For Nanette Vaughn, tutors have become like that proverbial bag of potato chips -- she can't stop at just one. When her son, Ryan, needed help prepping for a private-school admissions test, she reached out to a tutoring company called Club Z, which sent over Alan, a newly minted fifth-grade teacher Vaughn calls a "wonderful communicator." Later, when Ryan needed a leg up in math, Club Z dispatched a succession of "delightful" and "helpful" graduate students who, unfortunately for Vaughn, kept graduating. And when Ryan's sister, Olivia, needed intensive reading help, Vaughn drove her eight miles each way -- twice a week -- to a veteran special-ed teacher they learned about via word of mouth. "Loved that woman," says the Atlanta-based stay-at-home mom.
But the deeper Vaughn has dug into the tutor Doritos bag, the messier the crumbs have become. Lately, the instructors she has found through a Web-based tutor marketplace have been a lot more hit-or-miss. The family members adore their current tutors, who drilled Olivia for her own private-school entrance exam and helped Ryan boost his math grade from a D to a B. Still, to find those tutors e schools attended, degrees held and teaching-experience accrued. Part of her winnowing process? Ruling out any candidates whose resumes include typos, bad grammar or a "creepy" photo. "I like to think I have a pretty good judgment about who my children are going to be near," she says.
Shouldering more of the work hasn't reduced Vaughn's tutoring tab: She says she has spent close to $8,000 over the past few years, on top of two hefty private-school tuitions. And just when she thinks she has been fairly well-schooled in the ways of the tutoring world, she's reminded that it's nothing if not an ongoing education. After all, the family was pretty excited about a hip and personable young musician and former math major -- until he disappeared into thin air the night before Ryan's big test. "It's been an odyssey," Vaughn says.
Whether they're seeking remedial help for their child or a leg up to the Ivy League, millions of parents are encountering a frustrating new homework project of their own: learning the intricacies of the tutoring-industrial complex. The "supplemental education" sector is now an estimated $5 billion business, 10 times as large as it was in 2001, according to Michael Sandler, founder of education-research and consulting firm Eduventures. Tutoring firms no longer offer just subject-specific help in, say, Latin or chemistry; increasingly, they're marketing a dizzying menu of test prep, study skills, enrichment tutorials, scholastic summer camps and prekindergarten readiness programs. And students looking for late-night homework assistance now have the formerly unthinkable option of typing in Mom or Dad's credit card number and connecting -- in real time -- to an anonymous tutor halfway around the world via text, Skype and online "whiteboards."
It's all a far cry from the days when the best way to find a tutor was to ask other parents on the soccer sidelines or pull a tab off a grocery-store flier. The tutoring field is increasingly centralized (website WyzAnt boasts a stable of more than 38,000 tutors) and corporate (the top three firms alone collectively have nearly 2,500 franchised centers around the country). It's also ever more expensive: In certain elite circles, tutors charge as much as attorneys. For-profit tutoring companies even have their own lobbying arm, the Education Industry Association, that pushes for legislation, such as a pending bill that would let parents use pretax money for tutoring. And while other industries struggled through the downturn, the tutoring sector has grown more than 50 percent since 2008, according to Eduventures. "We're somewhat recession-resistant," says Joe Nativo, chief financial officer of Kumon Math and Reading Centers, a chain that says it has taught more than 4 million children worldwide.
It's no surprise parents will prioritize paying anywhere from $20 to $200 an hour for scholastic support. The need is certainly there: According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, some 15 to 20 percent of people in the U.S. population have a reading or language-based disability. And as the nation struggles to train a competitive, math- and science-savvy workforce, tutoring companies are getting ever better at playing to parents' fears about their children's ability to keep pace. (It's no coincidence that, come report card time, the "Face it! I'm not going to college!" TV ads ramp up.) Experts say the fastest-growing group of tutoring consumers is high school students, driven by cutthroat competition for college admission. "We have students making A's who want A-plusses," says Christina Lee, owner of Palo Alto, Calif. - based Stutors, a firm that only hires Stanford-educated teachers.
The Tutor Invasion
Franchised learning centers, boutique tutoring agencies, private regional firms -- the $5 billion U.S. tutoring industry covers the gamut. Click below for a sampling, from mammoth to minute.
