Thanks to his daughter's troubled elementary school, Zhengjun Wang will return to China with a pricey souvenir from his family's yearlong stay in Rochester: a computer.
Like thousands of other public-school students in Minnesota and across the country, Wang's daughter received the laptop as an inducement to sign up with an online tutoring service. Wang said the free gift was the only factor that influenced his tutoring selection.
"We never had a computer before," explained the medical student, who brought his family with him while completing a research fellowship at the Mayo Clinic.
The practice of luring low-income families with promises of free computers has corrupted the national tutoring program, many school administrators say, making a mockery of rules created to prevent gifts and other incentives from influencing a parent's choice of tutoring providers. In Minnesota and most other states, incentives are supposed to be capped at $50 or less.
"It's a marketing gimmick," said Susan Currey, who oversees federally financed tutoring for the St. Cloud Area School District. "Who isn't enticed by a free computer?"
Though parents like the perk, the real beneficiaries of the computer giveaways appear to be online tutoring companies. They have come to dominate the nearly $1 billion market created by the federal government's tutoring program, often to the dismay of school officials.
Not only do Web-based tutoring companies often take longer to start service than other tutoring vendors, they charge higher rates to cover the cost of the equipment, school records show. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, just 5 percent of nearly 5,000 students who used online tutors in recent years received at least 40 hours of instruction. Research shows 40 hours is the minimum needed for meaningful results.
In some instances, it is not even clear who is receiving instruction. With some online vendors offering access 24 hours a day, school officials are worried that parents and other family members are sometimes doing the work of their children. In 2011, for instance, St. Paul officials flagged an invoice showing a kindergartner allegedly online at midnight.
Officials with online tutoring companies defend their teaching methods and point out they are playing by rules established by the U.S. Department of Education, which in 2009 agreed to allow families to keep company-provided computers at the end of tutoring if the primary purpose of the device was "instructional." If not, the computer would be an "unallowable incentive."
That's an easy hurdle to jump for online tutors, which depend on computers to deliver instruction to their students. A national tutoring firm said 80 percent of its customers did not have a computer until the company gave them one.
"Our society is technology driven, and students nowadays need to be able to get on a computer and use one," said Kristie Schaufele, CEO of Tutorial Services in Michigan, one of the first tutoring companies to offer free computers to its students. "This definitely helps them."
'Not worth your money'
In some cities, 90 percent of students who receive tutoring are switching to online services, said Carolyn Heinrich, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who gathered data on 300 providers.
Compared with more traditional tutoring services, which rely on face-to-face instruction, students getting help from online tutors are "less likely to gain in math and reading," according to a 2011 study Heinrich conducted with Patricia Burch of the University of Southern California. The study also showed that online providers typically charge an extra $24 per hour and deliver about half as much instruction as other tutoring providers.
"It's not worth your money," Heinrich said.
Online providers dispute that research, saying their evaluations show students making significant gains by participating in their programs.
Joseph Olchefske, president of Educate Online, said his students typically improve at least one grade level after completing 26 hours of tutoring.
"Clearly, in any marketplace, there are providers that are more productive than others," said Olchefske, who said Educate Online is the nation's leading online provider with 15,000 students in 43 states.
Educate Online was placed on probation in Michigan last year because it promoted free computers on its website. Olchefske said the Maryland-based company removed the offending information.
Student: 'Wow, it came!'
States began limiting incentives after finding marketing abuses in the early years of the tutoring program, when vendors were handing out free bicycles and other gifts to get clients. As a result, states limited incentives to items of "nominal value," such as pencils or dictionaries. In many states, including Minnesota, tutoring firms can't even throw a pizza party unless competitors are invited.
So why did online tutors get a break?
In a written statement, officials with the U.S. Department of Education said computer technology offers "incredible potential to level the educational playing field." The department has specifically encouraged the use of computers in rural areas.
But with aggressive marketing, online providers have also become the most popular option in large urban areas, including the Twin Cities, where about half the students participating in government-funded tutoring this year are receiving Web-based instruction. That's up from 18 percent five years ago, records show.
Wendy Townsend said her ninth-grade daughter Jhane', whose grades dipped after she had a baby, was thrilled when she came home and found a Dell laptop on the table.
