Not making the grade
Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Which type of tutor might be right for your struggling student? By Dan Weissmannphotos by Josh Hawkins Chicago Parent file photo Michelle Flores, a student at Dominican University in River Forest, helps Andrew Lee work on his math homework.
When Rosemarie Williams' son, James, brought home one too many report cards filled with F's, the Chicago mom knew it was time to get help.
"I was like, uh-oh," she recalls. She knew she wouldn't be the best person to help James ramp up. "I don't have the patience with kids like teachers and tutors," she says. She called a few learning centers and in February 2003 settled on SCORE! Educational Centers, which offers coaching at about $150 a month. "I'll be honest," she says. "The price brought me here."
Every year, more and more parents seek out tutoring. It's a huge business, and growing fast. According to Eduventures, a research firm that tracks education-related businesses, tutoring has been growing faster than any other part of the educational-services market-up from $2.7 billion to $4 billion between 2000 and 2003, and due to pass $5 billion by 2005.
One reason for the jump is the ever-increasing number of tests children have to take, says Adam Newman, Eduventures' vice president for research.
Test scores are how Williams evaluates the coaching James has been getting from SCORE! After 18 months, James' grades have crept up to C's and D's. And, most important to Williams, James finally passed the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which Chicago schools use to determine who passes and who stays behind in some grades.
Getting a coach Hot times for tutors are part of the recent boom in business for personal trainers, life coaches and professional organizers-services for those seeking an extra edge. "Whether it's getting into college or getting into the right kindergarten," says Newman, "those who have the resources are looking to create an advantage for their kid."
One mother whose daughter attends an elite private school, calls herself "a very experienced hirer of tutors. . . . My sense is that there are plenty of average to better-than-average students who could easily drown in the current homework climate," says Barbara. (She asks that we not use her full name for the same reasons she hires tutors: to protect her relationship with her daughter. "She's 14 years old, and if she or any of her friends get wind of me talking about her in the paper, she [would] die of embarrassment," Barbara says. "There's copies of Chicago Parent all over this neighborhood.")
"It was just my sense that she just needed someone other than me to help her stay organized," Barbara says. "Parental involvement was just not working-it was bad for her, and it was bad for us."
Administrators at her daughter's school referred Barbara to the Chicago Tutoring Consortium, an agency that matches tutors-many of them graduate students-with clients. "The first person they sent over was a young woman who was not only smart and organized, but just was a great fit for my daughter," Barbara says. "My daughter viewed her as young and cool-as opposed to old and stupid, which would be me."
Tutoring worked as an academic booster shot and as an alternative to family therapy. "My relationship with my daughter improved enormously as soon as school was taken out of the picture," says Barbara. "Now we fight about other things, like whether her bellybutton is showing. We didn't have time to worry about those things before."
Private practice Tutoring comes in three flavors these days: private practice, storefront "learning centers" (corporate-owned or franchised), and, for those brave enough to try it, online.
Although big, national chains such as Sylvan Learning Center and SCORE! seem to be everywhere-and they have been expanding dramatically in recent years-most tutoring still is done by individuals or small networks of tutors who have their own offices or come to work at your kitchen table. Newman, at Eduventures, estimates 80 percent of tutoring happens in private practice.
This category actually covers a wide variety of practices and prices. College and graduate students as well as other folks in search of a few extra dollars post flyers offering their expertise for prices starting at around $20 to $25 an hour. The grad students and other freelancers at the Chicago Tutoring Consortium charge $40 an hour. The most experienced tutors-including certified teachers picking up a little extra income-start at around $60 an hour and can charge $100 or more.
There are lots of ways to find a private tutor, and some experts recommend starting with your school for a referral. Or ask your friends. "People sort of know who's around," says Barbara, "although it's funny-it's like sharing your babysitter information. Sometimes you don't want to let people know; it's such a precious commodity."
And you can always try your luck with the Yellow Pages or the Internet, although with the Web, you have to know where to look. Googling the words "Chicago" and "tutor" pulls up more than 100,000 hits but surprisingly few useful results. Try the all-purpose online bulletin board Craig's List, which includes listings for "Lessons" at http://chicago.craigslist.org/lss. And www.tutornation.com acts as a kind of national Yellow Pages for tutors, who pay a fee to be listed on the site.
Learning centers Storefront "learning centers" such as Sylvan, Huntington Learning Center, Kumon North America and SCORE! have their own pricing schemes and setups. Sylvan, for instance, charges $43-$48 an hour; the required diagnostic test is another $185 upfront for the first subject, $95 for each additional subject. Sylvan offers a 3-to-1 student ratio, but a representative insists it's at least as good a deal as one-on-one tutoring; students spend much of the time working independently on exercises assigned by the tutor, who is ready to give them individual coaching as needed.
The most unusual setup may be the sports-themed SCORE!, which offers a "membership" in which $139 a month buys two one-hour visits a week-the bargain prices that attracted Rosemarie Williams, who has earned extra price breaks by referring friends to the service. Students work alone at computers, with a "coaching" staff circulating to anyone who raises a hand for help. Since the centers operate on a drop-in basis, the student-to-coach ratio varies, but regional director Matt Johnson says the average is around 5- to-1. SCORE! staff members say the hands-off approach promotes greater independence in students, and the computer programs, they say, are keyed to track each student's strengths and weaknesses.
The Internet Market expert Adam Newman of Eduventures thinks online tutoring at home is one of the few areas in the tutoring market that probably won't grow too much. "I think students may be comfortable with that environment," he says, "but parents who are providing the dollars may not be."
Most Internet-based tutoring companies sell their services to libraries and schools. Provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act that require poor-performing schools to offer access to tutoring services are opening up a gold mine for these companies. In theory, more than $2 billion a year in federal funds could go toward tutoring; in reality, school districts still are figuring out how to use those funds. Online providers are chasing those dollars. Chicago has $45 million in federal money to spend on tutoring next year, and four of its 27 tutoring vendors are online companies.
Still, some do market services directly to parents. These sites promise a "virtual classroom," including a chat connection and a virtual whiteboard, on which both the tutor and the student can draw, using the mouse.
At Tutor.com, parents can subscribe to "Live Homework Help," where $99.99 a month buys an unlimited number of sessions of up to 20 minutes each with whomever happens to be available. The low rates Tutor.com pays tutors raise a flag. ("Get paid up to $10 an hour," says tutor.com's recruitment Web page.) However, a corporate representative says many tutors "aren't really doing this for the money. They like the interaction with kids."
Tutor.com also acts as a clearinghouse for online tutors. The site offers connections to hundreds of tutors charging $20 and up, with most asking between $20 and $30 an hour. Browse by subject, then select from a list of tutors, who have written up their own profiles. This is buyer-beware territory, as noted in the fine print at the bottom of the intro page: "Tutor.com has no control over the quality, safety or legality of the online sessions." If you have a problem, the site says, take it up with the tutor.
Brainfuse.com sells online tutoring for $35 an hour for prearranged sessions, or on a drop-in/unlimited access basis. All tutors are employees of Brainfuse, which requires a college degree, a criminal background check and an online "audition," says director Francesco Lecciso.
The tutors come from around the country, and Lecciso doesn't rule out recruiting them from still farther away.
A Sylvan affiliate, e-sylvan.com, offers online tutoring for $37 to $41 per hour, less than the rates charged by storefront Sylvan centers, and Smarthinking.com runs a service with fewer offerings and a clunkier-looking interface than tutor.com or brainfuse. com. It charges $35 an hour or $120 for four hours.Dan Weissmann is a writer in Chicago and a frequent contributor to Chicago Parent.