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Alex Mallory

Alex Mallory

Posted: March 16, 2011 01:01 PM

Tutoring Is a Dirty Word


In April, 2005, a Newsweek article entitled, "'Tutoring' Rich Kids Cost Me My Dreams," the author -- a disillusioned former tutor -- begins: "For three years, I was an academic prostitute. I ruined the curve for the honest and ensured that the wealthiest, and often stupidest, students earned the highest marks." From there, she tells a series of gag-reflex-inducing stories, detailing how she wrote papers for over-indulged college "students" who, as she slaved away, spent all of their time watching surfing competitions, taking drugs, and playing video games on enormous flat screen televisions.

When I choose to disclose that I run a private tutoring company, people want that kind of dirt. They want to hear about New York City's world of 'academic prostitution.' Even those with tact can't help but intimate that I operate within the corrupt underbelly of education. But after working in the business of tutoring for more than three and a half years, I have never encountered situations remotely close to those in the Newsweek article. And I have worked, directly and indirectly, with hundreds of families seeking help through private one-on-one tutoring. And dare I say it, that some are, indeed, wealthy. Some are even extremely wealthy. Still, the fantasy persists of Upper East Side students riding to Harvard on the coattails of tutors.

The idea that clever-enough tutors are able to do the lion's share of a student's work is sexy, but highly inaccurate. Although students write assignments at home that will be graded, they also, particularly in the first two years of high school, write essays in class at school without the assistance of a tutor. Consistent disparities between work produced at home and work produced at school will raise a red flag. And, even without the disparities, most of the time teachers can identify work done by someone other than the student (especially if it's by a professional). Students must also take math, science, and language exams in class by themselves and the same is true for the SAT, ACT, and SAT II subject tests. Therefore, spending huge sums of money on a tutor can never guarantee a straight-A transcript or top standardized test scores.

To be sure, students who can review school work in a one-on-one tutoring situation at home have an advantage, but without a great deal of effort from the student, the tutoring does little good. In the elite high schools, where most of this purportedly unethical tutoring takes place, exams are tough, really tough. They require that students not only be able to precisely recall a huge number of subject-specific terms and concepts, but also articulate the importance of those terms and concepts within a larger context. No teenager can absorb the minutia of photosynthesis, for example, and place it within the larger framework of earth as an open energy system while messaging friends on Facebook regardless of the "magic tutor" in the room. A tutor can offer a definite advantage, but only with the full participation of the student.