Why Top Students Hire Tutors
Who is teaching the students at high-performing high schools like Highland Park? It’s not who you think.
I had been managing pretty well during my kids’ 19 cumulative school years. I had even handled issues of Spanish grammar, relying only on my high school French. But, one night, when faced with proving that a quadrilateral is, in fact, a parallelogram, using the exact correct order of theorems and postulates, the memory bank was taxed.
“I need to study this for a while,” I told my daughter. “Do something else, meantime.”
By 1 am, I was confident that we had done it. We had not only done it, we had killed it. We had solved the proof of all proofs. After school the next day, I was informed that we had not. We had not even come close.
“What do you mean, not close?” I raged. “That’s ludicrous. We got the alternate interior angles, we got the CPCTC!”
“Not close, that’s what I mean,” my daughter said, adding, “I also found out that half the class has tutors.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I scoffed. I wasn’t hiring any tutor; I was a teacher myself, for crying out loud. We would persevere. I bought a guide encouraging us to “Ace Geometry the E-Z Way.” After a few weeks, realizing that the E-Z Way was a hoax, I gave in. Abandoned ship. Called for help. “Help,” I pleaded, to Tutor No. 1. Sorry, booked. “Help,” I begged to Tutor No. 2. Been filled since summer. By No. 4, we finally reeled one in.
Stunned by the demand, I decided to do what I do best, and started asking questions.
At 3:35 pm, teenagers stream from the student entrance on Westchester Avenue, moving determinedly. There is no loitering at Highland Park High School, and by 3:42, the place has cleared out. For most kids, this is when the work begins.
The school routinely ranks among the top open-enrollment high schools in the country, and it is hardly shy about its gleaming reputation. But what isn’t clear is who should be taking credit. According to a 2011 study conducted by Highland Park ISD, 64 percent of surveyed parents said their high school kids used a private tutor or after-school coaching in the classroom. Seventy-seven percent of these students needed help in math, 65 percent in science, 27 percent for other courses (foreign languages, economics, psychology, and other electives). The motivation? To catch up, 53 percent. To gain a competitive advantage, 14 percent. To do both, 33.
Private instruction is no longer reserved for SAT and ACT test preparation, an investment that parents in many school districts expect to have to make come junior year. “When we first launched our company in early 2009, 100 percent of our business was test preparation,” says James Denke, executive director of an in-home tutoring company called the Waterton Group. “A year later, subject tutoring accounted for 20 percent. I’ve had three requests in the last week.”
Says one middle-school teacher who tutors high school kids, “Getting extra help is the norm now. Everybody’s doing it.”
Everybody, it would seem, really is everybody. Used to be, kids who struggled with certain subjects would find outside instruction, accounting for a small percentage of a given class. The rest would tap the teacher, as needed, if there was something they didn’t understand. Now students of all academic levels work consistently with tutors, often several, at hourly rates of $100 to $200.
“I know someone with four tutors,” says a Highland Park High School senior. “She does her homework with them every day.”
The broad sweep of kids, smart kids who, in the past, have done just fine on their own, find that they need to supplement what schools are teaching, just to pass. And the top tier vying for the 4.7 GPA instead of the 4.0 are paying for the extra edge.
“It’s not who you think. Valedictorians are getting tutors to keep their standing,” says Marilyn Kaufman, president of Plano-based College Admission Consultants, former teacher, and Princeton Review board member.
“If you pick out any one math class, more than half of the kids have tutors on a regular basis,” says one math tutor who asked that I not
use her real name. Call her Beth James. She’s a former teacher and now has 25 private students. “Someone is filling in the gaps with them. And that’s where I come in. I wouldn’t have a job if teachers did theirs.”
The trend is not restricted to Highland Park. In other districts that boast high-performing students and enviable college acceptance records—particularly Plano and Southlake—large numbers of kids camp out at their dining room tables after school, after sports practice, on weekends, waiting for reinforcement.
“It is rampant,” says Deidra Mulloy, registrar at Southlake Carroll Senior High School.
Private tutors in these pristine parts are saviors, life vests in a tsunami of expectation. And they are booked solid, often before the start of the school year.
“I leave my house at 3 and don’t return before 10,” James says.
Another has enough business to rent space in Snider Plaza. “I run classes after school until 10 at night,” she says. “I have two kids of my own whom I never see. I tutor college kids during the day, and I don’t have time for an interview.”
