Faking The GradeMore in this series
When two of Marcos Sifuentes’ children received free laptops from a tutoring program through their San Antonio middle school, the family purchased wireless access in their house for the first time.
Sifuentes added an internet hotspot to his cellphone plan so they could continue their lessons. But when his son and daughter tried to log on to the online tutoring program, they got an error message. He called Tutors with Computers, the company that offered the program, and was told his school district would no longer pay for the service.
His children are among those who will no longer receive tutoring through a 2001 No Child Left Behind Act provision that required struggling schools to set aside a portion of their federal funding to pay for after-school tutoring.
After years of complaints from school districts and few academic improvements, and with the approval of a federal waiver, the program is shutting down in Texas. Among the companies that began operating in the state after the program launched, few offer a better window into the obstacles to the federal program’s success than the company that served Sifuentes’ children, Austin-based Tutors with Computers.
Since it began operation in 2009, the company has attracted more complaints from school districts than any other provider, according to records obtained from the Texas Education Agency. Those have included concerns about the program’s legitimacy as an academic tool, the company’s recruitment practices and questions about its invoices.
Tutors with Computers has defended itself against criticism just as aggressively, in forums from the courts to online message boards to the Texas Legislature. Despite the pushback from school districts, the company had thrived, serving more of the state’s public school students than any other tutoring provider. Texas became the company’s only outpost last year as one of the final states to seek a waiver from the federal education law — though at one point it operated in eight states and more than 100 school districts.
At a rate of $92 an hour per student, it offers software-based tutoring through an automated program that students can complete over the phone or online on a computer they receive after finishing a certain number of hours, with academic coaches available to help when students encounter difficulties.
Many school districts’ complaints have focused on the academic effectiveness of such a program, which they said lacked one-on-one instruction and individualized learning plans.
“Any student whether he/she is in grade six or grade 12 used the same manuals and was required to master the same vocabulary words,” an Edinburg Independent School District administrator wrote in a 2011 filing with the state education agency.
Another, filed by Zapata County ISD, reported that of the 37 students who received services from the company during the 2009-2010 school year, only two had passed — and 10 who had previously passed their state exams failed. It concludes: “It is abundantly clear that the tutoring services provided by Tutors with Computers, if any, had no positive impact.”
Houston ISD informed the state education agency in 2010 that parents were calling administrators asking to enroll their students with the company so they could get a free computer. Others complained of being pressured into using the program, like one parent who said a representative from the company made “belittling” remarks, saying her child would fall behind without a computer.
In 2013, a complaint from Dallas ISD finally resulted in a probation warning from the state, which after years of inaction, had just begun cracking down on providers. In that instance, the education agency determined that the company asked a student to sign off on tutoring hours that he had not completed, finding that it was “not factual and forthright” in documenting attendance rates.
Vince Cordero, the company’s chief executive, responding to The Texas Tribune’s questions via email, said that “almost every complaint” that had been filed against the company had come from school districts attempting to justify their denial of tutoring services to students because of a provision in the federal law allowing them to repurpose federal funding marked for tutoring if they could demonstrate there was no demand for the service.
“We served tens of thousands of Texas students over the past five years and received almost no complaints from parents about our enrollment practices and the effectiveness of our program,” he said.
He said that in the case of Dallas ISD, the state education agency had arrived at its finding “based on an interview conducted months after the fact” with a single student. The company’s own records, he said, showed the student had indeed completed a tutoring session because its software tracks log-ins.
As for the program’s academic effectiveness, Cordero said that district and state studies of student performance “dramatically understate” the benefits of its services because they are based on state assessments given in April while students received tutoring through August. He cited a 2012 Houston ISD report that showed Tutors with Computers students improving on their state assessments relative to the district average.
But Jason Spencer, an HISD spokesman, said that analysis only compared the performance of No Child Left Behind tutoring companies to one another.
“I don’t think any of the research that I have seen would pass any kind of academic standard,” he said.
While the future of Tutors with Computers is uncertain, Cordero said he supported the creation of a state-level program to finance tutoring for low-income students with reforms like allowing principals to choose providers, which would be paid based on performance. In that effort, he has a high-profile supporter — Rod Paige, the former U.S. secretary of education who under President George W. Bush helped put No Child Left Behind in effect and became chairman of the company’s advisory board in 2011.
Asked if he was aware of the complaints against the company, Paige said he had no involvement in the company’s day-to-day operations and had only been a paid adviser for a period of time for a pay-for-results concept. But he said he was not surprised.
“Tutors with Computers was one of the largest providers in the state, and this was not a very popular concept with the administrators in school districts,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sifuentes said he was disappointed that his third child would not get a chance to start the tutoring program. But when he learned of its $92-an-hour-per-student cost to the school district, he became skeptical.
“That is a lot of money,” he said. “That is like seeing the psychiatrist.”
Now, he said, his children just use the laptops to play games.
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