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Tutoring 101

Your son's struggling in math. Your daughter's drowning in homework. A tutorial on finding the right help.

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As first-semester grades come in, the tutor hotline is buzzing. There are juniors facing SATs (and less-than-B's in advanced-placement courses), sixth-graders squashed by math homework, fourth-graders at war with paragraph construction. An army of educational professionals -- from graduate students to moonlighting teachers to retired academic department heads -- stands ready to help students, one-on-one, at rates from $10 to $400-something an hour.

Can your child's problem be eased in a few extra sessions at school with her math teacher or the reading specialist, or do you need to out-source? Take heart, say veterans on both the parent and tutor sides of this match. Once you've tapped into the network, you're no more than a phone call away from your next specialist.

Predictably, Manhattan is gripped by tutor madness. "I have parents of seventh- and eighth-graders calling me, wanting to be tutored for the SATs already," says child psychologist Gail Furman. Consider whether hiring a tutor for anything less than imminent failure or a month lost to mono will make your child feel deficient. And don't jump too fast if he seems suddenly frustrated. In November, a fifth-grade boy told Furman he wasn't a good enough reader. "He was clutching in his hand Death Be Not Proud," assigned by a teacher at his elite school. "Not only is it a book that, emotionally, no fifth-grader should be reading, but it's written at a high-school reading level."

But let's assume you've been through the preliminaries and you've decided your kid needs a private tutor. How do you make the perfect match?

UNDERSTAND YOU'RE HIRING A SPECIALIST . . . You wouldn't let the pediatrician stitch your kid's forehead, right? There are learning-disability specialists who work mostly with younger children and are often referred by professional societies; reading-and-writing specialists who are often moonlighting full-time teachers; and SAT tutors who may specialize in math and/or verbal skills. Then there are content tutors -- chemistry, French -- who can tutor for the SAT II subject tests or help polish high schoolers' course work. In your telephone interview, ask about job experience and how the tutor was trained; a retired high-school math teacher may know content but not how to psych out the Educational Testing Service. Even if she's called the "reading teacher" at a public school, a tutor may have only an elementary-education degree and little special training. And ask what teaching methods tutors use to catch kids up -- pencil-and-paper review work, interactive computer exercises, a particular remedial curriculum? What you don't want to hear is vagueness, which suggests no method.

AND I FIND THIS SPECIALIST WHERE? Your best referral source will be other parents who have kids with difficulties similar to your kids'. If you've got a good relationship with your school heads, start with their recommendations. Some schools are not tutor-friendly, partly because they think parents turn too quickly to tutors, partly out of mercenary resentment: A busy, in-demand tutor can earn more than a teacher, without all the prep work and papers to mark. Other circles where names get passed: psychologists and pediatricians.

Educational consultants -- also known as admissions counselors -- all know tutors who get great results, and some share names freely. But because many top tutors are booked solid, some consultants won't open their Rolodexes to any but client families. In such situations it wouldn't be unsporting to ask friends to work their networks.

You can hire a tutor privately through an agency: Local favorites are Advantage Testing (744-8800), Stanford Coaching (245-3888), and Princeton Review (362-6900). But some tutors trained through these agencies eventually strike out on their own, and they're always willing to refer peers who handle different specialties. If you hire through an agency, know they may have a price/experience hierarchy. Interview more than one candidate, and don't assume the priciest will necessarily work most smoothly with your child. Meet by phone if you must, but many tutors like to check out their chemistry with prospective students. While you're chatting, ask how the tutor will assess a child's progress. And make sure you can sit in now and then.


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