Shadow education thrives in our communities. So why do some take the don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach?
By Jill Stewart Brigati
For the third year in a row, *Matt’s parents wrote a $26,000 check for their son’s private high-school education at Flint Hill School in Oakton. They have also been writing a check every week to their son’s math tutor and another one to his writing tutor since he was a freshman. It adds up to an additional $3,000 per year. They think the money is well spent. “My parents are fine with it,” shrugged the junior. “They just want me to be happy.” Matt is an honor-roll student who welcomes the extra help. “My parents can’t really help me with the math anyway,” he smiled.
Isn’t Tuition Enough?
Thousands of Northern Virginia parents supplement their children’s private-school educations with private tutors, a multibillion-dollar industry nationwide. Why? Some area school administrators and tutors are reticent to answer that question, but for the most part it is private school families who aren’t talking.
Education researchers say that families are hush-hush on this topic all over the world. Mark Bray, director of the Comparative Education Research Centre in Paris, published a 2006 study of the huge international private tutoring industry. He found that families hesitate to reveal the amount of tutoring they commission in part because they want to keep a competitive edge over their peers.
According to British journalist Jenni Russell, author of “The secret lessons,” there is “no official information on the extent of private tutoring, because it’s in nobody’s interest to collect it.” Russell said parents are often reluctant to admit they have hired tutors, and “schools would rather take the credit for their pupils’ results themselves.” However, she said, “The anecdotal evidence is sobering.”
Some educators think it is folly to believe that private school is all a student needs to excel. Fairfax tutor Jennifer McKain-Dausch said some private-school parents view tutoring as overkill, but “others understand that sometimes a neutral party is needed.” McKain-Dausch noted that even top students use her as a sounding board. “I work with one student who consistently earns grades in the A and B range [yet] he always wants me to review with him before a test … I help him sort through his ideas.” The former private-school teacher said tutoring addresses students’ needs the way nothing else can. “They feel they can be very open with me about their struggles.”
Learning therapist Julia Visconti in Washington, D.C., knows that even kids from the most highly regarded schools need after-school help from time to time. “Learning success depends on how subject matter is presented,” she said. Visconti explained that our brains work in such a way that the teacher must allow time for student inquiry and interaction to ensure learning. “This is how a student retains details of a concept,” she said. The parent of an area private-school freshman feels her son’s teachers are highly qualified, but “he’s a kid who needs to be exposed to challenging concepts more than once in order to get it.”
Tutors to Close the Gap
Debbie Danoff, a Metro math and college prep tutor, noted that parents are often willing to hire a tutor when they realize that their child’s curriculum is more challenging than what they have time, patience and or the skill set for. Not only is there more material to sort through, according to Danoff, but most of her private-school students are on the accelerated track.
“A senior who transferred from public to private in ninth grade told me that she still feels less prepared than her classmates” now that she has reached upper-level French, Danoff said. “There are ninth graders taking French IV with this girl.”
Danoff sees kids under pressure, sometimes self-imposed, to take “that honors or AP class rather than a truly grade-level option.” She believes that proper placement would reduce the need for supplemental help. “They can understand the work, but with the fast pace, they need reinforcement. So I have kids in between, but they still go into accelerated classes,” she said.
When rigorous curriculum requires brisk teaching, after-school tutors have the luxury of expanding upon classroom instruction. Matt said that although his teachers and his grades are top-notch, his two tutors provide a slower-paced home setting he likes.
“We’ll talk about more than just the unit we’re working on, and then when the class gets to it, I’ll be like, Oh, yeah. It clicks.”
Matt takes advantage of the school’s learning center, but sometimes he would rather use his study hall to work independently “or take a break once in awhile and talk to my friends.” The junior added that he’d rather “save” the tutors until after the school day ends to assist him in regaining focus. “They help me manage my time at home, which is where I need it more,” he said.
Tutors in the Shadows
At Wakefield School in The Plains, outside enrichment starts early. “Kumon [tutorial program] is a popular one,” said one mom. Her sixth-grader son gets straight As, but math has never been a strong suit. “He’s not going for remedial reasons. It’s just a good way to stay on top of things.”
She added that her younger son, a third grader, started attending the sessions “instead of just sitting in the car.” Several of her sons’ classmates are signed up, too, but their parents were not willing to talk about it.
There are even some tutors who prefer to keep their business under wraps. “They’re leery to discuss the topic because sometimes these are teachers from other schools supplementing their income,” a Purcellville college advisor explained. “They don’t want their administrators to find out.”
