Chicago Sun-Times

America needs to wise up about need for quality tutoring


You don’t take an aspirin to cure cancer. Yet, each year millions of students face an equivalent situation when they enroll in ineffectiv­e tutoring programs that often falsely overpromis­e a quick and easy “cure” for complex education ailments.

Public awareness of tutoring and higher parental expectatio­ns for results have spiked since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. Tutoring fraud and ineffectiv­e instructio­n are large slices of a $10 billion tutoring pie purchased each year by U.S. consumers, or as part of federally funded “supplement­al services” for NCLB. This growing tutoring ripoff may be a principal reason why student achievemen­t has barely improved across America or in the Chicago Public Schools. Research on the best tutoring practices is never seriously applied by most of these instructio­nal programs. Instead, tutoring remains largely an ad hoc, informal activity punctuated by both commercial advertisin­g misreprese­ntations and ineffectiv­e public schoolbase­d drill and practice tutoring programs. Recent reports of ineffectiv­e results have ratcheted up the public’s demand for higher-quality tutoring.

There are three key building blocks to a tutoring revolution. First, consumer education and at least voluntary regulation is needed to shield the public from education hucksters. Second, the quality of tutoring needs to be addressed by implementi­ng best practices derived from the past 30 years of educationa­l research on tutoring. Third, tutoring needs to be profession­alized by using this informatio­n and future research in college and university classes and to train community volunteer tutors.

Past research reveals that tutor- ing is most effective when it helps students literally “learn how to learn.” What does this mean? It may surprise many people that students often fail to master important basic skills because of subtle undiagnose­d learning disabiliti­es, dyslexia, underachie­vement and other learning issues that may limit study skills.

Good tutoring — particular­ly diagnostic/developmen­tal tutoring — closely observes and records student learning strengths and weaknesses on a class-by-class basis. Using this ongoing informatio­n, the tutor can better individual­ize tutoring instructio­n, using the student’s stronger skills to build up personal learning weaknesses. This precise remedial approach is ongoing throughout the student’s tutoring sessions.

Other key factors that research tells us will make tutoring more effective include:

1. Better-prepared tutors produce better results than tutors with little or no special preparatio­n. College courses in the skills to be tutored, a degree, special teaching certificat­ion and prior teaching/tutoring experience can improve tutoring quality.

2. Tutors need to follow a written curriculum that helps individual­ize their instructio­n. They need to record their learning observatio­ns in an organized manner and track the gradual developmen­t of the student’s new skills class by class.

3. Tutors need to coach parents on how to better encourage good study habits and motivate their child’s daily learning at home. Parental support of this process will have a very powerful influence on improving a child’s classroom achievemen­t.

Tutoring is now at a crossroad. Tutors can become far more effective by using applied research on what works best. Or tutoring can remain essentiall­y a non-profession­al, ad hoc activity that uses large numbers of semi-profession­als or volunteers who are often ineffectiv­e.

Today, the challenge of 21st century school reform requires a much broader considerat­ion of tutoring practices and methods. We need to focus on how a new alliance between high-quality tutoring and teaching can better serve America’s students.

Edward E. Gordon is the lead author of The Tutoring Revolution: Applying Research for Best Practice, Policy Implicatio­ns, and Student Achievemen­t (Rowman & Littlefiel­d, 2006). He has taught at DePaul, Loyola and Northweste­rn universiti­es in Chicago.

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