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Is this data-driven decision-making? (UPDATED)

September 4, 2011
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Originally published on December 13, 2010 at 4:02PM MST.

Accountability and results. That’s what school reform à la NCLB and RTTT is supposed to be all about, right? In order to ensure that all kids are getting the education they need and deserve, we need to set high goals and expectations, and then “measure to see if we’re gettin’ results.” When we measure (and measure and measure…), and find that we’re not getting results, we have to do something about it. That’s the primary justification for turnarounds where teachers are fired en masse, and when schools are closed or converted to charters.

So why doesn’t this same hard-line approach seem to apply to supplemental educational services (SES) providers? The No Child Left Behind act stipulates that low-income children in low-performing schools are entitled to receive tutoring to help bring them up to grade level, at no expense to their families. States are expected to remove vendors from their approved provider lists if they fail to show results for two straight years, but this is rarely done. As a result, these SES providers have received large sums of public money to help students, even though they are often labeled as “ineffective” or “needs improvement” (the same kinds of labels that trigger state intervention, turnaround, and closure for public schools).  In some cases, there is even evidence of fraud and other wrong-doing.

For instance, Ohio parent advocate Bernadine Kent recently wrote to me about the shady dealings between the SES providers serving needy students in Columbus and the Columbus City School District and school board. Though only four of the city’s 72 SES vendors received an “effective” rating, all continued to collect large sums of taxpayer money. From the article she co-wrote in The Free Press (emphasis added):

The Columbus City School Board has abandoned its role to monitor the district’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) funds. The Board has remained silent after the district’s Internal Auditor, Carolyn Smith, revealed the Board had not approved 20 million dollars in purchase orders referred to as Super P.O.’s. for the last four years. With preferential treatment in place and no incentive to provide quality-tutoring services, our students are being miserably shortchanged.

There is no better example of this shortchange than the district’s Effectiveness Reports submitted to the Ohio Department of Education for fiscal year 2010 for Supplemental Educational Services (SES) vendors. The report shows only 4 out of 72 vendors received an effective rating. This means the other 68 SES vendors allegedly serving our students received well over $3,000,000 for FY 2010, but were considered either not effective or needing improvement in tutoring basic reading and math.

In the Internal Auditor’s working papers, she notes Global Bilingual Services in FY 2009 was rated as needing improvement but was paid $306,188. In FY 2010, they were rated ineffective but still received $272,515 in payments. Waiss Network Technologies was rated ineffective for both FY’s 2009 and 2010 but received payments exceeding $171,000. These are just a couple examples among many of the significant payments made to ineffective SES vendors; yet, the district auditor concealed this information and left the Board as well as the public clueless to the enormous waste of the Nation’s taxpayer dollars.

Auditor Smith concealed other pertinent information as well. Part of the complaint filed by members of the district’s community April 27, 2010 alleging fraud in the SES program, that initiated the internal audit, also alleged the Board had not approved the SES provider payments. The Internal Auditor’s working papers used to construct a draft report dated August 26, 2010 presented to the Audit and Accountability committee and copied to the full Board concluded the “Board approved the SES providers payments”. This is a statement the auditor later changes.

Less than two months later, on October 13, 2010, the district’s Assistant Treasurer Mike McCammon on video contradicts Auditor Smith’s conclusion that the Board had approved the SES provider payments. Mike McCammon stated the multi-million dollar Super P.O.’s did not have to be Board approved and that the Super P.O.’s were considered blanket purchase orders. He further stated the Super P.O.’s were not vendor specific.

Throughout the rest of the article (which includes video documentation as well as documents gathered by Kent and her husband, fellow parent advocate James Whitaker), they explore some of the suspicious activities related to the way poorly rated SES providers have been paid by the district, and highlight red flags that have been overlooked by the city’s school board. These include suspicions of price-fixing (see video below), evidence of suspicious operations (vendors who lack physical addresses, providers using handwritten invoices instead of computer-generated ones), and district officials bypassing the normal processes for purchases of this nature.

Texas students and parents have faced similar problems, even when districts and school boards complain to the state on the public’s behalf. From the Houston Chronicle:

Since [NCLB] went into effect in 2002, Texas has never removed a provider from its list despite complaints from school districts and the state’s own evaluation that found seven of the eight tutoring companies studied had no significant impact on student achievement

More than 48,000 schoolchildren — about a quarter of those eligible – took advantage of the private tutoring in reading and math last year. The cost to taxpayers was $67 million, according to data from the Texas Education Agency.