And some private schools have their own reasons for keeping stealthy on the subject. One area learning specialist remarked, “Some schools don’t want to be seen as a school that has kids with special needs or [as having a program] so hard that kids can’t get through it without a tutor. ‘None of our kids have learning issues.’ That’s the mindset.”
According to the parent of a recent graduate of McLean’s Madeira School, “If there’s an academic problem they’d rather take care of it [in-house].” The local mother said she also believes there is a common assumption among parents that “everything will be taken care of when you’re paying for it.”
Administrators at The Madeira School declined to comment on the subject.
Danoff noted that private schools are often more capable than public schools of addressing academic problems because of their smaller class sizes. “It’s easier for teachers to identify who’s slipping. The problem then becomes students are embarrassed if they have to take a step back.” She paused. “At that point, I’m helping them keep their heads above water.”
Tutors in the Spotlight
All students at Flint Hill School have a team of specialists watching whether they sink or swim. Nelson said she will point a struggling student toward a private tutor only after the team—which includes the student and parents—have done everything they can to help.
All students are offered extra-help sessions, blocks of time built into the day’s schedule to meet with classroom teachers, and qualified students can utilize the Learning Center, which offers assistance from counselors, coaches and the dean. When a student requires additional assistance, the school offers up names for outside help.
“We’re realistic; we have a very challenging program. We have kids who can handle it just fine with no support, and we have others who need support in a particular area.
“Because not everybody’s good at everything all of the time,” Nelson emphasized.
Flint Hill’s open-door policy with outside tutors serves their students well. “We see the kinds of kids we turn out—they’re great kids. And if they need a tutor, that doesn’t take away from how great they are in our minds,” Nelson said.
“They are all learners. They are learning about themselves just as they are learning academically,” she added. Her center’s mission is to help students figure out just what type of learners they are. “It’s always going to be different than the person next to you, and sometimes that means it’s with the help of a tutor.”
When private schools act as a resource for private tutoring it can be a winning combination.
A private-school 10th grader explained ticked off the reasons why he feels successful in school. “I feel like the school helps me, and so does the tutoring. It’s not one more than the other.”
A Culture of Support
Local private-school parents are part of a tutoring trend that has exploded in recent years. Sylvan Learning Center cites that five years ago there were a mere 250,000 tutors in the United States, whereas today there are two million.
Janice Aurini, a post-doctorate fellow at Harvard University, explained that the rise of tutoring is part of an expanding repertoire of parent-driven activities. “To paraphrase one of my interview subjects, ‘You put your kid in soccer, you put your kid in piano lessons, and now you put your kid in tutoring.’ It’s just one of the many things you do for your children,” she observed.
How you and your private school can help find the right tutor for your child
Credentials: There is no regulation in the tutoring industry, so buyer beware. Look for a tutor who has experience working directly with students in addition to checking his or her diploma. For students with learning disabilities, schools should only suggest tutors who are accredited specialists. Multiple references and a criminal background check are often required before a tutor can get on a recommendation list.
Curriculum: Education-industry analyst Steve Pines said familiarity with curriculum is a must. Since anyone who tacks up a sign at Safeway can wind up working with your child, make sure your tutor knows exactly what is being studied in class. Flint Hill’s Learning Center director Linnea Nelson explained: “It’s tough to get on our list. You have to have worked with a student here in order to get on.” She recommends many former faculty members and substitute teachers.
Keep watch: It’s hard for a private-school student to slip under the radar; usually there are regular team meetings to discuss each student’s progress. Many private schools also have learning centers that will help evaluate your child’s needs and suggest further testing, if necessary. But no one knows your kid is up until midnight doing homework on a regular basis unless you tell them.
Know your players: Matching personalities is just as important as credentials, Pines said. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of chemistry. Involve your child in finding the right match.” The school might suggest peer tutors as a more informal, money-saving option.
Choose a path: Does your student want a tutor for enrichment, reinforcement or remediation? Private schools have often already researched who the appropriate professionals are.
Select a timeframe: According to Visconti, your child will give you the cues. “If the tutor hasn’t sparked a fire within three months, it’s not going to happen,” she said.
Nelson pointed out that private schools’ main objective is embedded in many of their names. “They are preparatory schools. No one wants Junior moving back home at 22,” she laughed.
If that preparatory process involves a tutor, many Northern Virginia private-school students and their advocates are all for it. “We want to do everything we can to get the job done thoroughly now,” Nelson said.