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The tutoring conundrum

Thanks to craigslist, underemployed teachers, and a vast juggernaut of corporate tutoring franchises, the idea of one-on-one help for kids is no longer just another activity for the over-enriched children of the rich. But is it really worth the time, effort, and money?

By GreatSchools Staff

Once the purview of struggling students with affluent parents, now the $3.5 billion industry caters to kids of all ages, aptitudes, and income levels. But unlike organic lettuce whose price point dropped when it went into mass production, tutoring hasn't necessarily become any more affordable or effective as a result of going mainstream.

Are you considering tutoring for your child? Check out these tips and warnings before plunking down the hard cash and filling up your child's recreational time.

Now or never?

Fueled by concerns about rising academic standards and tougher standardized testing, as well as by parents seeking a competitive edge for their kids, the rapid expansion in tutoring has some companies now offering their services to children as young as 4 years old.

Whether providing long division drills or foreign-language instruction, tutors can offer a great advantage over big classrooms since the teaching is specifically tailored to each child's level. But for parents, it's often difficult to assess their value. Without testing, standardized curriculum, or a way to compare results with other tutors, parents must do their homework to find and assess tutoring programs that will help their children.

Given these obstacles, combined with the steep price of many programs, it's no wonder many parents find themselves paralyzed by indecision: Should I get a tutor for my child? Or is this some sort of spendy fad?

Catch the problem early

The most compelling reason to hire a tutor is if your child is struggling with basic schoolwork: reading, math, writing, even handwriting. In this case, don't delay seeking help. Remedial tutoring can start at any age, but catching the problem early is best. "Signs that a student needs tutoring may be frustration with a subject or schoolwork that is consistently avoided," says Sue Wilde, a math tutor in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

"I know of hundreds of high school students who could have used tutoring earlier and would have benefited," says Amy Alton Barrios, a tutor and former high school teacher in San Francisco. "But no matter what age they are or where they are academically, any student will benefit from tutoring. It's the one-on-one that makes the difference."

Your child may benefit from a tutor if:

  • He seems to be trying, but his grades don't show it.
  • Her homework is incomplete or not done well.
  • He shows an increasing lack of confidence and motivation about school.
  • She is very anxious about tests.
  • The teacher says he is misbehaving.

These can be signs of weak skills or serious academic problems in the making. First talk with your child's teacher to find out what he or she thinks the issue is. If it seems behavioral, you may also want to talk to the school counselor or principal.

Research your options

There are many types of tutoring providers, ranging from school-based programs to online services. The possibilities include:

Basics to consider before hiring a tutor

Before you begin your quest for the perfect tutor, ask the following questions:

  • What do you want your child to be able to achieve as a result of tutoring?
  • Do you want a diagnostic test to determine your child's skill gaps?
  • Are you willing to commute for tutoring? How far?
  • How much can you afford?
  • Do you want flexibility (drop-in services) or a more formal arrangement?
  • Would group tutoring be right for your child?

Rates vary widely

As a private tutor, Barrios has found that there is great variation in rates among her peers. "Tutors are pretty independent," she says. "Rates seem to vary according to the subject being taught. High school chemistry, calculus, and SAT prep are more expensive than other subjects, and high school and college students charge less than a credentialed teacher."

Tutoring rates range from free online homework help (, for example) to $20 an hour for community tutors to packages at franchises for several thousands of dollars. At the very high end, premier SAT prep tutors can command as much as several hundred dollars an hour.

But lest you hope that finding the perfect tutor will miraculously wash away your child's academic issues, Denise Corcoran, a full-time math tutor based in Burlingame, Calif., offers a word of caution: In the end the tutor is only part of the equation.

"I make sure the student knows that she must meet me halfway in order to get the results," she says. "For some that means putting in more time each night with extra practice work, making a commitment to break old ineffective habits and replace with them with new ones, and showing up consistently to tutoring. Even the greatest of tutors are not magicians."

