Feature

Privatizing Title I

With little fanfare or acrimony, several firms move into the management of districts’ compensatory education programs by JAY MATHEWS


Walk in the front door of Chicago's Dulles Elementary School, a half-century-old two-story building on the city's South Side. Tell the security guard who you are and sign in. Then head for room 105 (it's next to the main office on the first floor). Step inside and see the colorful wall decorations, the new carpet and the learning stations, each with a teacher working with three students.

 

The classroom, humming with the sounds of children learning, is at the heart of a new trend in private involvement in public schools. The teachers are employed by a for-profit company, using some of the $8.2 billion allocated each year by the federal government under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Their job is to prove that a cost-conscious business, committed by contract to improve student achievement, can succeed where decades of work by public employees have brought mediocre results at best.

The Success Lab Learning Center, as the enterprise in room 105 is called, is one of Success Lab’s 22 privately run tutoring programs that take some of Chicago's neediest students and give each an extra two hours a week of intense preparation, their progress regularly measured. Dulles is one of about 1,500 schools across the country paying an estimated $200 million in federal funds to private enterprises who think they can do better than the disappointing Title I results of the last 34 years.

Disparate Views
Many school superintendents applaud the trend. Rick Schneider, the superintendent in Pasadena, Texas, says the part of his Title I program run by for-profit Sylvan Learning Systems "has provided highly focused and personalized instruction in math and reading that typically our teachers cannot give because of the diversity of the students in their classroom."

To those who cringe at private companies taking a profit from taxpayer dollars intended to help poor children, Schneider says: "The days when schools can conduct their business in a vacuum, those days are over."

Bruce Hunter, AASA’s director of public policy, said the strongest evidence of the rise of Title I consultants is that they have hired Washington lobbyists to promote their interests. "I have worked The Hill since 1982 and this is the first time I have seen private contractors actively participating in the legislative process."

Superintendent colleagues in California, Illinois, Texas, Washington, D.C., and other places with private Title I services, say they must raise the achievement level of their lowest-performing students or suffer public censure and perhaps loss of their jobs. Governors and legislatures in most states have raised standards and imposed new tests. Measures for helping low-performing students that were once controversial have become attractive to many superintendents and school boards, as long as they have some chance of helping students learn and of raising test scores.

Many experts advise caution, however, despite initial studies showing some private firms are producing children who can read and write and think much better than before. Henry M. Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teachers College, notes that privately run Title I programs are operating in less than 2 percent of American schools. "We don't really know" if they will work in the long run any better than publicly run programs, he says. They are expensive, in some cases as much as $2,500 per child per year, "and they can eat up your whole Title I budget."

Chicago's Success Lab, and larger companies like Sylvan and Kaplan, have entered the Title I market in just the last decade. So far they have drawn little attention for their public school contracts. Sometimes their work is with selected students pulled out of regular classes during the school day. At other times they see students after school, on Saturdays or in the summer. News media attention has focused more sharply on private companies like Edison Schools Inc., which seek contracts to run entire schools and not just pull out a few kids for tutoring.

By and large, the Title I contractors don't slap their logos on buses or paint the company name on the front of the school. Their employees often are disenchanted local teachers who accepted the private company's job offer so they could spend all their time helping kids and avoid the annoyances of paperwork and playground duty. In other instances, the teachers already are at the school and come to work for the private contractor in the Title I center for a year or two and then return to the regular classroom, full of new ideas and new skills gained from using new methods in focused sessions with small groups of students.

A Think Tank Study
Despite the lack of attention to or evaluation of the growing private Title I contractors, Los Angeles-based privatization expert Lisa Snell sees a controversy looming: What is the best way to use the Title I dollars being handed over to private firms?

Snell, who has just published with Lindsay Anderson a detailed study of private alternatives to Title I for the Reason Public Policy Institute, applauds private tutoring services that focus on the achievement of individual students. The U.S. Education Department, however, seems intent on shifting much of the Title I money to firms like Success for All, which try to raise achievement for all students in a school. If whole-school reform becomes the norm, Snell argues, it will be difficult to tell which methods work and which do not. Too many factors influence change in an entire school building, she says, while each privately tutored child can be periodically assessed and the secrets to making a difference can be more easily discovered.

