Summer 2008

Kicking the Tutoring Habit

By Wendy Mogel

In the early 1930s, when my father was in elementary school in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, all students were given a singing test at the beginning of the school year. Each student was then placed in one of three groups: sopranos, altos, and listeners. The duties of the listeners? Learn the words to all the songs, attend all performances, and mouth silently.

When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, the kindergarten curriculum had modest goals: teach the students to get along with their neighbors, to line up quietly for recess, and to learn the pledge. For a special craft project, we made ashtrays out of clay for our parents.

As today’s middle schoolers frequently remind their parents, “Times have so changed.” Try that singing test now and you would find parents picketing outside of school with signs reading: “Perfect pitch is relative”; “Solo parts discriminate”; “This school damages self-esteem.” And while the ashtrays might shock, the bigger complaint would be about a kindergarten curriculum lacking in both rigor and daily phonics homework thereby placing the children at a disadvantage for the verbal portions of the SAT right at the start.

Expectations of equal treatment of every student and of early, sustained, measurable, high-academic performance in every area drive both administrative decisions and parents’ behavior. We wish to see our students as filled with unlimited promise, but, as was always true, some children can sing and others can’t, some are ready to read in kindergarten and some aren’t, and some will never be good in specific subjects — for example, (dare I say it?) in math.

While we can provide encouragement and challenging learning opportunities, the possibility of students reaching their potential is up to them. But, more and more, parents are trying to fill in the blanks of talent — or predilection or drive — to insert whatever seems to be missing, to get the kids up to speed (or even faster) by hiring private tutors to help. This good-intentioned impulse has a cost, one that is becoming increasingly apparent in independent school communities.

The Habit of Tutoring for Enrichment

Tutoring for enrichment and learning enhancement (in contrast to needed, necessary, and school-supported tutoring) is seductive because it appears on the face of it such a wholesome and positive activity. It’s easy to justify. Parents can choose from the following menu. It’s a good idea to get my child some after-school tutoring since…

... she doesn’t like to spend time by herself and can’t be allowed outdoors without adult supervision, and I don’t want her to have a computer or video or television or any other sort of screen in front of her face all afternoon.

... she got a B minus in math and if she falls behind she’ll never catch up, and it’s so hard to get into the best secondary schools and colleges these days.

... when we had her tested we discovered that she had a “learning difference.” Clearly, this means she will always need extra help.

... I’m quite sure most of the other students are getting tutored, so she won’t be on a level playing field without extra help.

The educational philosophy of “if some is good, more is better” is compelling. Parents imagine tutoring is the norm for even the most able students, that if they don’t give their children an advantage, they will, in fact, be at a disadvantage. But more is not always best for our children — not for their acquisition of skills or for their pleasure in learning.

The Formula for Creating Lazy Learners

Yesterday, as I sat in session with yet another mother with a young child suffering from chronic constipation, I realized that it may be time to replace the old psychoanalytic view of the cause of this problem — the child is filled with repressed anger — with a new one: dependency-on-adults disorder. When loving, devoted, good-intentioned adults “overfunction” by assisting children with tasks they are capable of doing themselves, day and night, the children don’t develop the habit of paying attention to cues, for example the physical sensations that trigger the brain that it’s time to go to the toilet. The child’s thought process might be: Why bother? Going to the bathroom is too much trouble. I’ll just wait for someone else to take care of it.

Excuse the vividness of the metaphor here, but tutoring can cause learning constipation. If you know that your own private grown-up will show up at your house at exactly 4:30 PM; you don’t need to ask questions in class; you don’t have to listen too carefully to the directions for doing the homework; you don’t have to build up the confidence to raise your hand and say, “Ms. Cross, I don’t understand. Can you please explain that again?” You can wait and ask your tutor.

Other hidden costs of a steady diet of tutoring for enrichment include:

Loss of intrinsic motivation.
(I’m doing this work for them, not for myself.)

Loss of gratification and pride
(the kind that comes from figuring out how to meet learning and creative challenges on your own).

Lowered self-confidence.
(I must be pretty defective if my parents have to hire a high-priced specialist to come to our house.)

Development of the sense that academic achievement is urgent, of terribly great importance to the family.
(It must be very important for me to get a good grade if my parents have to hire a high-priced specialist to come to our house.)

Loss of time to do chores and participate as good family citizens who bring pride to their parents for more than their grades.

Unwittingly teaching children that problems can be solved quickly and neatly by spending money.

Psychologists have different ways of describing the dampening of intrinsic motivation and stick-to-it-iveness:

“Learned helplessness”
(No matter what I do, it won’t make much difference.)

“Cognitive dissonance”
(If my parents are paying me to work, my diligence is due to their investment, not to my own desire.)

“Shifting to an external locus of control”
(Success is not due to my effort or ability but to external factors.)

The Problem of the Heavily Staffed Child

A mother in one of my parenting classes described her role as a cross between a sherpa, a butler, a concierge, a talent agent, and the secret police. Many parents use “Web capture” technology to trace their children’s browsing and surfing history, to study their Facebook sites, and to read transcripts of their instant messages. Some of the children have housekeepers to pick up their clothes. Most travel to school in a carpool. And when we add yet another adult to the children’s retinue of handlers—the tutor—we risk increasing the children’s sense of dependency and helplessness and decreasing their privacy and personal time.