Updated January 2010

Comments from readers

"My child suffers from dyslexia and needs to have a special dyslexia tutor. Although I have seen him improve with his reading and writing. I highly recommend using a dyslexia tutor if you have a child with it. "
"I agree with this article, you have to research before signing up with anyone. At Intellect Learning Center, we only hire certified teachers who have demonstrated success in the classroom. Programs are individualized and rates are reasonable."
"I am a certified teacher and work for a tutoring company. I wanted to post and let parents know about tutoring center scams. Many tutoring centers charge upwards of $30 an hour and offer unqualified tutors and basic repetition programs that will likely not help your child. Most of the money from these centers goes to the owner of the center, not the tutor. These centers hire college students, often only on the basis of a SAT-like test, and they follow a rote scripted program that is not customized to your child's individual needs. These students are often paid maybe $10/12 an hour and they have no training outside of a basic orientation to the script. Rarely are these tutoring centers run by educators, but usually by businessmen and/or corporate offices. If you are looking for a tutoring center for your child, look for one that hires certified teachers and that creates individualized programs for your child. They are out there. Don't fall for these tutoring scams and waste ! your money or your child's time."
"very helpful web, would recommend everyone to check out."
"I especially recommend the Sylvan Learning Centers in Queens (Rego Park and Flushing.) They have these great 'boot camps' (ELA, math, writing) during school recesses which keep kids in the school zone during their vacations. I also agree with JH below that tutoring companies should be critiqued and reviewed on this website, that would be a fantastic resource for parents."
"There's also the Non-Profit Active Reading Clinic in Walnut Creek. We provide one-on-one tutoring for struggling readers using the Reading Revolution method that teaches to each student's strengths through active games and guided discovery."
"This is quite interesting for me, as a parent and a teacher living not in US, but Europe, Romania. Here, tutoring is rather a kind of a small business, with people teaching lessons for more than one child at a time; i might say that only about 10 % of the one doing it are interested in the kids good, low level of school education, the rest is all about teachers having small salaries etc. etc. As involved in the process, i gave up being a tutor, nothing is serious about it; it seems to me that the whole thing triggers everything down; my students often say „ i don�t need this, i have a tutor�. Pretty sad, isn�t it? I hope things are different there. Chris"
"Hello, I'd like to see tutoring options such as national centers such as Sylvan and Huntington Learning treated the same as schools on your website. In other words offer description, reviews, and ratings just like local schools so that parents can get a good sense of which centers might best meet their needs. Thanks. JH"
"While researching tutoring services for my son (i looked at them all - Kumon, PR, Kaplan, HB, etc...) I came across an online tutoring - called Math-Whizz - - it is not mentioned above, but it should be! My son's grades in math have improved, he enjoys learning and he is even helping other kids in his class. Originally I was skeptical becuse it looked too cute and fun, but when my son started, i was impressed by the quailty of instruction and motivational tools it incorporates so kids stay interested. His skill level was diagnosed, and he is given lessons on topics and then quided exercises. If he makes a mistake he gets immediate instruction. As a parent, I can log in and get reports on his progress. My son, who was formally UNINTERESTED in math asks to 'do math' on the weekends. I am so excited about this site - i have to recommend it. The price is $19 a month - and it is online. According to the website, they also have school products. "
"I am currently a high school math teacher, but I would like to be hired by a school or district to be a full-time math tutor during a future school year, because tutoring students, especially in all levels of math, is my greatest passion and talent. (I am also willing and qualified to tutor SAT prep and any vocabulary needs.) I wish to obtain such a position in St. Thomas, USVI; Florida; or South Carolina. I would consider offers from other places. Specifically I want to assist students before school, during lunch, during study halls, and after school. I also want to work inside of classrooms with students, IF the regular classroom teacher wants the extra hand in there. Finding a full-time position, even when you have incredible references and a long track record of success is difficult simply because not that many exist. I find this frustrating because schools have long added experts to provide supplemental assistance in the area of reading, so I wonder why mathemati! cs has not seen the same rate of growth for these new types of positions. My phone rings off the hook with people wanting private tutoring and cost does not seem to be a factor to many of them, but I want a full-time position with an educational entity. "
"I have used a great tutoring service, Top Notch Tutoring, for my tutoring needs. They offer flexible hours at your home or local library which makes it very convenient since you don't have to drive to a center for tutoring. They are much cheaper than Sylvan and Huntington which I orginally looked into. Their tutoring is private so your child is not mixed in with other children of all levels all tutoring is one-on-one and fits with your schedule. I highly recommend them for tutoring and would suggest contacting them for more information. They also offer package rates (we signed up for 75 hours of tutoring) which is helpful for reducing the cost, especially if you have 2 children who need tutoring. The tutor will have a college degree and prior tutoring experience so to me it's worth it to have someone who can help better than a high school student can do (also my child listens better to someone a little older and not the same age). "
"One option for tutoring is to ask your child's teacher or another teacher in the school if they are interested in tutoring. My son is turning 6 and is entering kindergarten this fall. He went to a very academic Pre-k program and we want him to keep going with everything he learned. I asked one his teachers if she did tutoring and she said yes. This is the second time I have used a teacher from my son's school for tutoring. The teachers know him, know where he is academically and are very reasonable on their rates. I have paid between $15 and $20 an hour which is very cheap compared to Sylvan and those places. It's a cliche but I found the extra money by brown bagging and cutting out Starbucks trips. I know other people with kids who in high school who have hired teachers to tutor, it's a great option."
