What does tutoring tell us?

26 Oct

Disclaimer: I like research. Not because it tells us any absolute truth about the world, but because it gives us another point of reference for our own experiences and allows us to explore whether there’s a connection between my “I” statement and yours. All too often, I’ve observed students spiking their “I” statements into discussions, like so many fence posts that end up isolating one student from another, each the “I” emperor of their own intellectual domain. And when things get heated, they start hucking their “I” statements through the air like javelins, trying to impale their peers with their own sharp-pointed (and teacher-sanctioned) personal truths. Obviously, this common ground rule for communication has its limits. So I like to suggest that while speaking from the “I” is a useful tool, it’s also handy to learn how to refer to the “they” (cited outside sources) and listen from the “we.”

All this said, I have no research for this post. It is purely based on personal observation and wonderings. And while more vigorous googling might provide some relevant research to expand and stabilize the foundation for this musing on tutoring, maybe it is enough to note the absence of readily available research. I wonder what we don’t really want to know more about…

To our topic: tutoring. When I was teaching in the public and then private sectors, I had no idea how much tutoring was happening outside of school, during my students’ evenings, weekends and even breaks.

I still don’t really know. However, here are some anecdotal observations of tutoring in the SF Bay Area independent school community:

  • Many of the students and families who worked with me as a private tutor shared their tutoring experiences and resources with their friends, like they would share summer camp or soccer team information. When I was tutoring, I didn’t have to market my services or look for clients. It was all referral-generated, and not just by the parents. I believe I had middle schoolers recommend me directly to their friends (which generally led to very confusing texts from “iheartvb@gmail” or “fozzybear4005@gmail” in which the question “do u have time 2 meet?” would invariably pop up without any identifying or other contextual information.
  • Over half of the students with whom I worked saw other tutors as well. (If you throw in test prep as a form of tutoring, I would up that estimate to 90% of my students.) My bailiwick was writing, with a secondary focus in general organization and study skills. So in addition to an hour or more a week with me, many of my students would be putting time in with a math, science and/or world language tutor. For some of these students, tutoring was the equivalent of taking an additional class. If they could get academic credit for the hours they spent with tutors, they might just graduate from high school a year early.
  • Not all tutoring is private and for fee. Many schools have established relationships with community-based, non-profit programs (SMART, A Better Chance, Aim High, Breakthrough San Francisco, Making Waves) that provide academic support after school, on weekends and even over the summer for students whose families can’t afford or don’t know about private tutoring options. And then there is “tutorial,” which is the designated time built into many school schedules during which students can seek out their teachers for one-to-one assistance. While often not a formal or intensive relationship (although some teachers do ask particular students to check in regularly), this is another common form of tutoring. So when we talk about the volume of tutoring happening in independent schools, we need to consider the diversity of sources and forms that tutoring may take: whether a family pays for it or not, we’re talking about time outside of regular classroom hours that a student invests in working one-on-one or in small groups with an academic mentor.
  • Not surprisingly, many schools have or are discussing policies about private tutors working with students on campus (whether it can happen, and then if it’s approved, where and when tutors can meet students).

So while I have no formal data or research about the scale and scope of tutoring in the Bay Area to base this on, I have a hypothesis: tutoring is epidemic in SF Bay Area independent schools.

OK, maybe that wording is sensationalistic. Let me rephrase: there’s a lot of tutoring going on in Bay Area independent schools. This makes me wonder: what does tutoring tell us about what and how we’re teaching? Are we assuming kids already have some knowledge and skills, and not checking in with them individually to assess what they actually know? Are we not providing authentic means of feedback for students to tell us they actually don’t understand what we think we’ve just taught them? And even when we teach a skill like essay writing, are we expecting a level of performance beyond what a novice can reasonably demonstrate (thereby creating a “need” to get tutored)?

And let’s not assume it’s all about what teachers are doing in their classrooms: is the culture of academic competition and college admissions anxiety driving students and families to invest more and more time in tutoring in an attempt to guarantee academic excellence? (I have tutored students who were exceptionally strong writers, who very specifically wanted to get higher A’s on their assignments.) Has tutoring become a new norm, so that if you’re not getting tutored, you’re weird?

I think these are questions for schools to answer, starting with getting accurate snapshots of tutoring within their student bodies:

  • How many students are getting tutored?
  • How much time are students investing in tutoring? And what’s the ratio of tutored time compare with independent study/homework time?
  • Are there any trends in tutoring (ex. if you get tutored in one subject, you’re more likely to get tutored in many subjects; most students getting tutored are in “advanced” classes; or writing is the overwhelming tutoring investment for families, with more students getting tutoring for several years in this area than for any other skill or subject)?

With a sense of what kinds and how much tutoring is happening on and beyond campus, schools can ask exploratory questions about what they teach and how, and what they believe is best for kids (how much homework is helpful, how much free or play time they need and how critical diversified instruction is for effective learning and teaching). And I think the time has come to acknowledge the other faculty who work indirectly for and with schools. Because it does seem–even without the statistics to back this us–that tutoring is no longer the exception, but the K-12 norm.

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