student success

The Hidden Costs of Our Tutoring Epidemic

There’s a tutoring epidemic. It goes beyond four-year-olds prepping to ace gifted and talented screenings, and teens cramming for the Specialized High School Admissions Test. Those exams are for accelerated programs and require going above and beyond what’s taught at the average public school. But thousands of students here in New York City are also getting outside help to prepare for the requisite English and math state tests, which are supposed to measure how much they’ve learned during the year. In this case, tutoring obscures school quality and skews our important attempts at true accountability. How do I know that there is massive tutoring going on? To start with, new tutoring companies wouldn’t be popping up literally every day if there wasn’t a market for them. All anyone has to do is walk by a Kumon, Huntington, Bright Kids, or FasTracKids tutoring center, peek in the window, and see all the kids with their state test prep books. When my oldest son—now a senior in high school—was younger, tutoring was still an under-the-radar thing. Kids who mentioned they had a tutor were quickly shushed by their parents, who would apologetically stammer, “They’re only having trouble with this one thing. It’s just until he/she catches up with the rest of the class.” Now with my third child, a fourth-grader, you call up for a play-date and hear, “Well, Tuesday is no good, he/she has math tutoring, and Friday is ELA, but Wednesday is good!” Test prep has come out of the closet and become just another afterschool enrichment activity. My husband is a teacher and, in addition to kids in his class raising their hands to protest, “but that’s not how my tutor told me to do this problem,” he also tutors. Past students have included kids as young as first grade whose parents were already getting them ready for state tests they won’t see for two more years.

Don’t Trust the Messenger

So, if all kids are succeeding, why is this a problem? It’s a problem because many of the parents who are getting their own children privately-tutored (including one celebrity public school advocate) are the same ones who proclaim that their local school is terrific—just look at the high test scores! But wait…how much is the school itself actually contributing to those test scores, and how much is coming from parents who have the means to pay for extra support? Families entering a highly-ranked institution expecting that everything they need to excel will be provided in the classroom may end up sorely disappointed. They may also feel pressured, either by fellow moms and dads or by the school itself, to “keep up with Joneses” and get their child prepped, since, when it comes to middle and high school admissions, students are compared against one another, and every fraction of a point counts. Back in November, when talking about one desegregation plan here in New York City, I wrote:
Once, PS 191 stuck out and made it easier for parents to demand that the DOE do its job and educate these children…. With the lower-performing population mixed in among high-achievers (but without the tutors and other resources wealthier children have access to), the Department of Education’s continued failure becomes much easier to hide. Does it really matter if a school has a 98% passing rate, or an 83% passing rate? It still matters to the 17% of kids who didn’t pass.

Hold Schools Accountable

The situation grows even more dire when you remember that state test scores are supposed to hold the school accountable for how well they are preparing their students. High scores suggest all is well when that, in fact, might not be the case. Outside test prep obscures inefficient teachers, badly written curriculum, and an administration that allows kids to fall through the cracks unless their families intervene. I absolutely do not blame parents for getting professional help when schools are failing their kids. But I do blame those who don’t cop to it, thus allowing the unacknowledged incompetence to go on and do damage to other people’s children. And I very much blame those schools which are so inept that they make outside tutoring necessary in the first place.  
An original version of this post appeared on New York School Talk as Test Prep Comes Out of the Closet: What’s Really Behind Some of NYC’s High Test Scores?.
Alina Adams
Alina Adams is a New York City mom of three school-age children and a New York Times best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure-skating mysteries and romance novels. She is a contributing writer to TODAY Show Parenting, Mommy Poppins, BlogHer, Red Tricycle, Café Mom and Kveller. After going through the New York City school application process with her own children and realizing just how ...

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