Since 1965 the federal government has spent more than $120 billion to raise achievement for slower students from poorer families under Title I. A 1997 Title I evaluation based on 40,000 students over three years said that although the test scores of children in the program went up somewhat, "the services appear to be insufficient to allow them to overcome the relatively large differences between them and their more-advantaged classmates."

An earlier study had reached the same conclusion, so when Title I was reauthorized in 1994, Congress tried to put more emphasis on results. States must develop both content standards and performance standards for their Title I reading and mathematics programs by 2001, and school districts must begin reporting how their Title I students are doing. This, along with new state testing programs that affect graduation and accreditation, have made the private Title I services more welcome than they ever were previously.

"I think it is mostly a good thing," said John Jennings, director of the Washington-based Center on Public Policy. "If a school is having a problem teaching disadvantaged students and a private company can come in with a better way to do it, what is wrong with that? But you have to be careful with the safeguards. Is the company pumping up test scores? Is it hiring uncredentialled people? You have to be careful."

John McLaughlin, founder of The Education Industry Report, in Sioux Falls, S.D., said the key is accountability. Contracts with private firms require that each child's progress be measured. The federal government wants more reporting of results, so the private company's frequent assessments will help.

But finding the right way to help each child decode the mysteries of written English and mathematics is hard. If privately run Title I programs grow and assume responsibility for significant numbers of low-income students, they may find making steady improvement just as difficult as it has been for the public school classroom coordinators and aides who are the recipients of most of the Title I dollars now. The future, the experts say, will be decided by the results.

The Major Player
The largest provider of private Title I services is Baltimore-based Sylvan, with programs in 117 public and 809 private or parochial schools. (In the past, students had to leave their private or religious schools to meet with taxpayer-supported Title I teachers in playground trailers or buildings off-campus. But the rules now allow Title I money to be spent on teachers who go inside non-public schools to help poor children.)

Stan Paz, a former El Paso, Texas, school superintendent who now works for Sylvan, said the key to the company's Title I success is its well-known brand name. Many parents are already paying hundreds of dollars of their own money for Sylvan to tutor their children in the company's familiar storefront learning centers. When parents hear that the company with the familiar radio commercials has contracted to help their child for free, their most common reaction is not to decry capitalist intrusion into the classroom, but to bless their children's good fortune.

Paz, Sylvan's regional vice president for the Southwestern states, said one Houston principal told him: "I want a program like Sylvan because it is tried and true. There are no smoke and mirrors there."

In Chicago, regional education officer Hazel Steward, who supervises 87 public schools on Chicago’s West Side, said she has the same view of Success Lab, which is showing results in its centers. The program was created by a local entrepreneur, Kenneth White, who first tested his methods under much more difficult conditions. For two years he had a contract to educate children who had been made wards of the state. "If we could take some of the toughest kids who are having the most difficult academic problems and succeed, then we could help anybody," he said.

Evaluations between 1996 and 1998 showed students had an average reading improvement of 1.385 years for each year of Success Lab instruction. "There is really no alternative," Steward said. "It is impossible to have all the resources you need internally so that you can give your students all the services that they need."

Hefty Expense
Public schools spend much of their Title I money on salaries for aides who remain in the classroom and give special attention to students who are lagging behind. For decades, critics of Title I have complained that the aides, as energetic and conscientious as many of them are, do not have enough experience or training to give struggling students what they need. To these Title I skeptics, the idea of private companies providing their own teachers with credentials, each one helping no more than three children at a time, is a welcome change.

In Pasadena, Texas, Sylvan has 12 teachers working in two intermediate schools, trying to get low-performing 5th, 6th and 7th graders ready for the 8th-grade tests. Those examinations are important because they determine how the schools are rated and what courses the students will take in high school.