“This is big business,” said Melinda Garrett, chief financial officer of the Houston Independent School District. “There are people who have created companies to do this who haven’t in the past done educational things. They’re doing this because it’s an easy way to make money.”

Some of the providers have enticed students to sign up with promises of free computers or cell phones – which some parents say never arrive. State rules forbid providers from giving students gifts for signing up but do allow rewards after enrollment.

HISD filed a formal complaint with the TEA last year about Read and Succeed, alleging, among other charges, that the tutoring company paid students to recruit friends. TEA investigators confirmed that the company gave students gift cards worth $6.50 each but has stopped the practice.

The TEA also found HISD was wrong for not enrolling all the students who selected Read and Succeed and for rejecting the company’s state-approved $75 hourly rate…

HISD officials suspect that some companies are billing the district for students they never serve. The district recently held a phone bank to try to contact 4,400 parents of students who supposedly received tutoring based on the providers’ invoices.

Some parents responded that they had never heard about the tutoring, said Pam Evans, HISD’s manager of federal programs. She said the district’s inspector general is now investigating.

San Antonio ISD administrators have similar concerns about billing, and district researchers have not found that the tutoring has improved Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores.

What gives? Though standardized tests leave much to be desired as measures of student learning, if we’re going to use them to judge teachers and schools, shouldn’t they also be used to judge private companies and organizations?

And NCLB or no NCLB, whatever happened to vigorous investigation and prosecution of people and organizations that are suspected of fraud?

For more:

ETA: Good news– it seems more people are starting to pay attention to this issue! Ms. Kent wrote today (September 4, 2011) to share this news story and television coverage. Long time coming, but still– it pays to be persistent :)

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    December 13, 2010 7:56 pm

    Read Mr. Teachbad from this week. I think there is a pretty strong argument to be made for making school populations diverse by ses like they do down in North Carolina.

  2. Frederika permalink
    December 13, 2010 9:07 pm

    Hmmm,… Interesting. A friend just sent me a similar piece–a report from Montgomery County, Maryland, where they make a deliberate effort to integrate low income families into new middle class housing, and consequently into low-poverty schools, with very good results: Housing Policy Is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland by Heather Schwartz

  3. December 13, 2010 9:15 pm

    Yeah…This post isn’t about socioeconomic status, it’s about Supplemental Educational Services providers, typically tutoring companies that are supposed to help students in schools identified as failing.

    • markfriedman1 permalink
      December 14, 2010 8:40 am

      I’ve worked for a SES provider after-school on and off since 2005. It was interesting because this provider had been doing work in the community since the mid-90′s. Although not perfect, the organization had been much better than what came shortly after the 2004-2005 school year. NCLB SES Title I funding increasingly poured in around 2005-2006 and then all of a sudden there were all these suspect SES providers shuffling in to Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and NYC. In the first few years, the process was much more unregulated by district and state offices. I’ve learned quite a bit about SES providers throughout this process. I ultimately learned that accountability, transparency, and other ethical demands have been very real concerns about the entire SES process.

      • govt permalink
        September 7, 2011 5:00 am

        The problems with SES can be corrected with better state and district oversight and an improved application process. This would improve quality and rate issues, but this will never happen. Why? It has to do with the politics the school districts are playing. The school districts do not want better oversight or an application process. The school districts want evidence to eliminate the SES program from their districts. They simply want the SES money. In the video, the lady said that SES is a waste of tax payer’s money. If you asked her what should be done with the SES money, she would say that the school districts should control it. All the school districts are pushing to control the SES money. The school districts will never state that they have good providers that hire certified teachers, charge reasonable rates, and they go beyond tutoring to help the kids out. Remember, the DOE has done research on SES tutoring. The study showed significant positive gains in both math and reading. I hope that people who read or watch the video understand that the school districts have an agenda, and they are very powerful and influential. The public must decide the future of the Title I funds. Does the public want the school districts control the title one 20% set aside with no accountability, or do we want the parents to control the money by using SES and school choice options?

  4. Chris permalink
    December 14, 2010 2:31 pm

    @Sabrina Totally right but these companies get all of this money generated by NCLB and charge outrageous prices like discussed. I’ve seen some that hire highschool kids to tutor our elementary school kids and pay them 10$/hour and I can’t even imagine what they charge the gov’t.

    • markfriedman1 permalink
      December 16, 2010 11:35 am

      Chris, I’ve seen similar companies and organizations leaching off public money. It’s hard to stomach. That’s when it’s time to go to the Title I SES accountability Office or whatever equivalent exists in a district and start from there.