Tutoring is analogous to hand-feeding a maturing bird: it will be well fed, but dangerously dependent. With over-handled kids, the trouble usually comes when they get to college and suddenly have to forage for food (knowledge) on their own. They’ll be better prepared if they’ve developed the necessary skills (delay of frustration, tolerance of boredom, persistence, patience, control over feelings of anxiety, and ability to set priorities) before they go out into the world.

Unnecessary tutoring also leads to a loss of learning about the natural consequence of insufficient test preparation or hastily done assignments. This is similar to the problem of grade inflation. In both cases—the heavily tutored child and the child who attends a school where most grades are A’s and B’s — the student doesn’t have the opportunity to find out where he stands. As a result, he loses the automatic feedback mechanism of grades in relation to effort.

And then there’s the question of ethics and tutoring. Students from wealthier families can afford more tutoring than other students. If we pull back the curtain on this shadow economy, we see an increase in inequality. If school were the Olympics, the tutored participants might be eliminated for cheating.

The problem of “stealth tutoring,” in addition to the effects noted above, is that it can warp a child’s sense of what is ethical. What message do we send to children when we hire a tutor and tell the children to keep it a secret from the school? If the honor code of your school requires a student to write: “I have not given or received any unauthorized assistance with this assignment,” where does the tutor fit in? Is she an extension of the child’s “I” because she is hired by the parents?

In short, tutoring for enrichment causes practical, moral, and psychological problems. It can lead kids to feel like handicapped royalty instead of vigorous and engaged learners who are in the habit of advocating for themselves.

I don’t mean to suggest that children should never get support in school or at home. Certainly those with substantial learning difficulty in a particular subject (but not every subject) will benefit from appropriate help. And, at some point, all children need others to turn to for tips, to get them on the right track, or to simply listen as they work out problems for themselves. And I don’t mean to be critical of all tutors. I know that there are many worthy tutors who have the courage to coach rather than to cater. But if we can break the reflex of enlisting the help of a professional outsider at the first whiff of difficulty, many benefits await.

How can we, in schools, raise parental consciousness about the dangers of unneeded tutoring in a fashion that builds the parent-school partnership? The first step is to view parents’ behavior with empathy.

The Fear Factor

A school divided the fourth graders into math groups based on their skill. Indignant parents immediately called the head of the lower school: My child is not in the top group!... My child is, surprising as I find this to be, in the low group!... Had you simply let us know before you gave the placement test, we would have had him tutored!

It’s easy to mock this reaction, to see it as a lack of faith in the school, in its able teachers and wise administrators, and a lack of sophistication about what kids need in order to reach their potential in math, but it’s more useful to look at this reaction from the parents’ perspective.

Parental jitteriness about their children’s school achievement is fueled by a pervasive sense of unease about the future, a sense of scarce resources. We are aging (we have only 20 good years left!) The planet is melting (there are only 15 good years left!) The competition is daunting (there are only 10 good colleges!) What if my child is downwardly mobile (there are only five good jobs left!)?

When parents are overly fearful they reduce their thinking to simple but false dichotomies. There are only two positions for my child: ahead or behind. There are so many things I can’t do anything about, but there is one thing I can! My child’s grade in biology!

The first step is to raise parents’ awareness of these displaced and condensed fears.

The next step is to increase familiarity with alternatives to professional tutoring.

At School: It Takes a Village

Super radical old-fashioned idea: Encourage parents to encourage their child to see the teacher or turn to a friend for help. Asking a busy teacher for extra help is not as easy as relying on the tutor your mom hired, the one who comes to your house right after your milk and cookies (or red peppers, pita chips, and hummus), but it is a great habit to develop, one of huge advantage when the students are in college, perhaps even of more value than the higher grade on the quiz or paper yielded by the tutoring.

A friend can also help. In a wonderful November 1988 New York Times article on peer tutoring, the education writer Edward B. Fiske explains that much of the best learning comes from teaching yourself or teaching others. He points to the work of Diane Hedin, of the University of Minnesota, whose survey of the literature on peer tutoring found compelling evidence of the effectiveness for both tutor and tutee. The study showed “dramatic changes in self-confidence and self-image as well as higher motivation to learn and achieve.”

One effective treatment for fear of flying is to be seated next to a person more fearful. The biggest gains come to student tutors who are having academic difficulty themselves. Fiske points to a Harvard Graduate School of Education survey of the literature that found that “Some students have stopped studying because they don’t want to read ‘baby’ books or work on elementary math problems, but they can learn little from materials written at their grade level. Tutoring gives them an excuse to review the basics. It also forces them to think about how they learn and to break tasks into manageable bites.”

Consider having your fifth graders, especially the ones who are struggling, tutor the third graders¡­ or the fourth graders tutor the first graders. Be prepared with an explanation if parents say, “I’m not paying to have my child work!” or “That’s not what I’m spending my thousands of tuition dollars for.”