"My son is entering 11th grade. He is on an IEP as he is dyslexic and ADD. The school will not call him dyslexic. they put him under the ADHD 'umbrella'. He is currently doing the Wilson Reading Program at the school. Reading is slow for him and he does not test well at all. My concern are his grades. He did poorly this past year. I believe that he does not know how to study for tests and does not know how to accomplish his homework, although he is working on this with his special ed teacher. I would like to find someone who can teach my son how to study for exams and how to effectively do his homework. I was thinking of the Sylvan Learning Center or the Huntington Learning Center. Does anyone have any feedback regarding these two franchises? I was thinking of either getting a student tutor from the high school or going to one of the many colleges in our area. Thanks in advance for you input. gayle "
"Good Morning- I am a single parent of a 6 year old. She is currently having a hard time excelling in reading. It was recommended that she gets tutored to insure she excels to the next grade. I have tried different outlets to get her tutored, unfortunately the cost is more than I can handle. I even tried to take a loan out to pay for tutoring, but I have not yet been able to find a company to give me a loan. I currently am attending college courses and have loans out for my school. Here is the problem- I can not afford a tutor, but my child needs one. The more I inquire to try to get help for her, people give me options…but I am not eligible for any of them due to my pay scale. I can not afford a tutor, but I make too much to get help for a tutor. I have requested to cash in my 401k to at least get her a couple of months of tutoring, but beyond that I do not know what to do. I inquired about the tutoring program through the “No Child Left Behind Act” but apparently, the program does leave children behind. Here is the response I received: The “No Child Left Behind Act” is not a program or a campaign—it is comprehensive federal legislation that spells out requirements for states and school districts and holds them accountable for teaching each student in an attempt to bring them up to high standards—thus the title of the legislation. However, the legislation does not promise free tutoring to each student. There are programs funded by dollars the district receives through the “No Child Left Behind Act”, and one of them is the tutoring program you mention in your email. The program is known as “Supplemental Educational Services” or SES, and the “No Child Left Behind Act” allows us to provide it only to students who qualify for free or reduced meals. There are no provisions in the law allowing us to provide it to other students, and doing so would cause us to be non-compliant with the federal legislation, which is not an option. The “No Child Left Behind Act” requires schools to report student achievement for all students, and they are expected to assist each student to improve and meet high expectations—plus, it’s their job even without the “No Child Left Behind Act” and is the right thing to do. But, as for free tutoring, there is only one program in our district that offers it; that program is SES under the “No Child Left Behind Act” and only eligible students may participate. Below is an excerpt from the federal guidance document that is used by states and school districts to ensure compliance with the Supplemental Educational Services (SES) tutoring requirements. The phrase “students from low-income families” refers to students who qualify for free or reduced meals. A-5. Who is eligible to receive supplemental educational services? Eligible students are all students from low-income families who attend Title I schools that are in their second year of school improvement, in corrective action, or in restructuring. After reading this I was very disappointed. No child left behind is only for qualifying families of LOW INCOME. How can there be an “Act” for children not being left behind, when really children are left to fall between the cracks. To me as a single parent looking to help my child excel in school, it would appear that only the very wealthy or the very poor are able to get tutoring. The wealthy can afford the tutoring tuition (my quote for tutoring tuition is $9750), and the low income families get help from government. What about the people in the middle? Who helps are children? Please contact me with any suggestions or assistance. Bridget K. Loring,"
"My daughter is in fourth grade & she needs help with math and AR score. I noticed that there is a tutoring service offered to children that get free lunches. What I want to know is how do I go about getting the necessary help for her after school? Please, let me know what I can do to help her. Thank you."
"Thank you for an informative article on tutoring. I've just started my son seeing a tutor twice a week. He's starting to understand how important it is to organize himself in order to make the most of homework time. Regarding NCLB and tutoring, on its face, it sounds great, however, for those of us whose children aren't English learners and who don't qualify as 'low income,' tutoring under NCLB doesn't help. My son's middle school offers Saturday academy, but it is mainly geared toward those children who are English learners. I still have to pay for private tutoring services, which can be costly. If so many children need tutors, then it's time for schools and teachers to possibly reevaluate their teaching methods."
"I do have to agree with the comments of the parents below. NCLB Act only applies to Title 1 schools (in need of improvement)and/or reduced price lunch. I just don't understand why the system is broken. I do have to say for the children that are having a hard time should recieve some sort of support from the district or the schools--- or at least hold them accountable-just like parents are."
"Many options for tutoring may be available to your student. You might want to ask the school about after school homework clubs, peer tutoring, homework hotlines,or forming a parent volunteer group to tutor students. These are free options that may exist at your school. "
"I second the emotions of the Connecticut and California parents all the way from the East Coast... the criterion is very discriminating! No Child Left Behind is a hypocritical slogan.... My child does not fall into the catergories mentioned either. So I guess we have to turn to franchised tutoring or be left behind. >From Maryland "
"No Child Left Behind Act is pretty darned tough on the list of requirements needed to be elegible for a free tutor, don't you think? They require schools to be “in need of improvement” for two or more years in a row, the child has to be from a low-income household, the student must attend a Title I school and coincidentally must be enrolled in the free or reduced-lunch program. "
"How can they call it 'NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND' when they only give free tutoring to kids that get free lunch? what about the kids that have parents that don't qualify for free lunch and that just pay their bills. the saying is 'NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND' maybe it should be changed. My son's class has 37 students, that's alot of kids for 1 teacher, not much extra help for the kids that seem to be having difficulty with the math and other issues, then he has to bring home work that I thoroughly cannot understand and cannot help him with. 'NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND, EXCEPT FOR MINE'. Thanks for the help!"
"Great! Parents are often want me to tutor thier children, I often do but in some cases it is not an academic problem. It is good to have a 'when to..' list to determine what they really need."