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Does Your Child Need a Tutor?

With more and more tweens and teens turning to tutors to succeed at school, will your child be left behind without one?
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The Tutoring Boom

At the beginning of my son's first year at an academically rigorous middle school, teachers -- unasked -- sent home a list of recommended tutors in every child's backpack. It was assumed the kids would have trouble keeping up with their heavy-duty assignments. (They did.) It was also assumed their parents would turn to tutors for help. (They did.)

Now an accepted -- even expected -- part of middle and high school education, tutoring has grown into a $4 billion dollar industry whose revenues have increased by 15 percent a year since 2001. And it will continue to expand, according to Eduventures, an educational market research firm in Boston. In fact, if you include freelance tutors, who are not tracked by companies like Eduventures, the business may grow by as much as 30 percent a year, says Sandi Ayaz, executive director of the National Tutoring Association.

Why It's So Common

Not long ago, needing a tutor was viewed as a stigma, a sign that a child couldn't keep up with his peers. Today parents are often surprised to learn how common tutoring is, even among kids who are already bringing home terrific report cards. What's fueling the boom?

An increased emphasis on state testing. The No Child Left Behind Act requires testing students every year in reading and math from grades three to eight. Schools receive public funding based on the results. The fourth- and seventh-grade scores from these exams are often used to determine whether a child gains admission to a selective public middle or high school, or whether a child is placed on a vocational or academic track at school. Therefore, many parents tap tutors to improve their child's performance.

These tests also affect what's happening in the classroom. Lessons are often taught at a frenetic pace as teachers cram in everything kids will need to know for their state exams. "Teachers are driven by a timeline," says Ayaz. "They rush to finish the curriculum even if it wears out everyone in the room." It's easy for a student to miss something, and a tutor can help fill in any gaps.

Higher expectations to know more at earlier ages. Because standardized tests are so important, schools start prepping kids for them sooner. As a result, many middle schoolers are doing what once was considered high school work, while many high schoolers are taking college-level courses.

More kids than before also feel compelled to enroll in advanced placement (AP) classes, some as early as ninth or tenth grade. "At every information session colleges tell you that when deciding whether to admit students, admissions officers look at how much the students have chosen to challenge themselves based on the curriculum offered in high school," says Susan Zuckerman, a child psychologist in White Plains, New York, whose daughter, Emily, was tutored throughout high school. "If you've taken only one or two advanced classes, it doesn't look very impressive." But to keep up with college-level AP work, students often need tutors.

Curriculum gaps. Some states no longer emphasize spelling or grammar since that knowledge is not required for state tests. As a result, middle school children may know the definition of SAT vocabulary words such as "perambulate" and "quiescent," but they don't know how to spell such basic words as "independence" or when to use commas or semicolons. Parents turn to tutors to help their kids bone up on these fundamentals.

Greater competition for college admissions. In 2005, 16.7 million students enrolled in colleges, a 1.2 million increase over five years ago, according to David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. That figure is expected to increase another 2.1 million by 2013. "Because the competition to get into a good college is fierce, many families turn to tutors to help boost grades and SAT scores," says Alexandra Robbins, who talked to hundreds of students and parents across the country for her book The Overachievers: The Secret Life of Driven Kids (Hyperion).

Plus, in some states, scholarships are directly linked to a student's SAT scores. "Cash is tied to test performance," says Ayaz. "When you're talking about spending money to pay for hours of tutoring versus four years of college, parents are going to front-load their investment so their child does better on the SAT and has a better shot at that scholarship money."