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July 28, 2021 8:17 AM EDT
Dhingra is a professor and Associate Provost at Amherst College

Summer tutoring has become the rallying cry by politicians and pundits as a way to address the learning loss from months of remote and hybrid learning. A frightening number of students did not show up to class last school year, including up to 15% of kindergarteners in some school districts. But tutoring is the not the easy solution many think it is. Before parents sign up their children, they need to do their own homework and, except under specific conditions, they should not pursue tutoring. Simply put, most children do not benefit long term from standard tutoring. Moreover, current trends in supplemental education can end up hurting children.

Tutoring can work well under certain conditions for children. Unfortunately, those conditions are quite strict. First, tutors should have a strong command of the content and must find ways to connect it to the student’s interests. Second, tutoring is more effective when it is intensive, with multiple hours per week and small teacher-to-student ratios and when run by trained professionals (e.g. teachers) during the school year rather than over the summer. The costs for effective tutoring are high (e.g. $3,800 per child in a Chicago program).

Without such expensive and intensive conditions, tutoring proves to be mostly ineffective. Studies find little to no difference between tutored and untutored children in their academic achievement under standard learning conditions. Even when students show short-term improvement, they do not maintain long-term gains.

Still, all kinds of tutoring are gaining steam among parents, increasingly for those who need it the least. Affluent students in well-resourced schools increasingly take part. The national chain Mathnasium, for instance, advertises as serving students already succeeding in math. A founder of another company told me their growth model is to open franchises in well-ranked districts. Companies are cashing in on anxious parents with marketing directed at overcoming the “Covid slide.” This is despite the fact that their learning loss over the past 12 months is less of a concern than often assumed. Kumon, Mathnasium, and other tutoring companies rank among the fastest-growing franchises of 2021. This popularity for tutoring continues a trend that has been going on for years. In fact, No Child Left Behind gave billions of taxpayer dollars to the tutoring industry, jumpstarting their rapid growth.

Parents have strong motivations behind their enrollment. Based on my research with over 100 parents for my book, Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough, I learned that such parents worry that their child otherwise will not be adequately challenged in schools, even before the onset of remote learning. They also fear that their child would fall behind peers who are being tutored. Learning is sold at younger and younger ages as parents seek an academic edge. Junior Kumon starts at age three; I even saw a child in a diaper at a center. Parents even believe that after-school academics instills values of hard work, sacrifice, and more. The fact that the child does not like this after-school activity is not necessarily a reason to stop.

Yet what parents see as essential to their child’s development can be detrimental. Teachers bemoan this trend. They struggle to appropriately reach elementary and middle school children with increasingly wide ranges of abilities, which is prone to grow by the fall. What’s more, as children in well-ranked schools seek private, corporate-sponsored education, it appears as if even the best schools are failing to properly serve our youth. This becomes one more rebuke of our public-school system.

While teachers lament their own struggles, they dwell on their worries for the children. Teachers see stressed-out youth prone to either crying or silence due to increased academic pressure, much more than parents realize. Nor is it only those tutored who are stressed. One student I interviewed who performed at grade level in her well-ranked school confessed that she felt “stupid” relative to peers who “were three years ahead because of [their tutoring].”

Tutored students are not necessarily better off in the long run either and, in fact, could encounter obstacles to in-depth learning. According to a middle school math teacher, students with supplemental education “do more posturing in class” because they feel they know the subject already. They also can be “bored” in class if they have covered the material already. What’s more, they lose a love of learning, another educator said. If youth are not invested in their after-school education, they come to see all education as a chore to get through. Such monetary and emotional costs are all the more unnecessary given that well-resourced schools, such as the ones many of these families attend, often have a good record of educating children.

Fears over children’s learning are understandable now more than ever. But the costs of tutoring go beyond the financial. Unless their children are well behind grade level and can enter effective programs, parents should avoid the treadmill of extra academics for the sake of their children and others. Especially after the school year so many have had, youth deserve a summer of childhood.

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