Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Confessions Of A City Schools Tutor

This spring, I worked as a tutor for the Memphis Literacy Corps.

I signed up not really knowing what to expect, just thinking that it would be a good experience and a good part-time job for a full-time student such as myself. I had no previous experience tutoring and little experience working with kids, but I figured we would be well-prepared for the job.

After all, they were sending out mass emails to college kids of all majors, and surely they wouldn’t send us in there unprepared, right? And surely there would be adequate supervision and assistance throughout the program, right? Well…

Our training consisted of a three-hour orientation. Although there was a lot of information presented, it was a lot to take in at once. Especially since I had no experience, I felt pretty overwhelmed.

Tutoring During Non-Fun Classes

But it seemed that the people running the show would be supportive and there was a forum set up for us to ask questions, so I figured it would be fine. We were given information on how to contact our site coordinator and then we were wished luck and set on our way.

As I understand it, the program had been advertised as being an after-school program, and it had been said that the tutoring would not affect kids going to their regular classes. When I contacted my site coordinator, I found that this was inaccurate.

I was told that I had to be finished with my tutoring by 3 p.m., because that’s when the school let out. The tutors were told to go get the children they were tutoring out of their regular classes for an hour when they came to tutor. The site coordinator at the school where I tutored specifically worked the schedule so that the kids would not be taken out of their more fun classes, like art; this seems like a good idea, because that way the kids wouldn’t mind so much being pulled out of class, but it meant that we were pulling them out of their more important classes, like English and math.

I don’t blame the site coordinator for this, as she was trying to make it easier on us tutors. The fundamental problem with this is that the program was during school hours, so kids had to be pulled out of one of their classes.


The curriculum we were given, which grouped kids into one of three categories based on their reading abilities, consisted of specific “scripts” to follow so we would know what to do each day. One of the many problems with these is that they were very sparse on examples and often used the exact same examples for different concepts.

The word “communication” must have come up a dozen times to teach different things, and some of the examples were simply incorrect; for instance, one of them was focusing on working with prefixes, and it said to tell the children that the “comm” in communication and community is a prefix meaning “together” (or something to that effect).

That’s not true at all. I was really surprised to find something like that in the materials.

I opted to skip a large part of that section, simply because it was teaching things that were not true and would just end up being confusing. Also, the scripts often did not fill up the entire time we were supposed to work, so we ended up reading more to fill up the time – this would have been perfectly fine, as practice reading was good for them, but then we ran out of the books that were provided for the program near the end, and I had to bring books from home and make up other activities.

Invisible Oversight

If it had been explained that this would be the case, that would have been one thing, but the scripts implied that they would last the entire time. Interestingly, after the program ended, we were sent a survey to fill out about our experiences in the program, and it specifically asked where we got books to use after we finished the ones provided by the program. Again, I had no problem with reading that many books with them, or the fact that I had to bring them, but the fact that they could not have made any of this clear in our instructions seems a bit ridiculous.

I cannot speak about how it was for all tutors, but while I was at the school, I had very little contact with any of the teachers. The teachers did not seem to have been told very much about the tutoring program, so there was little coordination or support between tutors and teachers. There was virtually no supervision of tutors while we were working – I honestly could have been teaching them anything, or playing games with them, or just making them stare at the wall for an hour, and no one would have known.

Of course, I didn’t. I stayed to the scripts as well as I could and I tried to keep them focused on reading as much as I could, but it is entirely possible that some tutors did very little actual tutoring.

C’mon, you hire college kids, and you don’t supervise them? I know plenty of college kids who can’t even be trusted to do their own school work and show up to their own classes, so how are they going to be motivated enough to show up every day and help a kid with theirs?

The Round-Up

Possibly the most concerning aspect of this program, at least from my perspective, is that they did a poor job of assessing the subjects in which children needed help.

Based on the three children I tutored, it seemed as if they simply rounded up all 3rd to 5th graders who had been held back at least one year, tested them in reading to see which of the three categories they fit in, and stuck them in this tutoring program only for reading.

I think that the fact that it was only for reading is fine – that’s a good place to start. But I tutored one child who had absolutely no problems with reading and told me that she had only been held back because of her math scores.

So why was she in this program? Because no one figured out if she should be in or not. They just saw that she’d been held back and tossed her in with the rest of them.

Although I did have an overall good experience working with the kids I tutored, there were far too many problems with this program. That forum they set up for us to ask questions? I was never able to access it. Luckily I have friends in the education field, so I was able to go to them with questions I had. But the lack of training and support for the tutors was a huge problem.

I’d love to help more kids with reading, but there is no way I would sign up for this program again, assuming it continues. Wonderful concept, horrible execution.


