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

By Irene Daria

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."

Does Your Child Need a Tutor?

Although many parents are hiring tutors for kids who are doing fine in school, experts say the best time to enlist help is when you see the following signs that your child is struggling:

  • She's behind her classmates in a skill she should have mastered in an earlier grade, such as spelling, grammar, basic math, or writing.
  • His grades start to fall even though he's working really hard.
  • Homework and projects are not complete or accurate, no matter how much time your child spends on them.
  • She says she's not good at a particular subject. "Preteens and teens are forming a solid sense of self," says Tracey Frazier, a teacher at the Springs School in Easthampton, New York, who tutors middle school children. As part of that process, kids start to examine what they're good at and begin to put more energy into developing their strengths. But they also tend to avoid perceived weaknesses, which can make performance in those areas even worse.
  • Your child's schoolwork is ruining your relationship with him. At about age 11, kids begin seeking more independence from their parents. That's why even if you know everything there is to know about a subject, your child will often resist your advice. "Preteens and teens often view what their parents have to say about schoolwork as interference," says Mitch Artman, a former middle school teacher who is now a tutor in New York City.

That's the problem Manhattan mom Mindy Garelick experienced with her 12-year-old, Ben. "Whenever I tried to correct a mistake on his homework, he would tell me I didn't know what I was talking about," she says. "Now that Ben has a tutor, we're no longer fighting all the time. He listens to his tutor in a way he never did with me."

When Tutoring Hurts

Some students may feel embarrassed about needing a tutor. If your child asks you not to tell anyone she is being tutored, respect her right to privacy. Take care not to hurt your child's self-esteem or make her feel as though she's bad at a whole subject by setting clear and specific tutoring goals, advises Barry Hoonan, a teacher in the Bainbridge Island School District in Washington State, who in 2005 was named outstanding middle school language arts teacher by the National Council of Teachers of English. "Once kids reach fifth and sixth grade, their sense of self is so important," he says. "They often come to the misguided notion that they are being tutored because they are stupid or because they are going to be dumb in math forever."

To avoid this problem, Hoonan advises parents to think small and tell their child exactly what skills the tutor will help her master. It's also important to stay positive. You might say something like, "I've noticed you've been struggling a bit with multiplying and dividing fractions. Let's get someone to help you really nail that skill." That way the child knows tutoring will not go on indefinitely.

"For a child to be able to target a particular outcome and get the results he wants is very fulfilling," says Hoonan. "It actually makes kids more enthusiastic learners." And experiencing success also makes a child more open to working with a tutor should a need for one arise again in the future.

In other cases parents hire tutors even though their children are doing well in school in order to gain an academic edge. That's fine, as long as your child wants to be a star, and doesn't complain about having to be tutored or say he's stressed by the extra study sessions. However, in recent years some parents have begun to expect children to perform at academic levels that are not age appropriate or that interfere with their ability to have a healthy, well-rounded life. "Parents want their children to know more, but knowing more doesn't necessarily make them smarter," says Susan J. Schwartz, clinical coordinator of the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at New York University Child Study Center. "Cramming kids' heads too full of information and not taking development into account will push and hurry a child — and potentially turn her off to learning."

To decide whether your child will benefit from tutoring that may propel him to the head of his class, follow his lead. Let him be the one to ask for a tutor or extra work in a particular subject. If your child doesn't request it, but you still feel you want to enrich his educational experience, make sure he will continue to have enough downtime for activities he enjoys, like sports, video games, or simply hanging out with his friends. Otherwise, you're putting your child at risk for academic burnout.

Hiring How-Tos

To find a great tutor, ask teachers, neighbors, and friends for recommendations. Also:

  • Make sure your child is with you when you interview the tutor. She should feel comfortable with whomever you hire. If the chemistry isn't there, the tutor won't be able to help.
  • Create a tutoring plan. Talk about the problems your child is having and ask the tutor what specific steps he will take to address those difficulties. Find out how your child's progress will be assessed, how success will be measured and what feedback will be provided to you.
  • Let your child's teacher know you're hiring a tutor. He or she will be able to give advice on what to focus on and how to best work with your child's curriculum. Most teachers also appreciate any feedback tutors can give them regarding the child's strengths and weaknesses, which will help them teach better.
  • Know when it's time to stop. Tutoring is expensive (from about $20 or more an hour in rural areas; $40 to $125 in big cities). Obviously, no parent wants to shell out that kind of money unnecessarily. So stop when your child has overcome the specific difficulties you hired the tutor to address, his grades have risen, and he's able to complete his course work independently.

Get Smart

Next time a homework assignment stumps your tween or teen, you can help her find the answers.

  • Google it! I can't tell you how many times my son and I have Googled questions like "How do you solve inequalities?" and been directed to Web sites that have the explanations we need.
  • Subscribe to edhelper.com. For $19.99 a year you can print out an unlimited number of K-8 worksheets in many different skill areas. For $39.98 a year, you get unlimited access to K-12 worksheets.

Check out edhelper.com

  • Ask Dr. Math. Perplexed by pi, prime numbers, or probability? Go to Drexel University's math forum, where hundreds of college math students answer kids' (and parents') math questions.

Check out the math forum

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.