1. We don t have to stick to any educational standards.
For the class of 2013, Columbia University received 25,427 applicants and admitted 2,496; Princeton received 21,963 applications and admitted 2,209. To beat these odds, students increasingly are turning to tutoring and learning services, hoping for both academic support in high school and for help prepping for college-entrance exams. The problem: Unlike schools, which must meet federally-mandated (and in some cases state-mandated) standards, supplemental education companies are exempt .
That means that students can end up with either a well-educated and qualified tutor or a crummy one. What is a parent to do? Check references, says Lauren Verrilli, a San Francisco-based private tutor and educational mentor.
These can come from a favorite teacher at your child s school or from family or friends who recently enlisted a tutor for their child. Focus on credentials and experience. Whether you re considering an individual, private tutor or one who works for a learning center, ask for references. Ask past clients if their child s grades went up and if they show more interest in their school work, if the tutor was reliable, and if the tutor and child had a good rapport. Also, make sure the success stories involve the same subject your child needs help with, says Verrilli. A tutor could be great in math, but it doesn t mean they re good In English, she says.
2. Our tutor could be a stalker or worse.
Another problem that accompanies an unregulated industry is lack of oversight. Many tutoring services conduct background checks on the tutors before they can work with students. But not all do, at least not thoroughly.
Because background searches typically costs around $100 a person, some companies skip them to save money, says Lisa Jacobson, CEO of a tutoring and test-prep firm in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. (Jacobson says her company, Inspirica, contacts each applicant s references and checks for a criminal history). Parents should ask learning centers where they find tutors and if they do background checks; if tutors are certified teachers, that s also a good sign. In addition, parents who hire a private tutor for their child should first conduct their own background searches.
3. Our rates aren t always pinned to quality.
Costs for tutoring can vary wildly, depending on whether your child gets private or group tutoring, and if he or she receives it in-home or at a center. Individual tutoring can cost anywhere from $30 to $500 an hour, and the higher-end of the price range is charged for test prep, including the SAT and ACT, says Jacobson. In cities and surrounding areas, costs are generally higher, she says; for example, in Manhattan, tutors can charge $150 to $500 an hour for one-on-one sessions. Sometimes people think the more expensive the better, but you don t always get what you pay for, she says.
So how do you choose where to send your kid and how much to pay? Steven Shapiro, director of Pinnacle Learning Center, a Canton, Mass.-based tutoring company, suggests word-of-mouth recommendations. [It s] the best way to find a service you ll be happy with, says Shapiro. Talk to family, friends, a neighbor, or your child s teacher. As for pricing, tutoring isn t exactly a you get what you pay for market. Some people might buy into that, Shapiro says, but in reality, you re going to get some places that charge a whole lot and don t do a great job, and you re going to get places that are great for not a lot of money. When in doubt, go for the experienced teacher. Ask questions about their background, their qualifications to tutor a specific subject, and how many students they ve tutored on that subject. And make sure that you understand the company s pricing methodology beware of centers that require a minimum purchase up front, for example and cancellation policies.
4. Our guarantees are worthless.
If you re going to sink thousands of dollars into tutoring for your child, you re likely to want some assurance that it will pay off academically. Some companies seem happy to oblige. North American franchisor Sylvan Learning, offers the Sylvan Learning Guarantee that students will improve at least one full grade-level equivalent in beginning reading or basic math programs after 36 hours of instruction or families receive an additional 12 hours of instruction free. This is based upon the results of the initial and follow-up Sylvan Skills Assessments, says a spokeswoman. (The Sylvan s website, which also touts the guarantee, shows that not all centers have to participate.)
Guarantees and vague promises shouldn t carry too much weight. If a center says its median SAT score increase is 150 points, what that means is half the kids are below that and half are above, says Jacobson, CEO of Inspirica. But most parents just look at that 150 and expect that will be their child s final score.
A better way to measure success is to address specific goals, like improving studying habits, says Lynn Giese, president of the National Tutoring Association (NTA), which offers certification for tutors. Be cautious of guarantees, he says. Unfortunately, besides hearing previous customer experiences, it s hard to know whether or not a tutoring-services company s claims will come to fruition, so all that parents can do is evaluate where their child is at the moment they begin a tutoring session and the progress and skills they develop while in it. In addition, parents should be in contact with the tutor at least once a week, so that everybody understands where the child is at and if they re moving forward.
5. We award scholarships but we re not upfront about it.
Very few tutoring companies advertise that they offer financial aid or scholarships, but they do, says Inspirica s Jacobson. If you can t afford it, you should ask anyway. Each year, she says, Inspirica tutors volunteer at a variety of schools in New York, but the company also gives a 10% reduction discount for families that enroll in 45 hours of tutoring. Pinnacle also offers a 10% discount for students who receive eight or more tutoring sessions.
Not surprisingly, private tutors often offer even more room for discounts and negotiation. Parents strapped for cash should ask tutors if there s any room for negotiation on their prices. Verrilli, for example, says she s currently open to giving discounts, based on a client s ability to pay. Still, parents should be fair in their negotiations and respect that this is the tutor s business.
