No longer just for kids struggling in their studies, tutoring is a growth industry harnessing parents' spending power as they try to sharpen their straight-A students for picky private schools, prep them for SAT exams or make college application essays sing.
Lynn Giese, president of the National Tutoring Association, has witnessed the growth, with the government money infusion for tutors through the No Child Left Behind Act and parents' own motivation.
"I think people are realizing no matter if your child is getting an A or failing grade, tutoring is a very helpful thing to have and to use. If we are trying to improve students overall in all subjects or to learn better or more efficiently, tutoring is one method," he says.
TIPS ON CHOOSING A TUTOR
Despite the growth, however, tutoring remains an unregulated industry that requires no national licensing or certifications before a tutor hangs their shingle soliciting parents' business.
"It's kind of like buyer beware," says Giese, whose 17-year-old, 14,000-member tutoring association's mission focuses on certification and keeping tutoring standards high. "If parents are looking for tutors, they need to ask the right questions."
Tutoring done right does work
Of course, traditional reasons for using a tutor still exist. Many students need help with the basics, and parents are turning to tutors to help their children maintain grade-level studies.
Even though Karen and Dave Strell, white-collar workers for the state of Illinois, helped their 13-year-old daughter Phoebe with her homework, too often it turned stressful, sometimes ending in shouting.
"When she began math in elementary school," Karen says, "they didn't teach it the way we were taught when we were in school."
Because Karen's approach was different, Phoebe viewed her mother's method as "wrong." As a result, Karen says her daughter's frustration began to build and she fell behind in understanding fractions, multiplication and division.
"It gave her a lot of angst. She'd take her anger out on whoever was trying to help her," says Karen. "By the time she was going into fifth grade, we'd had enough."
Phoebe's story is not unique. She is a typical eighth-grader who likes to play basketball, participate in gymnastics and is involved in school activities.
"My study skills weren't great," admits Phoebe, who will attend Lyons Township High School next year.
Since she began working with a tutor four years ago, Phoebe says she has learned the importance of studying every day and taking responsibility for her homework. Now instead of boiling over with frustration, Phoebe says she understands math and is getting good grades.
Karen Strell says that once she and her husband decided a tutor was needed, they began searching the Internet to find a program that would best benefit, and fit, Phoebe. There were lots of options, from traditional classroom study to fully independent programs. What they settled on was Kumon, a method that's highly repetitious but allows students to progress at their own pace.
Phoebe visits Kumon's Willowbrook center twice a week, but she also spends 20-30 minutes every other day studying at home.
"Kumon has helped me so much in math class at school. Now my class is doing things I learned in Kumon math a while ago," says Phoebe.
Complement or competition?
Ron Conran, the Chicago branch manager for Kumon's 58 Chicago offices, says tutors usually find the students need a lot of remediation. "Our goal is to make school easier, so by the time they see something in school, they've already seen it with us."
Even so, not all of Kumon's efforts are appreciated by teachers. Conran says that while some see tutors as a complement to traditional education, many view tutors as competition.
For Henry Lane, the founder and owner of Tutoring Match and Tutoring Match Online in Fairfield, Conn., the goals are the same. He has 36 years of education experience in both public and private schools.
"In the last few years, learning has come to the forefront," says Lane. "Thanks to technology, we can do this online. We view what we do as enrichment and enhancement."
Eight months ago, Lane went nationwide with an online tutoring operation. While he has signed up tutors in the Chicago area, an online student from Chicago may have a tutor from California or Massachusetts who sign on as independent contractors. So far, the company has about 350 tutors.
For John Joyner, a retired manufacturing engineer who owns a Tutor Doctor franchise in Bolingbrook, tutoring can be the key to success.
"If I could have gotten better grades when I was in school, maybe I could have gotten into a better school," says Joyner. "One-on-one is the best way to learn."
He opened his office in October. "What I like about tutoring is the direct satisfaction you get from helping someone," says Joyner.
Extra help comes with a price
No matter the learning method, whether it's a national chain or a private tutor, it's going to cost money.
After asking what a tutor can do for their child, parents next want to know how much it's going to cost.
Conran says Kumon's fee varies, depending on the subject, but can range from $85 to $120 a month. Lane says in-home tutor costs for his company can be as much as $200, but online learning is considerably less, some as low as $20 an hour.
Joyner, meanwhile, says the cost of one-on-one tutors ranges from $35 to $45 an hour, depending on the subject.
Regardless of the tutor, most require parents to sign a contract, ranging from at least three months to a year or more.
It's worked for Phoebe. Her grades are up, her study habits have improved and she's much more disciplined and relaxed when she does her homework. Now that her study habits-and her attitude-have improved, Karen Strell says her daughter is well prepared for high school.
Rick Richards is a freelance writer and dad.