Education (June 2011)

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Jared Lloyd was having trouble with reading, specifically letter recognition and retention. He began seeing a tutor twice a week for help. As a result, his mother says, Jared’s reading ability, confidence and self-esteem have all improved. Jared is 6 years old.

When today’s parents and grandparents struggled academically in their own childhoods, many simply stayed after school for extra help from the teacher. Those whose families were able to afford it went to private tutors – often to ensure success at a prestigious private school or admission to an elite college.

But tutoring is no longer a special privilege of the wealthy. And it’s not solely reserved for older kids at risk of academic failure. Tutoring is now a $4 billion a year industry in the United States, serving children as young as 2 or 3; kids who need temporary help with a complex subject; and, increasingly, families who see it as a way to give their children an academic edge over their peers in a competitive world.

High Stakes, High Anxiety

Many educators believe that today’s widespread use of tutors is due to parents’ anxiety about their children’s success. The nation’s obsession with education reform, academic achievement and standardized test scores, combined with an increasingly competitive college admissions process, has prompted parents from all walks of life to consider tutoring for their children.

“The difference now is the fear that the stakes have risen with respect to college admission, and this has motivated parents to start preparing their children very early,” says Henry Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College in New York.

Lihuei Wei, a tutor, agrees. She often hears from parents anxious to give their child an extra push. “They want their child to get the individualized attention and test prep that he rarely can in a classroom of 30 students,” Wei says.

Sometimes parents see the need to address a child’s shortcomings in a specific academic subject. “We got a math tutor for Sean, my eighth-grader, when his algebra grade dropped to a D,” says Denise Ricco. “Now it’s up to a B, but more importantly, he’s been motivated to succeed.”

Other parents speak of getting help for a child struggling with more general issues, such as reading comprehension or writing skills.

Most educators, overwhelmed by the demands of the classroom, welcome the support of tutors. Teachers recognize that one-on-one tutoring is often the most effective means of intervention on behalf of a struggling student. Indeed, many schools have created their own tutoring centers, often staffed by parents and community volunteers who help children free of charge.

What to Expect from a Tutor

“Tutoring at its best is a great intervention, the best one we have,” says Columbia’s Levin. It works well when the student is highly motivated and has a competent tutor with successful experience. The best tutors will assess a student carefully in terms of strengths and weaknesses, design an approach that builds on this knowledge, and evaluate the student’s progress to see where more attention is needed, he says.

Foreign language tutor Maria Shire cautions parents against looking for a quick fix for a child. “Working with a student once a week for a month is not going to turn things around,” she says. Edward Gordon, author of Tutor Quest, a guide to how to select the right tutor for your child, recommends hour-long, bi- or tri-weekly tutoring sessions for at least three months.

The Future

Is all this tutoring a good thing, especially for the very youngest of kids? Siema Zia, mother of 4-year-old Kamran, believes it is but notes the importance of balance: “We sought out a tutor because we wanted to develop our son’s confidence, but we also wanted to keep him excited about learning. That’s so important.” It’s still too early to predict the long-term effects of all this additional spending on tutoring kids, but educators, at least, are applauding the fact that more parents are taking an active role in their children’s education.

Judy Molland is a veteran teacher and writer specializing in education topics. She is the author of Straight Talk About Schools Today (Free Spirit, 2007).

Updated 4:00 pm, May 30, 2012
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