Anonymous said...

As the member of the Memphis City Council who fought hard for MCS to receive an additional $2.4M for the literacy initiative, I appreciate this student outlining his/her experience.

I am extremely disturbed and disappointed by what was described and will immediately communicate with Superintendent Cash and the school board seeking an explanation.

What I read was indicative of the problems I saw and fought against as a former MCS parent and 7 year member of the board.

Because I believed the concept of the literacy initiative to be exciting and challenging for the district, I went above the call of duty to publicly garner the support of my council colleagues.

While everything in the district is not a disaster, disaster and negativity seems to be the attention grabber. This unfortunate example is a sincere attempt to share the truth of a broken system we have questioned far too long.

I personally challenge the school district and the members of the Memphis Education Association to help the citizens of Memphis understand how such a lack of accountability deserves multi-million dollars continually being invested when the system daily struggles with repeated failure.

Money will not solve the problems in our public school system so please don't continue to make that appear to be the most important need - it is not! Memphis needs more ACCOUNTABILITY and we at least deserve that for the future of our children and city.

To the many successes (teachers/administrators, students, parents, programs, etc.) of Memphis City Schools, THANK YOU!

Wanda Halbert
Memphis City Council
District 4

Steve said...

Welcome to the world of teaching.

The frustrations you experienced as a tutor are not too different from the frustrations experienced by teachers--over a lifetime career.

I have taught anywhere from 15 yr. old 6th graders in New Orleans public schools, to 12th graders in Iowa public schools and all of them have one thing in common--the disconnect between policy/theory and the implementation in the classroom.

Fortunately, I now teach college kids.

Zippy the giver said...

Welcome to half ass city. When elementary schools are run half ass for generations for some, you get half assed adults in charge.
Keep your standards high and find a way to anonymously affect the execution of this program. Even if the rug has to come out from under it.

Anonymous said...

As the designated evaluator of the Memphis Literacy Corps program, I wanted to share that the experience of the anonymous tutor is not reflective of what we have found in both focus group and survey research done on tutors involved with the program.

While the anonymous tutor certainly represents a particular viewpoint, it appears to be a minority opinion given that 90% of the responding tutors reported that they would serve as tutors again for the Memphis Literacy Corps.

As to preparedness, 89% of the responding tutors reported that they felt prepared to implement the program. Additionally, 90% felt that school personnel were available to answer questions and provide guidance.

The Office of Evaluation follows approved standards of program evaluation to arrive at conclusions that measure program effect and ultimately inform program improvement. For a copy of the interim report on the Memphis Literacy Corps, feel free to contact me at the email below.

Tequilla Banks
Coordinator, Office of Evaluation
Department of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment
Memphis City Schools

Anonymous said...

Several years ago I was a tutor for two years at Lester Elementary as part of "Our Children - Our Future." My experience was very similar to that of Smart City Consulting: pulling children out of class, no coordination between tutor and teacher, no assessment of tutoring effectiveness, no support for tutor - I could go on and on. I was working at the time and took my lunch hour to come to the school. I worked with two children each year for 30 minute sessions. Countless times I would arrive at school to find that one or both of the children was unavailable due to an absence or an assembly or a field trip. No one at the school ever tried to contact me to tell me not to waste a trip to the school. If one child was available, but the other not, the teacher would offer up another child, not understanding that part of the process was to build a trust relationship between the student and the tutor. I am still haunted by the little girl I tutored in the second year. She could read beautifully, but had zero comprehension. I pleaded with the guidance counselor at the school to follow up with her and even offered to pay for professional tutoring over the summer. I finally contacted the state dept of education to see if they could intervene. Maybe someone did help her, but I'll never know because no one would tell me anything due to "privacy concerns." At the end of each year the system hosted a big luncheon for all of the volunteers (who knows what that cost?) and everyone patted themselves on the back, for what I don't know. I, too, completed a "survey" with specific examples and suggestions, but never heard from anyone. I declined to participate after the second year.

Suzanne Allen

Zippy the giver said...

I gotta say, Tequilla, measuring stats of opinions of the curriculum by tutors is completely worthless in light of the fact that the only stats that count are "the specific measures of success" of the program and whether we did it or not. It's hardly a defense against a first hand experience and anecdotal evidence.

teach5 said...

I was a teacher in one of the schools that had college tutors come in and help students. I am now retired for many reasons which I will not get into right now. The college tutor my student had only came twice and then never returned with no reason why from the person in charge. My student was happy because she learned more from me and said that the tutor was boring and also the lessons. She missed out on the important lessons in reading that were needed to pass.

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