"She rubbed it like she was rubbing a genie in a bottle," Townsend said. "She was like, 'Wow, it came!' She gave me a big hug and said, 'Thank you Mommy, for finding this program for me.' ... That's her incentive. That's giving her a little light at the end of her tunnel."
Traditional tutoring services argue that it's hard to compete against an online provider that can give away something worth hundreds of dollars.
"There needs to be a level playing field," said Titilayo Bediako, executive director of We Win Institute, a nonprofit with about 100 students in the Twin Cities. "I had 10 kids transfer to other programs this year for computers."
Some tutoring companies discovered they couldn't compete without the perk.
At TutorCo, now the second most popular tutoring service in Minnesota, officials thought their advantage would be cheap labor in India, where the company's online tutors are based. But after trying to crack affluent suburbs around Minneapolis for more than a year, the Minnetonka company had just 100 paying clients and was on the verge of shutting down.
Then it decided to try the government market. Initially, it proposed charging just $23 an hour, which would have made TutorCo one of the most affordable options in the state. Then company officials found out most eligible families don't have computers, so they raised their rates to $66.25 an hour to include the cost of a laptop.
TutorCo didn't expect much reaction. But two days after publicizing the offer in 2008, it had gotten calls from 300 potential customers.
"That was an eye-opening experience," said TutorCo co-owner Sumit Dhawan, who directs the firm's business in the United States. "Parents were more focused on the [free] computers than the actual content."
Dhawan admits TutorCo wasn't prepared for that much success, and records show the company got hammered by unhappy customers, who complained about long delays and broken computers. Dozens of students quit or switched to other providers. The following year, TutorCo bought better equipment.
This year, the company will give away more than 1,300 refurbished Dell laptops worth about $250 apiece to students in Minnesota, Delaware, Indiana, South Dakota and Texas.
But relying on that technology can create significant service problems. On average, TutorCo's clients wait 47.5 days for their first tutoring session, longer than almost every other provider in the state, according to attendance records in Minneapolis and St. Paul analyzed by the Star Tribune.
Dhawan blamed slow starts on the challenge of delivering, connecting and sometimes repairing computers. Even if everything goes perfectly, he said, it still takes at least 30 days for students to start tutoring, the maximum time allowed in St. Paul. And the technology is still not perfect -- 150 computers had to be replaced this year.
"We want to make sure every student is happy," Dhawan said. "We realize you can't do that, but we are a very responsible organization."
Who is burning midnight oil?
In the unsupervised world of online tutoring, where nobody is watching and attendance sheets are often computer-generated, the potential for cheating is high.
Last year, for instance, administrators in St. Paul denied invoices from several online vendors in which students were allegedly receiving instruction past 10 p.m. Tutorial Services sought payment for several lengthy sessions that started after midnight, including a student who was supposedly online with the company from 1:07 a.m. to 6:45 a.m.
Some of Tutorial Services' students were working online by themselves for up to nine hours at a stretch, far beyond the two-hour limit suggested by district administrators. Several other online vendors also have been faulted for extra-long sessions extending beyond two hours, records show.
In an e-mailed response to St. Paul officials, Tutorial Services owner Thomas Allor Jr. acknowledged these were "unreasonable times," but he said his company was not "attempting to defraud" the district of money. He blamed the problem on an employee who failed to delete the sessions before submitting an invoice.
Clearly, he said, students were not staying up this late.
"This is a parent (and I don't blame the kids for these) trying to get the program done," Allor wrote.
In response to complaints, Tutorial Services no longer bills for any sessions past 10 p.m., Schaufele said.
Sherry Carlstrom, who oversees the tutoring program in St. Paul, said the problem with long or late-night sessions is concentrated with online programs that let students work without talking to a live tutor.
Carlstrom said she thinks many online tutoring sessions are completed by parents. Typically, families are told they can't keep the computer unless students complete all scheduled tutoring sessions.
"I think it goes on a lot," said Carlstrom, who continues to wrestle with the issue this year. "This is the problem with online tutoring. There is no way to monitor it. ... There is no accountability."
Staff writer Daarel Burnette contributed to this report. Jeffrey Meitrodt • 612-673-4132