A great tutor, of course, can make a crucial difference in a child's life -- not only in building skills for scholastic success but in fostering confidence. Yet without any federal or state regulation in place, the industry is on something of a learning curve of its own, especially now, as it increasingly moves from informal enterprise to big business. Critics say the methodology of the behemoth learning centers can be at odds with the individualized teaching that successful tutoring often requires. And even with the traditional one-on-one, kitchen-table tutoring, there's an inherent instability to a transient, part-time workforce heavy on college students and moonlighters. Indeed, according to the Better Business Bureau, complaints in the industry have risen 58 percent in the past three years. "There are billions of dollars at stake," says Edward E. Gordon, an education consultant and the author of The Tutoring Revolution, a summary of research in the field. "But in many ways, this is still a cottage industry."
The folks shelling out those billions, of course, are a nation of hand-wringing parents: "My child is a lousy test-taker." "She's falling behind in math." "He'll never get a scholarship without straight A's." And these days, more of them are taking their tutor quest to the Web, vetting instructors electronically the way singles sort would-be mates at online-dating sites. Want a blue-chip brand to do the winnowing for you? Test-prep giant Princeton Review quietly offers one-on-one tutoring services for a cool $115 to $425 an hour, depending on whether you choose "private," "master" (at least two years' experience) or "premier" (its most elite squad). Willing to roll the dice? Plenty of freelancers advertise calculus help and term-paper services in the Lessons & Tutoring section of Craigslist, in between pitches for blackjack classes and hair-braiding instruction. But the biggest concentration of solo operators now post detailed profiles on tutor-focused matchmaking portals that promise convenience and choice -- just type in your zip code and desired subject matter. Depending on your location, searches yield anywhere from a handful of instructors to several hundred.
How to Pick a Tutor
Two leading sites, Chicago-based WyzAnt.com and Tutorz.com, a California start-up, offer an eBay-like marketplace where tens of thousands of tutors are treated as independent contractors; instructors charge what they like (it ranges from $15 to $170 an hour) and pay the site a commission on every booking they make there. WyzAnt, for one, says that while it doesn't interview or train the instructors, it does put them through a few paces. Company CEO Andrew Geant says staffers manually review applications to screen out nonviable candidates, and the company certifies tutors by using online (multiple-choice) subject-proficiency tests. Plus, he says, clients have the option to buy an instant criminal background check ($8). Tutorz.com CEO Dirk Wagner says his company used to call references for each tutor who wanted to list on the site but that the method isn't cost-effective; now the firm monitors early e-mail interactions between tutors and students for keywords that indicate trustworthiness and professionalism, using algorithms to score the tutors accordingly. "We find our statistical methods are almost as good as manual screening," says Wagner.
Tutors x 2
While many parents and students easily find a suitable match, such a feast can have some sourbites. For starters, search engines can be glitchy, with results that range from disappointing (or earch for physics led to numerous tutors with a phys ed background) to disconcerting (photos of men, attached to profiles of "Heather" and "Lisa"). And mixed in with the certified teachers and Mensa members are some curious candidates, like Francis S., the Ph.D. in biochemistry whose profile is riddled with typos, or Candace T., who charges $45 an hour and offers instruction in a credibility-straining 70-plus subject areas, ranging from astronomy to phonics to music history. WyzAnt's Geant, for one, says tutor seekers can read reviews posted by other students and, of course, do further screening on their own. (Indeed, experts recommend getting at least two recommendations from previous clients.) And if the match is still a bust, he says, WyzAnt promises to refund the first hour with any new tutor.
Of course, there's another way to find a tutor on the Web, with no screening at all: instant online homework-help sites. These days, more than 1 million American students seek virtual assistance annually through companies like Tutor.com, which has provided Web-based instruction for a decade -- much of it offered through local public libraries -- and Tutorvista.com, an India-based company that says its business has more than doubled in the past year alone. When Crystal Cavalier's daughter Catherine started struggling in math, the self-described social-media lover and Army wife from Fort Bragg, N.C., says she was eager to give the faceless online tutors a try. (As a military family member, she can access Tutor.com for free; other folks can sign up for packages starting at $35 a month.) The fifth grader now logs on a few times a week -- sometimes on her computer, sometimes through a new app on Mom's iPod or iPad -- and interacts via chat screen and virtual whiteboard with a new tutor pretty much each time. Cavalier likes that tutors don't spoon-feed answers to Catherine and credits the site with helping Catherine raise her grade from a C to a B. And the new app is so convenient, Cavalier says, she's thinking of whipping it out next time they're at the doctor's office: "There's a lot of time when we're sitting and waiting, when she could be knocking off her homework."
A Tutor on Every Corner?
The fast-growing chain Kumon Math and Reading Centers has more than 26,000 franchise sites worldwide, including this one, among 39 in New York City.