  5. nclbfraud permalink
    December 17, 2010 2:21 pm

    If you notice in the video, the employee in the video is the SES director and even she says the prices are outrageous and equates the whole thing to price-fixing. So if the director of the program doesn’t feel she can do anything about it, it’s time for a federal investigation. $70, $80, $90 an hour is past outrageous; it’s insane.

  6. Concerned permalink
    September 5, 2011 4:53 pm

    While it is true that fraud can be found in almost any government program, I would like to address the hourly rates charged. Independent tutors without a brick and mortar location do often charge $30 – $40/hr for tutoring services. These individuals are often students or former teachers who are looking to supplement their income and do not have any formal curriculum set in place for their students. Established tutoring companies charge between $120 to $200 for assessment tests and $65/hr+ to provide an individualized plan for each student tutored. The reason the company’s charge this amount of money is because they must pay for the costs of running their operation (lease, utilities, instructors, testing, curriculum materials, etc.).

    SES companies have an additional financial burden. Most states require SES tutoring companies to use curriculum that scientifically verified and approved by the state. In addition to simply running the program, there are additional costs like district/state mandated Student Learning Plans or Individual Education Plans. These plans must be provided to parents and the school district and must also be signed by the parents. SES providers must incur the costs related to sometimes going to each student’s home to get those forms signed.

    In addition, SES providers must provide, depending on the district, weekly or monthly progress reports as well as pay for pre-testing and post-testing each student. They must attend informational meetings for parents where they have to pay staff to attend for an average of 2 to 3 hours. That’s not all, they must also prepare end of year reports to each district about each student tutored. In addition, many school districts charge SES providers a fee to tutor the students at the school, fees can range from $50 to $110 per day, per school. SES companies must pay tutors for tutoring time as well as for administrative time. They must also pay their tutors for time spent at the school administering “snack time”. While the district does not pay for this time, providers will be penalized if they do not have a tutor available 30 minutes prior to the start of tutoring and 30 minutes after tutoring. In districts that do not provide transportation, providers will pay for private transportation. While those in the video believe that providers are overpaid, the reality is that providers work very hard to fulfill the particular requirements of every individual district and there is a financial cost attached to fulfilling these requirements.

    Most SES providers hire teachers from the schools to provide the tutoring services and pay will range from $25 to $65 an hour depending on the state/district/etc. The private tutoring companies above pay their tutors $15/hr and do not mandate the college education NCLB mandates.

    Monitoring providers is not terribly complicated. One popular company, Cayen, offers districts the ability to fingerprint each child at the beginning and end of service to verify their attendance. Other districts require parent signatures and still others use a scan, again offered by Cayen. With the proper systems in place, it is actually rather difficult to bill a district for students who have not been tutored.

  7. mule permalink
    September 6, 2011 2:11 pm

    There are a lot of good SES tutoring companies around this country. They work to improve quality at the same time as they lower their rates. Many of the tutors that work in the organizations that I am with donate their time mentoring and spending additional time with the kids. If you weed out the bad providers, improve requirements, and reward good providers, you will see the SES program flourish. Many school administrators want to end SES tutoring. They know that pointing out bad providers will give them the fuel to end the program and capture the money. These administrators will never point out the good providers.

  8. govt permalink
    September 7, 2011 4:35 am

    School districts have known for a while that there are a few bad providers that overcharge, and they submit invoices for work not completed. The question that should be asked is why are the school districts in Ohio pushing the issue now? The school districts could have done something about it years ago. I suspect the school districts are pushing it now to help sway congress to eliminate SES. The districts’ agenda is to take the money out the hands of the low-income parents and put into their own hands. They want the SES money. If the school districts claim that they will not waste the money, I would love to see outside auditors look at what goes on in the school districts. School districts waste much more money than a few SES providers. We should remember that the DOE has done research on the SES program. The results show positive gains in both math and reading. It sounds like Ohio needs to clean up the mess to help improve SES for the students in Ohio. I hope that the news also points out the good providers in Ohio. I would hate to see the school districts in Ohio use the media to kill a program that works for many kids.

  9. John Young permalink
    October 25, 2011 8:30 pm

    things have slowed up here……what gives?

    • October 25, 2011 9:02 pm

      We’re busy trying to take over the world (also known as trying to win some of the toughest school board races in history!). Never fear– we’ll be back before too long!

      • Dan Middleman, M.Ed. permalink
        November 28, 2011 8:47 am

        How’d your school board race go? I live in Wake County NC. If you watch Rachel Maddow, you know about us. We just won back the majority on the school board from the Tea Party…barely.

  10. Thai Moore permalink
    January 22, 2013 10:11 pm

    I have important details on this scam. Email me

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