When the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. school districts decided to revamp their remedial-education programs, they hired Sylvan Learning Systems, a private tutorial company, to do the job. Within one year, Sylvan students in the Baltimore Public Schools were showing significant improvements on standardized tests in math and reading, prompting the district's director of student assessment, William Caritj, to say, "We never see gains anywhere near that magnitude."7
Sylvan has been brought into a total of ten Baltimore schools using federal Chapter 1 funding at some schools and state-school improvement grants at others. The Baltimore Public Schools spend the same amount of Chapter 1 funds as they would have had they operated their own remedial education program for disadvantaged students. Moreover, notes Donna Franks, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Public School District, "We're more cost effective because this program is year-round" compared to the traditional Chapter 1 program which operated only during the shorter academic year.8 For the first six elementary schools, Sylvan was paid $1.4 million under the year-long contract.
In addition to its work in the public schools, Sylvan provides tutoring, testing, and test-preparation courses to students through more than 500 franchised and company-owned centers in the United States and Canada. Traditionally, Sylvan, which has been in operation since 1979, has operated on a parent-pay basis, but it now serves public schools under contract. All Sylvan programs use a three to one student-teacher ratio, and all Sylvan teachers are licensed by the state in which they provide instruction.
As a franchise operation, with individual learning centers requiring teachers, directors, and owners, Sylvan offers a range of career options to educators. One teacher who has moved up the ladder with Sylvan is Ellen Larkin Sternig.
Stemig started out as a public-school teacher but left after eight years because of the limited opportunities available to her there.
"I really felt stifled (in the public schools)," says Sternig. "I felt that a lot of my creative juices were not going anywhere. Teachers are treated like nonprofessionals You punch in at eight, go through your education programs, and leave at three. It's an atmosphere of being taken care of, not being in charge."
The lack of a merit-based system of reward also discouraged Sternig, who says some teachers went the extra mile, staying late, creating interesting programs for children, while others put in minimum effort. "I worked hard as a teacher .... It was really frustrating to see other teachers just punch in and punch out. I had a difficult time with that kind of system," recalls Sternig.
"I thought, there's got to be a better way of using my talents, and life was too short," she says. "I could better service children in some other capacity, though I didn't know what it was [at the time]," she recalls.
So Sternig began to explore her options in education. She coordinated test-preparation and study-skill programs for one company and served as an academic advisor for another. Eventually, she became the director of a Sylvan Learning Center and helped the company adapt its programs for its first public-school contract with the Baltimore Public Schools. Now she is considering taking on an ownership role by purchasing a Sylvan franchise.
"As a franchisee, you're on the front line, working with kids, counseling parents. The Center will be as good as the person running it. Accountability? You bet. Parents come and pay. If the kid is not making it, they don't come back. You do whatever you need to do to make that kid successful. That's what it's all about, and that's not happening in the public schools."
Sternig thinks that efforts to transform public education will lead not just to more opportunities for students, but more opportunities for teachers as well. "Teaching is not like other professions. If you go to medical school, you come out, and you can work for a hospital or open your own practice. In teaching, you get out of education school, and you go into the monopoly, or else you don't work. AAEPP [private practice] opens up the door and lets people realize there are options."
Concludes Sternig, "I'll never go back now. I've seen other ways, other possibilities out there....I really want to be my own boss."