Of course, not everyone gets the warm and fuzzies interacting with a whiteboard. And given the uncertainty of the private-tutor search, it's not surprising that many families would feel more comfortable turning to the big, recognizable brands of the tutoring industry. The country's nationally advertised "learning centers" were among the first to turn after-school teaching into a replicable business model, in the late 1970s, largely by adopting a franchise approach. Today there are nearly 50 franchised tutoring firms in the U.S., with the largest, Kumon Math and Reading Centers, boasting some 1,400 sites -- nearly as many as familiar chains like Popeye's and Denny's. Kumon says that after an enrollment jump of between 30 and 40 percent in major Northeast markets over the past five years, it hopes to grow another 25 to 30 percent in the region this year. "We want to keep pushing," says CFO Nativo.
The push at many chains starts with the first incoming phone call for help, during which concerned parents are usually encouraged to bring their child in for assessment tests (price range: $100 to $175). The chains say they use the tests to tailor an individualized program to every student. That typically involves a recommended total number of instruction hours -- Sylvan CEO Jeff Cohen says its average student stays in the program for six to eight months. Parents then get the bill, which can reach four or sometimes even five figures, minus "prepayment" discounts that encourage up-front cash payments. "When your kid is struggling in school and is crying every day," says Eileen Huntington, cofounder of Huntington Learning Center, "we're not really a luxury item." But while the average rate for big-chain tutoring ($45 to $60 an hour) is comparable to the average for one-on-one instruction, that kind of attention is actually rare; usually, three students share a tutor, who works with each of them intermittently, round-robin style.
Inside the Kumon center in the New York neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, behind a bright, big-windowed storefront on a busy street, at least half the room is devoted to small tables where preschoolers work in groups of three. In the other half, students (mostly elementary school -- age) sit independently, some squinting intently at their work, others visibly using fingers to calculate, and a few doodling and distracted until a teacher roams by. Kids bring finished work sheets to the grading desk, where teachers check work and offer feedback. The idea is not for Kumon students to be "tutored" per se but to "self-propel" through the material, says center director Naomi Suzuki, pointing to a wall of cubbyholes brimming with neatly stacked newsprint work sheets.
Kumon students are encouraged to stick with the program until they're "completers." On the math side, that involves mastering 200 drill sheets in each of the curriculum's 21 levels, starting with two plus two and ending in calculus. It's a rigorous undertaking that Nativo says can require five years and relies almost exclusively on old-fashioned repetition and memorization -- all under the gun of a timer. Mike Zenanko, director of a respected tutor-training program at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, calls such a curriculum "one size fits all," while other critics use phrases like "mind-numbing" and "kill 'em and drill 'em." Suzuki says the system builds focus and stamina, and that the program achieves customization by allowing students to work through the material at their own speed. Still, the number of students who "complete" hovers around 1 percent, says Nativo.
Indeed, many chains incentivize kids to slog through their work sheets by rewarding them with redeemable points or tokens for everything from on-time arrival to work completion. At Sylvan, for one, franchisees say it behooves them to keep their Sylvan Store well stocked so students can aspire to win prizes ranging from rubber-band bracelets to program-branded soccer balls. Retention matters to the franchises, because the niche is highly competitive. Franchisees say their monthly nut includes not just rent, labor and utilities, but also hefty fees to their parent company to cover everything from national advertising and call-center help to royalties, sales leads and materials (depending on the chain). Critics say such constant cash-flow pressures can filter down to families and translate into longer-than-necessary programs. When Suze Loeffler of Riverside, Calif., signed her son Brenton up at a local Sylvan, the insurance-company manager says, the rep recommended an intensive program -- four days a week -- for a total of almost 130 hours in math and 85 hours in reading (nearly $5,000, with the up-front-payment discount). The program, she says, made him "miserable," and after a month passed and Brenton's report card arrived -- with lower grades than when he started -- Loeffler pulled him out, just in time to invoke the one-month money-back guarantee. Dave Gladura, director of Sylvan's Riverside center, says many variables come into play when a student fails to improve, and he tries to manage parents' expectations about the speed of a student's progress. "Parents hear what they want to hear," he says. But he does say the center ran a few such money-back promotions to drum up business during the downturn.
