Why So Many Parents Are Seeking Extra Academic Help for Their Kids

By Judy Molland

Tutoring is now a $4 billion a year industry in the United States, serving kids who are struggling with a particular subject, as well as those seeking an academic edge over their peers.

Jared Lloyd was having trouble with reading, specifically letter recognition and retention. He began seeing a tutor twice a week for help. As a result, his mother says, Jared's reading ability, confidence and self-esteem have all improved.

Jared is 6 years old.

When today's parents and grandparents struggled academically in their own childhoods, many simply stayed after school for extra help from the teacher. Those whose families were able to afford it went to private tutors - often to ensure success at a prestigious private school or admission to an elite college.

But tutoring is no longer a special privilege of the wealthy. And it's not solely reserved for older kids at risk of academic failure. Tutoring is now a $4 billion a year industry in the United States, serving children as young as 2 or 3; kids who need temporary help with a complex subject; and, increasingly, families who see it as a way to give their children an academic edge over their peers in a competitive world.

While there are no reliable figures for private tutors, the visible explosion of brand-name tutoring and after-school learning centers in the past decade is revealing.

High Stakes, High Anxiety

Many educators believe that today's widespread use of tutors is due to parents' anxiety about their children's success. The nation's obsession with education reform, academic achievement and standardized test scores, combined with an increasingly competitive college admissions process, has prompted parents from all walks of life to consider tutoring for their children.

"The difference now is the fear that the stakes have risen with respect to college admission, and this has motivated parents to start preparing their children very early," says Henry Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teacher's College in New York.

Lihuei Wei, a tutor for Kumon, agrees. She often hears from parents anxious to give their child an extra push. "They want their child to get the individualized attention and test prep that he rarely can in a classroom of 30 students," Wei says.

Sometimes parents see the need to address a child's shortcomings in a specific academic subject.

"We got a math tutor for Sean, my eighth-grader, when his algebra grade dropped to a D," says Denise Ricco. "Now it's up to a B, but more importantly, he's been motivated to succeed."

Other parents speak of getting help for a child struggling with more general issues, such as reading comprehension or writing skills.

Mark Jackson, a senior analyst at Eduventures, a marketing research firm that explores the business aspects of education, believes the rising demand for tutors may also be driven by frequent news reports on education reform, failing schools and the sense that schools are not providing everything that's needed.

Most educators, overwhelmed by the demands of the classroom, welcome the support of tutors. Teachers recognize that one-on-one tutoring is often the most effective means of intervention on behalf of a struggling student. Indeed, many schools have created their own tutoring centers, often staffed by parents and community volunteers who help children free of charge.

What to Expect from a Tutor

"Tutoring at its best is a great intervention, the best one we have," says Columbia's Levin. It works well when the student is highly motivated and has a competent tutor with successful experience. The best tutors will assess a student carefully in terms of strengths and weaknesses, design an approach that builds on this knowledge, and evaluate the student's progress to see where more attention is needed, he says.

Foreign language tutor Maria Shire cautions parents against looking for a quick fix for a child. "Working with a student once a week for a month is not going to turn things around," she says.

Edward Gordon, author of Tutor Quest, a guide to how to select the right tutor for your child, recommends hour-long, bi- or tri-weekly tutoring sessions for at least three months.

Tutoring Options

Educators also caution against tutors who help their clients too much. Tutors should help students, not do the work for them.

What are your tutoring options? First seek out any no-cost tutoring services within your child's school. Beyond that:

  • oPrivate tutors are still the most popular choice. Working face-to-face, tutor and child can develop a strong personal relationship. As tutor Sandy Bergan says, "I love to tutor, particularly because I like the one-to-one, and the challenge of discovering what works for each child."

Expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $80 an hour, depending on the education and experience of the tutor.

  • Tutoring centers, such as Sylvan and Kumon, generally assess children using objective tests, and then develop an individualized program for each child. At Kumon centers, children attend twice a week, but also work at home the other three days. Prices vary, with an average fee of $100 per month, per subject.

  • Online tutoring has grown tremendously in the past few years. For eighth-grader Amita Achutuni, it makes perfect sense. "I come home from school, log on to my computer, talk to my tutor, and we work out my algebra problems on an electronic white board," she says.

The fact that her tutor, Lekha Kamalasan, is 8,500 miles away in India, doesn't bother Amita. And, at an average cost of $20 an hour, tutoring online is also generally cheaper than tutoring in person.

Free Tutoring Under No Child Left Behind

The federal education reform law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has provided another boost to the tutoring industry. Under this act, low-income schools that have not met academic performance targets for three consecutive years are required to provide free tutoring, or "supplemental educational services," to their students. Ironically, a report released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2007 found that, at that time, only 17 percent of eligible students nationwide had actually signed up for this free, available tutoring.

Find out if your child is eligible for these services by checking in with your school's administration.

The Future

Is all this tutoring a good thing, especially for the very youngest of kids? Siema Zia, mother of 4-year-old Kamran, believes it is but notes the importance of balance: "We sought out a tutor because we wanted to develop our son's confidence, but we also wanted to keep him excited about learning. That's so important."

Zia's trying to maintain a balance between getting the best possible education for her son, while also ensuring that he doesn't get turned off to structured learning, since he's starting so young.

With academic requirements and competition getting tougher every year, the increased use of tutors is probably inevitable, even while it raises questions about what parents should expect from their children's schools. It's still too early to predict the long-term effects of all this additional spending on tutoring kids, but educators, at least, are applauding the fact that more parents are taking an active role in their children's education.

See also: 9 Steps to Finding the Right Tutor


> - Offers several guides for parents on how to find the right help for their children, including tutoring.

>Tutor Quest, by Edward Gordon, Phi Delta Kappa Intl. Inc., 2002. Provides background information on tutoring and a handy checklist for parents to evaluate the tutoring market. - Provides a basic overview of the tutoring provision (supplemental educational services) of the federal No Child Left Behind education reform law.