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:

  • Commercial franchises such as Sylvan Learning, Kumon, SCORE! Educational Centers, or Huntington Learning Center
  • Private tutors — check with your child’s teacher or other parents for recommendations
  • After-school tutoring programs offered at many schools and libraries
  • Local college tutoring centers (these centers often have lists of tutors willing to work with K-12 students)
  • Online tutoring such as Tutor.com
  • Web-based learning support systems (Time4Learning.com)
  • SAT test preparation centers (ranging from national companies such as Kaplan and The Princeton Review to locally run centers and classes)
  • No Child Left Behind state-approved service providers

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 (Tutor.com, 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