The district was so happy with the gains scored by Sylvan students after the program began in 1993 that it asked the company to focus on algebra, a subject tested by the Texas Assessment of Achievement Skills. In 1995 only 30 percent of students at the two schools had passed the TAAS algebra test. The next year, with all algebra students enrolled in Sylvan, the passing rate was 100 percent.

Schneider, the Pasadena superintendent, said the Sylvan teachers handle 150 students, taking groups of three children for two one-hour sessions a week. For this, the company receives $378,000 in Title I funds each year, or $2,520 per student. Industry officials say this is higher than the usual per-pupil cost, which can vary from $1,000 to $3,000 because of different kinds of service and because the complex (and to critics, frustratingly irrational) Title I funding formula gives different per-pupil amounts to different districts.

Schneider said the partnership works because the Sylvan teachers can use individualized instruction with each student while still reinforcing what the regular teacher is doing in class. "We integrate their efforts so that they are coordinated and ensure the student stays focused on what is being taught in the classroom," he said.

Sylvan officials cite other examples of success. A study of Baltimore 8th graders who failed a state mathematics test showed those tutored by Sylvan with Title I funds had a 28.5-point gain, with 43.4 percent passing the test on the second try, while students not helped by Sylvan gained only 12.7 points and had a 17.1 percent passing rate. A survey of 4,227 students in California in 1998 showed the percentage able to identify lowercase letters jumped from 23 to 96.8 percent after Sylvan instruction. The portion able to identify long vowel sounds increased from 27 to 73.8 percent.

Kaplan, another education name brand with experience teaching middle-class children in private centers, won a Title I contract for after-school tutoring at 25 schools in Los Angeles. The company was selected after helping 3rd, 4th and 5th graders gain an average 7.95 months in reading skills from just one hour a day of instruction over an eight-week summer pilot program. At George Washington High School in New York City, Kaplan reported an average increase of one year in reading level for every 48 hours of work in a three-hours-a-week program.

Kaplan has other Title I contracts to train teachers, prepare students for state achievement or college entrance tests and provide test preparation books. More and more inner-city and rural high schools are establishing their own SAT courses to give their students testing skills that suburban parents pay for. Because the SAT is a Kaplan specialty, it has been called on to help in that effort. Kaplan spokeswoman Katy Roy said the company has worked with about 300 schools nationwide providing various Title I services.

Snell, in her report "Remedial Education Reform: Private Alternatives to Traditional Title I" for the Reason Public Policy Institute, concluded that such results can only come from the private companies' emphasis on well-trained teachers, regular assessment of progress and focus on individual students. "The most striking difference between public Title I programs and public-school contracts for private remedial education programs is the federal Title I program's failure to focus on individual low-performing students," she said.

Still Skeptical
Many superintendents remain unconvinced that private contractors can do a better job than their own people. Ernest J. Cannava, superintendent for the Lakewood, N.J., schools, handles the money for several Title I programs operated by Sylvan in about 25 local private schools, but he does not want Sylvan programs in his own classrooms. Cannava said he thought it would hurt morale and disrupt coordination between the school staffers who do the job. "I much prefer to have our own staff employed by the school," he said. "They become part of the entire family."

Private contractors find that public school partners sometimes change their minds after inviting them in. Paula Singer, the Sylvan executive in charge of Title I services nationwide, said the company's contract with public schools in St. Paul, Minn., was not renewed recently due to a change in central school administration. Each superintendent is entitled to take a different approach, Singer said, but the superintendent in St. Paul, noting the good results under the old contract, is talking to Sylvan about coming back with a different program.

Paz, the Sylvan executive in Texas, has worked as both a public school superintendent and private contractor. He thinks both kinds of educators can cooperate to raise achievement at a time of great pressure on schools and families. "We are focusing on kids who are in what I call the intensive care unit," he said. "They are failing the state mandates in math and reading, and we are working with the principals who give us at least 64 hours each year with each kid."

"We don't just try," Paz said. "We guarantee results, and if for some reason we are not making progress with a student, we will extend the time to make sure we do. Those extra hours are for free. We just want to help the community and do whatever will work."

Jay Mathews is an education writer with The Washington Post. E-mail:mathewsj@washpost.com