6. You ll pay up for an assessment, but it may not be worth it.
In most cases, a student s first day at a tutoring center will include assessment tests to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. These typically cost $150 to $200, says Giese, the president of the National Tutoring Association, and in most cases, they re not necessary. I wouldn t spend money on that. [Tutoring services] should work directly with the students to see what they need rather than parents paying for an assessment test, says Giese. It s a way they re getting money out of parents.
Instead, in some cases, parents can provide assessment information from their children s school, which can include results from similar state achievement tests. For younger students, it s often apparent to a child s parents or teachers where they lack skills in for example mathematic multiplication, and a special assessment test isn t needed to show that, he adds.
Learning centers say that the assessments are crucial to getting the full picture of the type of tutoring a student needs. For example, There are some state assessments that are absolutely mandated, but that doesn t bear directly on the SAT or ACT, says Matthew Pietrafetta, founder of Academic Approach, a tutoring-services company in Boston, Chicago, Northfield, Ill., and New York. They might be assessing to get a read on a student according to the curriculum in the school system, but that s not necessarily correlated with the SAT.
Sylvan says it conducts assessment tests, which average $150 to $175 in cost, to pinpoint a student s strengths and weaknesses before creating a personalized learning program for a child. The tutoring hours are determined by the individual skills gaps for that specific child, says a spokeswoman.
7. Junior needs help cramming for the SAT? Good luck.
Autumn and spring are the hot seasons for college-bound kids to take the SAT and ACT aptitude tests. But don t assume you can easily hire a tutor a few weeks or even a couple of months beforehand. Private tutors and test-prep centers book up long before test-taking crunch time.
Tutors get booked up early, but, reserving two years ahead of time is overkill. Instead, book a test tutor the way you do a summer camp at least three months in advance. Ideally, for SAT prep, parents should book tutoring sessions the summer following their sophomore year, so that the student starts prepping when they re juniors.
On the flip side, some parents bring their children for SAT prep as early as when they re in eighth grade, and many test prep centers will gladly take them in after all, it s money in their pockets. People call us when their children are in eighth and ninth grade it s not necessary, says Inspirica s Jacobson. Students have such a packed schedule because of all the state-mandated testing, and they re learning harder and harder material [in school]. By focusing on their school work and exams, students will naturally make enough progress and have more knowledge to get acquainted with the SAT when they re juniors.
8. We re not prepared to handle your child s learning disability.
Few tutoring centers are equipped to handle students with actual disabilities such as dyslexia or even mild developmental disorders, but parents may seek them out to help diagnose a child s learning disabilities and for coaching. While certain tutors may be adept at recognizing blocks in a child s learning process, it s not a tutor s place to diagnose a disability. If you suspect a problem exists, ask your pediatrician to refer you to a specialist.
Children who have already been diagnosed with a learning disability have distinct tutoring needs. Their parents should focus on finding a credentialed special-education teacher. If you are going through a tutoring-services company, ask the company if they actually have an academic tutor who s a learning specialist with degrees. If they do, ask the center for references from parents whose children have faced similar hurdles.
Families looking for help for children with mild to severe learning disabilities or developmental issues should speak with their child s school counselor. He or she typically has contracted with a variety of learning specialists who have a Master s degree or PhD in special education or speech therapy, says Verrilli, who has worked with children with mild ADD and ADHD.
9. We promote small-group sessions, but one-to-one is best.
Many supplemental education centers specialize in small-group tutoring, where two to four students work with one tutor. That s not necessarily a bad thing: A group setting can allow for independent study time, and it can be a lot cheaper. At Pinnacle Learning Center, for example, private tutoring is $65 a session, while a semiprivate session, with two students per tutor, is $50.
But at some chain operations, economic factors outweigh individual attention, and your kid may not get his fair share of help or may just waste time listening to a tutor explain things she has already mastered. At Sylvan, the student-teacher ratio is typically 3-1 and children receive personalized instruction "to develop the skills, habits and attitudes needed for lifelong success," says a spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, one-on-one tutoring is more effective than group work because there s more prescriptive learning because that tutor understands what the student is struggling with and they can focus on the weak areas, says NTA s Giese. In comparison, a student in a group setting may sit through an hour of material he knows while the subject area he s not too familiar with is covered for a few minutes.
10. Online tutoring sessions don t compare to the classroom experience.
A new wave of tutoring is under way with companies beginning to offer online sessions. But remember, It s always better if you re in person even though people seem to be wowed by technology and education, says Jacobson, whose company does offer online services.
If the student is determined to stick with the Internet, he or she should meet with the tutor in person first so that the tutor can get acquainted with their learning style. Also, make sure the tutor will be available by phone throughout the sessions, and check if the online classes will involve interactive features. Otherwise, the tutor becomes a disembodied head, says Jacobson.
One reason why students may consider the online route is because it s often cheaper, says Giese. But buyer beware, if you go cheap, you might pay more later, he says, explaining that some companies enlist tutors who are overseas in countries like India and aren't familiar with the learning process of American students.