Education Commissioner: Bad tutors thrived under 'No Child' law

  • Article by: BRENDA CASSELLIUS
  • Updated: June 16, 2012 - 9:04 PM

State had little recourse to take action under federal law, but not anymore.

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Counterpoint

The Star Tribune recently ran a series that highlighted problems with some tutoring companies operating in Minnesota and the way they were approved and overseen ("Schooled: Tutors profit as kids fail," June 3-5).

What the series inexplicably neglected to mention is that, under this administration, Minnesota is dealing with this problem. The money school districts were forced to spend on outside tutoring and other services -- money that went out of the classroom to pay for services that had little evidence to prove their effectiveness -- is Exhibit A of the inherent failures of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

That failed law -- which opened the floodgates to many of these predatory providers and was propped up by inconsistent oversight by previous administrators -- are the primary reasons Minnesota aggressively pursued and secured a waiver from NCLB. School districts and families needed relief. This waiver frees us from this wasteful mandate.

The practices and results highlighted in the stories are outrageous. Unfortunately, they are no surprise to me. As a former school district leader, I endured with my colleagues the fallout of this failed mandate for more than a decade.

We witnessed unkept promises and unrealistic guarantees made to vulnerable families even as our hands were tied to do anything about it. We swallowed hard every year when forced to take real money -- 20 percent of our federal Title 1 funding -- out of our classrooms and set it aside for services like these.

We felt the frustration of watching much of that money sit idle for lack of demand, or worse, go to programs we knew to be ineffective. Worst of all, when we knew of providers that were not delivering on their promise, we were restricted by a hands-off law and a weak system of accountability implemented by previous administrators at the Minnesota Department of Education, leaving us little recourse to help steer parents clear of them.

Over the last 10 years, it was rare that we could make a direct link between any one tutoring service provider and an individual student's improvement. To use a business term, it did not yield a high return on our investment, and in fact could be seen as a waste of precious resources and time.

That's why it was so surprising that some in the business community were critical of our decision to do everything in our power to opt out of this abysmal failure. In fact, some went so far as to accuse us of wanting to deny tutors to poor kids of color.

But we knew that freedom from this mandate could actually protect kids and families. Coupled with the real and strategic support of a new system of school accountability that gives us a clearer picture of how schools are really doing, we are undertaking the hard work of turning around schools in a way that holds far more promise than did the false assurances of some of these tutoring services.

Now school districts can decide whom they want to partner with. If they choose to work with a tutoring company, community group or other nonprofit they believe is doing good work with students, they are free to do so.

Additionally, knowing we can't demand high quality from schools if we don't expect it of ourselves, my team at the Minnesota Department of Education is reviewing and improving our own processes to ensure we're providing the right balance of support, oversight and information for schools, educators, parents and the public.

We are also working closely with our colleagues at the Department of Commerce to make sure that any business that seeks to work with students is meeting the highest standards of professional quality. And we're evaluating whether there are opportunities to audit and possibly recapture monies that were expended on ineffective programs like the ones featured in the series.

The No Child Left Behind law, and the processes by which it was implemented and overseen, were put in place long before Gov. Mark Dayton appointed me to serve as commissioner. The hands-off approach, second chances and reluctance to shut down bad actors are not the way the Minnesota Department of Education will do business under this administration.

If we learn of a school, a business or any entity engaged in predatory or unscrupulous practices with students and families, we will intervene. We will address every issue of quality brought to our attention.

We will work every day in the best interests of children -- from protecting them from crooked tutoring companies to making sure the school they attend is safe and welcoming; from ensuring the best teachers and principals are in every classroom to making sure that every dollar spent on education is targeted to make a real difference.

We will not sweep things under the rug because it is easier or politically expedient. We are talking about our kids -- our state's future -- and we will do everything in our power to educate and protect them.

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Brenda Cassellius is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education.

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