The Windy City: Battle Ground on Supplemental Services (A.K.A: Tutoring)

See all posts

The Chicago tutoring programs run by private companies are not without serious flaws, according to recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times. High turnover rates and inadequately prepared tutors plague many programs. Trouble navigating school bureaucracy, difficult principals, and a lack of experience managing a large program are also causing problems.

Though not surprising, these findings should give pause to US education officials, who are engaged in a bit of a power struggle with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), insisting that any tutoring paid for by NCLB money be provided by private firms. In December, federal officials ordered the CPS to shut down their in-house tutoring program because it employs teachers who work in failing schools. CPS is fighting this order, saying that the higher costs of private tutoring will result in thousands of students being pushed out of the program who would otherwise be served. Under No Child Left Behind, more than 215,000 CPS students are eligible for after-school tutoring but even with CPS still providing about half the tutoring, only about a third are being served.

Ironically, many private tutoring firms do not share the federal government's aversion to letting CPS teachers tutor after-school. The vast majority (82 percent) of the tutors employed by Platform Learning, the largest private tutoring program in Chicago, are either CPS teachers or full-time substitutes. While the feds argue that private firms' curricula given them an edge over CPS, CPS officials argue that the quality of the tutors themselves make the key difference.

Automatically branding teachers from failing schools as inadequate is short sighted for a number of reasons. It reflects a simplistic misread of the failing school phenomenon. It is impractical. And it runs counter to the principles of the education reform movement.

The root causes of school failure are much more multi-faceted than the mere presence of too many weak teachers. There's plenty of blame to go around. Requiring private tutoring suggests that the feds think there are large numbers of instructional whizzes out there just waiting to tutor poor kids for a couple of hours every afternoon. As the Platform numbers suggest, that just isn't true.

In the spirit of the reform movement, why not hold schools or private companies accountable for the results and stop haggling over who's doing the tutoring? In fact, if US officials are so convinced that their way is the right way, have the two models compete and see which one works better.

The conflict over whether CPS can continue its in-house tutoring program should be resolved by January 31st. Even if CPS succeeds in preserving its program for the rest of this year, private tutors will likely replace CPS tutors next year.