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.