Sunday, March 9, 2008

No Dollar Left Behind

Of course, while Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are tearing into each other, and their respective supporters vowing to vote for McCain before voting for the wrong Democrat, the country wobbles along under the guidance of the original Child Left Behind.

Thanks to President Bush, there are openings for tutors in the No Child Left Behind Program here in New York, and I applied to be one, and was accepted. Over the phone.

"I don't have teaching credentials," I said.

"That's okay," said Edith, the Tutorific Company (that's what I'm calling them) representative. I had filled out an online application, and now we were having a cozy chat.

She asked me why I wanted to tutor. I told her I had tutored all through school, friends who had mental blocks, or were lopsidedly visually talented and verbally hopeless. And that my father had died in January, and I was tired of illness, nursing homes, and death. I wanted to be around young people with hope.

"You passed the screening!" said Edith.

Now I had to get fingerprinted by the Board of Education, my expense, $115--- $16 for the actual fingerprinting, $99 to have the fingerprints stored forever by the State of New York.

Thus are taxes levied on little people in obscure corners where the big people never have to go and the general public won't object.

The fingerprint office is in downtown Brookyn, inside 110 Livingston Street--once an address as famous to New Yorkers for the mayoral wars waged against the Board of Education's fabled beaurocracy. I think Giuliani had actually threatened to close it and sell the property, but there it was. On a blindingly snowy day I tromped my way over, presented my credentials, and allowed my fingers to be mashed, not on an inkpad like a real criminal, to my disappointment, but cleanly on the Plexiglass of a scanner.

"Don't help," said the civil servant exasperatedly. It is actually hard not to try to roll your fingers if you've watched any number of crime movies. "Don't help!" Mr. Fingerprinter obviously would have preferred to do repeat offenders who knew the drill, but here he was stuck deep inside the Board of Education, doing nothing but fingerprint virgins like me. I finally closed my eyes and let him have his way with my fingers, and it was over.

Early on a Saturday morning, about a dozen duly printed and background-checked hopefuls filed into an otherwise empty building divided into cubicles. A brochure by the elevator identified the building as an "office hotel"; you could set up a complete operation with copiers, phone banks, break rooms, war rooms, and just as quickly dissolve it.

I wondered how many criminal enterprises had been hosted here.

Graciella, a company representative, handed out masses of copied documents: tutoring guidelines, tutoring theories, sign-in sheets, evaluation sheets, regulations, rules, and the contract.

She explained that since "Tutorific Company" was mostly an out-of-state firm just getting its New York operation set up, a lot of the materials would apply differently to us, but that the No Child Left Behind Program, since it was Federal, had a number of stringent regulations we would have to satisfy.

Now we knew that we would be the "freshman class" for Tutorific Company. That explained a lot of the foul-ups I had already experienced with them: computer glitches, changing personnel (sympathetic Edith, who had hired me, was gone, her voicemail box, which I had poured my heart out into, disconnected). The main office was somewhere on the other side of the country. They had just gotten themselves this No Child Left Behind contract in New York.

We went over the paperwork. The many forms had to be signed by the parents or guardian, the child, and the tutor. Time sheets. Objectives. Tests, pre-and post-. Answer sheets. We were to administer the tests, then go online and enter the child's answers ourselves--on our own time. We would be paid only for the time spent actually tutoring the child, in the child's home. Going online, downloading new forms, making up lesson plans, making reports, all standardized, all unpaid.

We had to mail our time sheets and reports in one envelope, per month. We would be charged $35 dollars for each extra envelope, for the extreme inconvenience caused to the office.

We would have to get our envelopes in by the second of the month, or we would not be paid for the preceding month-- Federal regs.

We would pay our own transportation to each child's house, of course. We should call up the family the night before each tutoring session to make sure they remembered to be home--the families were often in upheaval. That's one reason these children were being Left Behind.

We should download the special notice to put on doors of students who, despite our best efforts, aren't home when we come. Sorry, we don't get paid if the student stand us up--Federal regs! Not Tutorific Company (Actually, the Gov't doesn't set aside money for stood-up tutors, but Tutorific Company's private tutors do get paid a fee if their private students go AWOL on them. But there are no private Tutorific jobs in New York. They only just got here, the ink wet on their contract).

No Child Left Behind mandates that each child receive 43 hours of tutoring before the middle of June. That meant that we'd need to have two sessions a week to get the hours in, and it would be up to us to make up any time the child missed for good reasons or bad.

What if we couldn't finish in time?

We'd have to pay Tutorific Company $27 dollars for every untaught hour. No Child Left Behind kids living in upheaval the way a lot of them do, once they form an attachment to an adult it's traumatic for the relationship to be severed, Graciella explained. Often the tutor is the only adult in the child's life to give them individual attention. Their class is too big for the teacher to do it.

Stirrings of discontent among us twelve. There were a couple ladies who were actually certified public schoolteachers, who wanted to moonlight a little. One had worked for No Child Left Behind before.

"Excuse me, but what if a situation comes up? I tutored one child last year where I came one week and there were bullet holes in the door. I did not go back--it wasn't safe. Now you're telling me that I have to pay you if I feel threatened?"

Graciella said that in extenuating circumstances the tutor could be reassigned, if it were early enough in the year, but that you could usually tell if a situation was going to be safe or not right from the outset. "Just follow your instincts," she said.


Here is the lowdown on NCLB: It's just like the rest of Bush's policies--outsourcing. Privatization. Tutoring services sprang up like mushrooms all over that No Child Money, offering failing students uncredentialed tutors drilling them in standardized tests. The money per student could have meant more attention from real teachers if it had gone to the school.

Instead it went to concerns like Tutorific Company, which had been minding its own private business on the far side of the country until it scored this contract in New York. Did they know their territory? Not hardly. The assignments were made in the home office, who didn't know Far Rockaway from Cobble Hill from Mill Basin. Ads went out for tutors, who didn't have to have credentials, or experience. I didn't---just good will. The hourly salary seemed high, but was more than offset by the amount of uncompensated paperwork, travel time and online work, and the punitive conditions.

If you flip burgers, at least you don't have to pay them if you quit. For employees of the private contractors doing what should have been the government's job, there is a question that isn't usually addressed: are they themselves being exploited? How can taxpayer money be considered well spent when so much of it goes to middlemen?

1 comment:

  1. How very strange. This sounds a lot like a scam. I fear I would be unwilling to accept the requirement of paying Tutorific for the missed hours. I presume that you felt the same way, since there are no other posts in the category of "work". Never having been to New York, I find the ordinary details of your various writings of interest, such as the one about 110 Livingston St. Of course, anyone who reads or goes to the movies has some (in my case, extremely limited) knowlege about the environs of New York, but more is always interesting. So I guess you were out $119. Well, you meant well.