earn tokens every hour of instruction and then they can write a check and buy things out of the store, so it's part of the motivation. They get certificates for accomplishment in different things, too.

KORRY: McAvoy's also been rewarded. Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act requires schools that fail to meet goals for three years to provide free tutoring. Each qualified low-income student can receive from several hundred to nearly $2,000 in tutoring services per year. Parents must request the help, and they can choose between programs run through the local school district or a private outside vendors. With his solid track record, McAvoy is pleased to have won several new contracts. He's not so pleased with some of the competition now crowding the field.

Mr. McAVOY: Because there are a lot of people who are attracted to money, and all of those people are not necessarily there in the best interests of the students. And until that sorts out, it's a little bit of a Wild West mentality.

KORRY: Dangle the prospect of lucrative contracts, and all sorts of new players will emerge to claim them. They range from Mom and Pop operations to large chains, such as Platform Learning, based in New York, which is operating in 10 major cities. In fact, start-ups have even popped up to help other start-ups get in on the action.

Mr. TONY AITKEN(ph) (President, Academy at Home Tutoring(ph): Basically the market that was there, and it was huge already, is just set to explode with the advent of No Child Left Behind.

KORRY: Tony Aitken is president of Academy at Home Tutoring, based in Toronto. Last fall, he created a spinoff called WealthyTutor.com, which sells a kit for $49.95. It's aimed at the American market, just about anybody, he says, who wants to hang up a shingle as a for-profit tutor.

Mr. AITKEN: We don't certify people. We don't prescreen them. Basically what we offer is to anybody who wants to get started up, we'll sell them the business manual, we'll sell them the guide to learning strategies. We simply sell the resources that they need.

KORRY: And according to Henry Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, that's the dilemma facing tutoring programs under NCLB.

Mr. HENRY LEVIN (Director, Center for the Study of Privatization in Education): How do you get this largely decentralized approach where parents can choose vendors, or vendors can come into the marketplace with minimal red tape on the one hand, and assure that the funding is being used to get good results that are in the public interest on the other?

KORRY: Established firms receiving Title I funds have a track record and evidence, including higher test scores, to back up their teaching methods. But, says Levin, with little regulation, there's not much data on the newcomers. That lack of oversight concerns Congressman George Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): This system is designed so the states would weed people out who aren't effective, who don't have some record of success and if the states aren't going to do their job, then unfortunately, these children are going to be shortchanged.

KORRY: Some local school districts have already taken matters into their own hands. In Chicago, where Platform Learning has a $10 million contract, programs were shut down in seven schools after tutors allegedly failed to show up for work. The company's CEO, Gene Wade, blamed start-up glitches for a few isolated incidents.

Mr. GENE WADE (CEO, Platform Learning): These were communication problems. These were problems that, I mean, for the most part, had been resolved, and you know, we feel like the response wasn't warranted.

KORRY: Having said that, Wade also stressed that outside providers need to be held accountable. The US Department of Education wasn't happy with Chicago's move, saying it should be up to state officials to enforce standards. Nina Rees, a deputy undersecretary of Education, says adequate oversight already exists.

Ms. NINA REES (Deputy Undersecretary of Education): The bar that we have set at the federal level is actually fairly high. States have the complete authority to remove a provider from their list if that provider is not showing increases in student achievement in two years.

KORRY: Under the law, states are also required to evaluate tutors every two years, but according to a report by the Center for Education Policy, few states have actually completed those reviews.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find part one of our report on tutoring in America at npr.org. That's where you can also find facts about the No Child Left Behind Act.

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