Just what is, or isn’t, going on in class? Critics point to an inflexible curriculum that is too advanced for all but the top 10 percent of kids, combined with a pace that prevents complete comprehension, internalization, and application of material. Add to this an inordinate amount of testing (e.g., a unit test plus three quizzes every two weeks, multiplied by five classes, equaling 20 evaluations for every 10 days of school), and the result is panic, cramming, memorization, and crazed phone calls to tutors at the 11th hour. According to James, pre-Advanced Placement courses (which many kids take to weight their grade point averages) often approach college level, though the majority of students, at 14 and 15, simply do not have the sophistication to be working so far ahead. And for what purpose, other than to bolster the reputation of the school? National rankings are tallied by number of AP courses taken, number of points scored on AP exams, and graduation and college matriculation rates. Bs at Highland Park, James says, translate into As most everywhere
“The attitude is, if you don’t get it, you don’t test well, too bad,” James says. “It’s about being prestigious, about the awards.” The irony is, many students switch out of pre-AP classes because they are just too difficult. Ninth-grade pre-AP biology, for instance, uses material from a college-level text. Ninth-grade pre-AP world geography assigns articles from an upper-level course at the University of Washington. This year, one pre-AP geometry class lost about 50 percent of its students by second semester.
“I understand that in pre-AP classes they want the students to be the best,” says Ingrid Reeves, a mother whose family moved from Frisco to Highland Park. “But, man, they just go too rapidly. There is not enough time to grasp concepts, and attention is not given one on one. It’s like they’re waiting for kids to drop out.” Reeves says her son was flying through math in Frisco. After three weeks at HP, she was spending $200 per month for tutoring. “I felt guilty knowing that my son could do this work and contemplated removing him from this level. I would do without cable or a gym membership, if I had to.”
Though no one really likes to blame the people responsible for imparting knowledge to their children, particularly at a time when teachers, nationally, are losing jobs, bargaining rights, and status, educators in affluent school districts should be able to do better. “What makes the difference is always the teacher,” Kaufman says.
One Highland Park parent who asked not to be identified is a fourth-grade teacher in a neighboring district. We’ll call her Sara Smith. She says she does not contribute to Mad for Plaid, the district-wide fundraising campaign. She has to pay for tutors, instead. “Until they can give my kid an education, I won’t contribute,” she says. “I can fill half the cafeteria with parents who are just trying to get their kids to pass.”
Because they are handed the results of the school experience and earn their keep by fixing them, tutors have a certain perspective on where the problems lie. Many maintain that teachers feel pressed to get the material out according to a preset plan and move along, whether the kids understand it or not. What happens when information is presented too quickly is obvious. Material is left out. Reading is abandoned. The overarching concept, the main idea, is glossed over. Details are supreme, and are rendered detached on PowerPoint slides, without context or relevance. Students and willing parents are left to back up and re-create the lessons themselves, fast, before new information is dumped into the array, before the quiz, and before the test.
Then, after the test, when kids never do as well as they should because all they have done is memorize bullet points, teachers rarely, if ever, go over the tests, because that would be stealing valuable teaching time from the next onslaught. Worse, most don’t send the papers home for the kids to review on their own, for fear the precious exams will be passed along to future generations.
“It is stifling, not knowing what the student can correct and learn,” says Gina Sheets, a Spanish tutor who taught in Plano for 17 years. “If you need to hold on to a previous test so badly, you are not teaching well enough.”
Smith found that her fourth-graders didn’t know their math facts, though her curriculum required her to teach long division. She asked us to remove her name because she doesn’t want her employer to know that she is abandoning the curriculum. “We are taking our time and learning the facts,” she says. “Teachers usually don’t feel they have permission to do this, even though this is what the kids need.”
Based on how the brain works, physiologically and neurologically, this is exactly what kids need. “If you move on before you fully understand the material in front of you, that will increase the cognitive load of the next steps,” says Candice Mills, associate professor of psychology and director of the Think Lab at the University of Texas at Dallas. “There needs to be time to absorb, before the idea flits away, and to move beyond memorizing to connecting to things that you already know. This creates a strong foundation of knowledge, so there is benefit to spacing things out and giving the brain the chance.”
The schools encourage students to make use of the teacher tutorial time before or after school to have questions answered. The morning before one geometry test at Highland Park High School, one student says, 45 kids showed up. She had eight questions; one was addressed. Her mother hired a tutor.
“The vast majority of our high school students are also involved in extracurricular activities, leadership organizations, and student clubs. They have very full schedules,” says Helen Williams, HPISD’s director of communications. “If effective tutoring will help students earn a better grade and build a deeper understanding of the material, which in turn will allow them to earn a higher college entrance exam score, then it may be something the students and parents decide is worthwhile.”
James says parents should do more. They need to stage a revolution. “The kids are frustrated,” she says, “and they are being made to feel dumb. Parents need to speak up and say that their child is one of the 90 percent and is being cheated. It is an outrage.”
Pamela Gwyn Kripke is a former teacher and has two kids in Highland Park ISD schools. Write to email@example.com.