An Increasing Number of Families are Turning to Outside Educational Support, But at What Cost?
By Elizabeth Wilcox
Illustration by Matt Collins
It was Back-to-School Night at one of the area’s local public schools; the auditorium was teeming with expectant parents. The school’s principal stood to deliver her welcome address. Another exciting year lay before them, she explained, another year during which the three-way partnership between the school, its students, and their parents would work to provide children with a solid education. Over the course of the next ten minutes, the principal explained just how that partnership would best work. Reading to your child, family discussions, a commitment to helping your child succeed - these were all essential, but there was another point worth mentioning: your child learns at a developmentally appropriate rate, the principal reminded her audience; no amount of private tutoring can change that.
Increasingly in towns like Weston and Wellesley, such warnings seem to be falling on deaf ears. While no figures exist on just how many children in Weston and Wellesley are tutored, parents and educators alike agree that tutoring is on the rise. Eric Weisman, Regional Manager for the educational services company Chyten, says business has grown so much at their Wellesley office that space is now an issue. At their inception, Chyten employed some two tutors in Wellesley; now they have more than a dozen, says Weisman. Charles O’Hearn, CEO of the Massachusetts-based, in-home tutoring company, Summit Educational Group, notes increased interest from parents in many of Boston’s surrounding towns. “Over the last three years, we’ve grown 20% or more,” he says. John Chapman, Regional Director of Score Educational Services which opened its Wellesley branch eight years ago, claims “steady growth throughout [the region].”
Yet, competitive school districts like Wellesley and Weston are by no means alone in experiencing an upsurge in the use of outside academic support. According to Eduventures, an education market research and consulting firm based in Boston, parents nationwide spent some $2 billion on academic tutoring for their children in 2004, a 5 -7% increase over the previous year. “What we’re seeing now is a new phenomenon as middle class families are driving growth in for-profit tutoring programs,” says J. Mark Jackson, Senior Analyst at Eduventures.
Why the increase? According to Jackson, intensifying competitiveness in college admissions decisions is a major factor. As the number of applications at top tier four-year colleges rises, so does the difficulty of getting in. Says one mother, “It has become so competitive to gain entry into a good college today that parents are using every means possible to give their child that little extra advantage.” Businesses, not surprisingly, have responded to this demand with rapid growth. For-profit entities are “popping up on almost every corner,” says Jackson, equating their widespread emergence to a “Starbucks” phenomenon. Echoes Summit’s O’Hearn, “the number of competitors has increased wildly.”
Some, however, suggest that the extent to which parents seek tutoring for their children in affluent areas like Weston and Wellesley is reaching unsettling levels. One public school administrator worries that even kindergarten and preschool children are privately tutored to accelerate academic achievement, while others report parents crying over the pressure they feel to help their child get into college. A parent of an elementary school child says that, given the prevalence of tutoring among the town’s students, she feels children without tutoring are not on a level playing field. One mother of three students in another competitive school district reports, “Some high school students go as far as taking a course in advance over the summer in order to do well during the school year.”
As unsettling as this growth may be, the truth is that a child’s academic performance can improve with tutoring, whether remedial, educational enhancement, or test-taking. Remedial tutoring may not change the rate at which your child is predisposed to learn, but it can provide needed support for at-risk learners. Educational enhancement can help children whose skills or interests are not being met by their school. Test-taking coaching can improve a student’s scores on standardized tests. “If you practice anything, you’ll get better at it,” says former public school teacher and Wellesley tutor Kathy Lesanto. One-on-one teaching, lesson plan reviews, study skill help, and simply extra time devoted to a subject can all raise a child’s confidence, understanding, and performance. On top of the academic pluses, some educators also say that tutoring can help ease the parent-child strains that homework and other academic demands can create.
Yet even tutors admit to the dangers of placing too much pressure on your child to perform. “I always caution parents,” says Chris Elliot, head of Tenacre elementary school, “[test-taking tutoring] can build up anxiety rather than inflate confidence.” Some educators also suggest that academic enhancement tutoring can become a crutch, inhibiting the growth of a child’s self-reliance, leaving the child dependent on extra help, unwilling to listen in class because he or she is confident that the material will be reviewed later. Some worry that parents can put too much emphasis on the grade rather than on the learning process itself. In order to grow, kids should not be afraid of failing, they say. Getting a good education is about more than simply getting good grades.
Burn out, too, is a risk, says Elliot. Students need time to be creative, to explore, to feed and nurture their innate curiosity, to relax. Getting a child into advanced courses through intensive tutoring can do a disservice to the child if his or her abilities do not match up. “I discourage parents from artificially maintaining a child in an honors class,” says Weston tutor/study skills coach Holly Kulow. “If a student has a strong interest it should be cultivated,” says Weston-based Admissions Advantage owner and college admissions adviser, Susan Simon, “but I also believe in play and freedom to daydream, in a balance between scheduled time and time off.”
If you do feel your child needs extra support, many tutors suggest contacting the child’s teacher first. Outline your areas of concern and find out how the classroom teacher feels you both can best support your child and his or her classroom work. The school may have support resources from which your child can benefit. Find out the best way to communicate your concerns with your child’s teacher in the future. Explain to them that you “want to be supportive but also want to be respectful of the demands on [them],” and ask, “What’s reasonable and fair?” says Jeff Williams, Department Head of Special Education at Wellesley Middle School. If you do decide to engage a tutor for your child and his or her teacher is open to contact with the tutor, encourage that communication. The more open the communication is between all those involved, the more beneficial the tutoring can be for your child.
While tutoring can be an important addition to your child’s education, it an also be quite an expensive one. Academic tutoring ranges between $45 to $100 an hour. College admission consulting can run even higher and test-taking tutoring higher still. Kaplan charges $1,899 for 16 hours of private tutoring for ACT review. ACT prep by Summit Educational Group is 10, 90-minute sessions for $1345, while their SAT prep costs $1,975 for 15, 90-minute sessions. “Anything that’s geared to the college thing is more expensive,” says Kulow.
Lastly, realize that it is okay for a child to receive a less-than-perfect grade, to sometimes struggle, to make mistakes. Those with the best grades, or the best tutors, are not necessarily learning the most. Often, an increase in parental involvement can make all the difference in a child’s academic career. Research based on 8th graders in the National Educational Longitudinal Study says that of the four main areas of parental involvement – home discussion, home supervision, school communication, and school participation – home discussion is the most strongly related to academic achievement.
Both parents and children feel the pressure to get good grades and gain admission into competitive colleges. Tutoring is one possible catalyst for academic achievement, but “you have to look at what your motive is,” says Kulow. “Are you doing it for them or for you? Look at what’s in the best interest of the kid.”