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Tutoring story shy on facts

My view • Supplemental Education Services skewered by recent Tribune report
by: L.E. BASKOW, Supplemental education service providers, such as Club Z tutors Yin-Lai Chung (middle) and Catalina Choi (left), work one-on-one with students at schools in need of improvement according to No Child Left Behind standards. Writer Todd Meislahn takes issue with a recent story about SES providers, including his company, A+ Advantage Point Learning.

I am the president of A+ Advantage Point Learning, which is the most experienced provider of Supplemental Educational Services (after-school tutoring) under the federal No Child Left Behind Act in the Pacific Northwest.

Advantage Point has served thousands of students in multiple school districts throughout the region.

The Nov. 13 Portland Tribune article, 'Tutors Off Target,' by Christian Gaston, is replete with half-truths and unsubstantiated claims.

For reasons that are unclear, Mr. Gaston wrote with an obvious bias of bashing Supplemental Educational Services and chose to ignore, overlook or dismiss most of the information I provided him during our nearly two hours of interviews.

In the short space I've been allotted, let me set forth some actual facts about Supplemental Educational Services under No Child Left Behind in Oregon:

• Provider approval process

Prospective SES providers must pass a rigorous annual approval process by the Oregon Department of Education.

This process includes scrutiny of tutor qualifications, curriculum alignment with Oregon educational standards, instruction based on scientific research, evidence of effectiveness and other stringent requirements.

Within this framework, the education department rightfully approves providers with a variety of programs in order to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. In this way, the education department fulfills a key objective of NCLB: parental choice.

This is hardly the so-called 'patchwork' alleged by Gaston.

• Program fees

Gaston makes liberal use of phrases such as 'pulled in,' 'walked away with,' and 'booty' to imply that legitimate charges for services somehow amount to stealing. I strongly resent this insinuation.

Affluent parents regularly spend $50 to $65 per hour to obtain academic assistance for their children. Companies such as Sylvan, Huntington and Advantage Point have a long history of providing diagnostic, prescriptive, individualized programs that are highly effective.

They also are expensive to administer. Further, unlike public school teachers, SES providers are not paid when a child is absent. Nevertheless, our hardworking tutors, all of whom have a bachelor's degree or higher, still receive their full compensation.

That these programs now are available to low-income students who could not otherwise afford them should be a source of pride, not prejudice.

• Incentives and rewards

A child who spends six hours in a classroom during the school day - without academic success - is not highly motivated to attend another session of instruction after school.

We learned this rather obvious lesson during our first year of SES: no incentives, no participation.

Most SES providers offer incentives to keep kids engaged in the program and attending regularly. Movie tickets, pizza parties, raffles, etc., are all part of the arsenal to ensure that students stay motivated to learn. If students complete the program and improve, they also earn their choice of a savings bond, boom box, iPod, or other reward for a job well done.

A headline within the story, 'Incentives illegal in Washington,' is false. In fact, Seattle Public Schools liked the idea so much that they offered free iPods to motivate their own students (Seattle Times, July 11, 2007, 'iPods a lure for WASL test prep').

Regardless, why hold Washington up as the litmus test for SES? Washington, with twice Oregon's population, has only about 500 students statewide who participate in SES tutoring, while Oregon has closer to 2,000.

Gaston's statement that '… in Oregon, there are no restrictions on incentives' is also untrue.

All student incentives must be described on the SES application. The ODE has wisely approved use of these motivational rewards to encourage participation in the free program. The result has been an attendance rate of 85 percent to 90 percent - far higher than the average attendance in public schools.

• Academic results

Gaston's claim of 'oversight problems' is unsubstantiated. The ODE strictly scrutinizes providers prior to approval. School districts monitor providers for compliance with the ODE guidelines. Providers are required to submit detailed year-end reports describing testing outcomes and student progress.

The results speak for themselves: The average improvement of students completing the Advantage Point program has been well in excess of one grade level - in approximately 30 sessions - during each of the past three years. By any measure, this is an excellent value for taxpayers.

• Summary

Gaston's discovery of one provider doing 'a lot of unfocused homework help' may warrant further investigation by the state department of education, in that homework help is forbidden under NCLB.

However, the vast majority of SES providers in Oregon work well within the guidelines established by NCLB, the education department and the school districts to strengthen and reinforce basic reading and math skills for struggling students.

We stand proud of our results and continuing contribution to education in Oregon.

Todd Meislahn is a Wilsonville resident and president of A+ Advantage Point Learning, which is based in Southwest Portland.