To be sure, the big tutoring chains have plenty of successes, and quality varies from franchise to franchise. For its part, Kumon says 86 percent of its students reach grade level in math within a year and that 73 percent do so in reading. (Other chains declined to provide specifics.) But talk to experts like Gordon, the author who has written about educational best practices, and academic tutor trainers like Zenanko, and you start to hear the same mantra: Personal, one-on-one attention and customized teaching (not work sheet curricula) is the preferred way to help students deal with their academic challenges -- especially since many youngsters need help and encouragement just learning how to learn. It's a point of view embraced and promoted by veteran small-shop operators like Jim Giovannini, owner of Chicago-based Academic Tutoring Centers, who say they do the same job the chains do, only better and in far less time, since their overhead doesn't include things like franchise royalties and national advertising. "We can usually raise grade levels with one-on-one tutoring in 30 to 40 hours," says Giovannini, who has been in business nearly 20 years and whose centers serve some 2,000 students annually.
Small firms like Giovannini's still represent the lion's share of the tutoring industry. No organization counts just how many such firms are out there, but the field has seen a huge influx over the past decade -- first when the education-reform program No Child Left Behind set off a gold rush of new players vying for lucrative government contracts and more recently with the down economy, when laid-off professionals saw it as an easy plan B. To parents, of course, they can all start to look very similar, very fast. (Notice how many have the words Ivy or A+ in their name?) Almost all have websites featuring generic-looking pictures of smiling children holding pencils, looking up gratefully at a benevolent adult -- along with testimonials from relieved parents about how Johnny's grades or test scores made a miraculous jump. Insiders say the federal government isn't much help, with no regulation beyond standard health and safety rules. A few small industry groups offer individual certification programs, but those credentials, experts say, carry little, if any, weight. For its part, the Education Industry Association has just launched a partnership with a third-party accreditation program; Steve Pines, the association's executive director, says it will help separate the wheat from the chaff. After all, he says, "do you want to hire a company that doesn't have cash in the bank?"
Cash in the bank is one measure; decades of expertise is another. One of the few tutoring programs in the nation that already holds school-level accreditation is the Learning Disabilities Clinic in Oak Park, Mich., a 43-year-old center specifically created to address the learning differences that bring so many kids into tutoring in the first place. In addition to all staff members boasting master's degrees and teacher certifications, founder Lynne Master points out, it offers details like specially designed teaching spaces. No noisy, wide-open rooms with lots of tables here; instead, it's one tutor, one kid, one room. The clinic has special lighting for kids with migraines, walking paths for students with attention deficit disorder and glass walls for those with claustrophobia. Dexter and Vanita Hicks, whose daughter Mya has been classified with a learning disability, lived through their daughter's crying, struggling and dread over reading. After enrolling her in Sylvan for six months and seeing no progress, they came to the Learning Disabilities Clinic, where Mya began working one-on-one with a specialist. Now her grades are all A's and B's, and her school is preparing to remove her special-ed classification. Mya's favorite new activity? Curling up with her new Nook electronic reader.
Small firms with no branded curriculum tend to have wide flexibility in catering to high achievers as well. At Stutors in Palo Alto, Calif., where the hourly rate averages about $90, director Christina Lee says one fifth-grade client is working on a tutorial in astrophysics. When he meets with his tutor, a Stanford biophysics major, Lee says, they discuss the latest articles in academic journals and fill a chalkboard with gnarly equations. (Their current project is a presentation on black holes.) Lee says her firm winnows down the 80 Stanford students who apply each year for 15 tutor slots. Not only does she verify credentials, but each prospect is required to write an essay about their educational strengths and teach her a one-hour sample lesson; she also screens candidates for traits like leadership skills. Client Karen Brunett of Palo Alto, for one, sees the difference. The retired tech executive says she has had tutors come to the house over the years, including one "older gentleman with ailments," and her kids could never really relate. Now her son's favorite tutor is Taylor -- and not only because she's a great writer who helped him bring up his SAT II scores by more than 100 points. The tutor also happens to be a former Stanford "Dollie," who danced at the university's sporting events, says Brunett. "She's very encouraging and motivating. It's that something extra."
Ironically enough, for all the money and time families are spending on highly specialized tutors, some families need something much simpler. Some firms now offer "homework helpers" who, for an average of $20 to $50 an hour, will sit with a distractible child when, say, both parents are working, to make sure he doesn't gravitate to Facebook before finishing his fractions and maybe help him get unstuck from a confusing problem. Wendy Massey says her son, Jackson, was in third grade when she realized her own "high-strung" personality wasn't helpful to his homework process. ("When he listens to Mom, it just turns to white noise," she says.) Massey contracted for homework support twice a week from Clarity Learning, a private-tutoring company in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. -- to the tune of about $350 a month. "It's serenity in the home now," says the small-business owner, who's usually right there preparing dinner when the tutor comes. "And the job gets done."