Yes, the school day is already crammed with activities and that we don’t want students missing time on the play yard or relaxed lunchtime socializing, but consider seeking a pocket of time, perhaps for just a few students, to slot in peer tutoring. Be creative. At the Park Tudor School (Indiana), students receive community service hours for helping others with academic work.

At Home: We Are Family

In most families, there are often untapped resources and knowledge to draw on. You can encourage parents to consider sibling tutors. They don’t have to travel to get to the house! Parents can barter with them for their services. If everyone can stay cool and not get touchy about the perceived delicate condition of the tutees self-esteem, it doesn’t matter who’s older or younger. What does matter is who understands the order of operations or Spanish verb tenses well enough to explain, or who is patient, or can make it fun. If bartering doesn’t appeal, parents can always pay.

Even though I’m a psychologist who is always trying to get over-involved parents out of the room, to get them to mind their business and let their child learn to solve his or her own problems, you might suggest that parents try pitching in by saying to them: I know you’re busy… and the math is hard and weird… and it’s been a really long time since you tackled meiosis versus mitosis… and your child says he doesn’t want your help but… if you can stay calm and, as they say in yoga class, take a few deep, cleansing breaths, you can try your hand at offering your child some coaching and support — and save so much money you can all go on a little vacation to celebrate.

A topic of my doctoral research was the effect of the medical school socialization process on male and female students’ attitudes towards patients. We found that during their training years, female students started out spending more time with their patients, listened more attentively, and expressed more personal warmth than the men did. By the end of their residencies, the differences and the extra time disappeared. Grab those new parents before they drink the Koolaid, get acculturated into the hypercompetitive cult, and lose their sense and perspective. Catch them early. Raise consciousness. Adam Rohdie, head of Greenwich Country Day (Connecticut) suggests encouraging parents to help their children without getting over-involved or over-controlling by conducting “how to help with homework” workshops for new parents. A teacher or resource specialist can put a problem on the board along with the wrong answer and ask the parents: “If your child comes to you asking for help with this problem, what would you do?” Effective strategies for supporting autonomous learning can be modeled and taught.

Parents can provide homework support, not through direct help, but by simply providing companionship. We have such an odd, heroic, individualistic culture. Tiny infant, we seem to say, find a way to fall asleep in your big, dark room, all by yourself, instead of in the long hut, in a hammock with your mommy and aunties and the whole tribe. And when you come home from school, do that work in your room all by yourself, no collaboration, no peeking out the door! No company!

Many independent school students live far apart from each other, isolated like princesses in towers. The evening hours can get long and lonely. When the children were smaller, the parents read them a story before bed. Now that the children are bigger with big homework responsibility, parents might sit beside them and read their own book, just to make a cozier scene. This isn’t coddling, it’s human contact. We are social animals.

You can also encourage parents to help protect their children from all the alluring, but anti-productive electronic distractions. Like a crow attracted to shiny objects, the children get sucked into the machines: YouTube or texting or Guitar Hero. When we require them to cut down on multi-tasking, efficiency increases.

The No-Tutor Solution

Another option is to let students pay the price for poor choices. Consider saying to parents: Don’t hire a tutor; let your child get a low grade. Give him or her an opportunity to learn about cause and effect. Make privileges contingent on bringing the grade up. Help him or her take ownership of his or her learning.

We should also fight expectations of perfection. No matter how high the tuition at your school, every child can’t have the most popular teacher. You can’t teach to every learning style, can’t provide for every aspect of the students’ academic, moral, and character education, can’t guarantee that every day or every week or even every year will be a great one for every student. And this is not a bad thing because it’s just like real life.

Just as your school isn’t perfect, the students will still fall somewhere in the middle of the normal curve, at least in some subjects. But parents’ quest for children’s achievement has become so engrained in children’s value system that when one mother responded to her fifth grader’s “C” in science with, “Well, you can’t be good in everything,” her son just stared at her, speechless. When we act as though the kids no longer have strengths, only weaknesses that can and must be remediated, we communicate unrealistic expectations of perfection. Tell parents to respond to some lower-than-hoped-for grades without panic. Encourage them to demonstrate that they value many varied attributes of their children, including non-academic traits like manners and kindness.

Tell parents not to put a stumbling block before the blind by sending their child to the most academically competitive school they can wedge the child into. When over-placed kids need near daily tutors, we are stealing their childhoods.

Pat Bassett, NAIS president, writes that good schools are countercultural. In a culture that values easy solutions and showy results over ethics and substance, tutoring for enhancement is a natural but highly costly choice. Opening up a dialogue with parents on this subject is an important countercultural exercise. So here’s a final suggestion: Start a chapter of TA (Tutoring Anonymous) that will allow parents to band together with others to resist overwhelming urges.

Hiring a tutor is an effort to make schoolwork and homework less onerous, less risky, less troublesome. And, while we don’t want to relegate any students to the sad calling of being “listeners” or to hold back the willing and eager kindergarten reader, we do want to be realistic and respectful and to give the children a chance to find their own rhythm, in their own time, using their own strengths.


June 4, 2008