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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.

BEWARE BIG PROMISERS . . . If you're hiring someone for the SATs, ask how much her average student's score goes up. "That's legitimate," says Lisa Heilbrunn Rattray, an actress-tutor of six years' experience. "But any tutor who claims, 'Just by seeing me your kid's score will go up' -- I wouldn't trust that. So much depends on how much work your kid is willing to put in." Rattray blows the whistle to parents on slackers, partly because she can't afford to have clients heading toward Layabout U.: "Your career is totally dependent on your reputation, and these parents want to get their kids into the best schools."

TOP TUTORS (MOSTLY) DON'T DO CONSPIRACIES . . . Maybe the partnership between you and your school has grown a little tense. Maybe your kid's academic difficulties are prompting unsocial behavior. Don't try to hire a tutor secretly just to avoid conceding some crucial negotiating point. Teachers not only know your kid has a tutor -- they know everyone has one, or else a parent deeply familiar with the homework. An ethical tutor will lay it on the line that she has to be able to talk to your child's teachers, to understand the curriculum, and to chart progress. If you're one of those people whose kid genuinely is getting shafted by his or her school, you have other calls to make first.

YOU'RE PAYING TOO MUCH . . . if you're not within range of the median Manhattan price, which now stands at about $70 for a one-hour private session (though $100 or more is not unusual for learning-disability specialists). "Anything over $100 is, to me, out of control," says Cynthia Bing, a seasoned adviser with the Parents League, which keeps tutor résumés on file. That may not hold for long. Price creep is fueled by a cadre of test-prep legends who command several hundred dollars a session. Discounts can sometimes be negotiated: For more-than-once-a-week sessions, for tutoring at off-hours (like on-site at your child's school during his free period), for making your child -- not the tutor -- travel. If you and two friends have kids with similar needs, a tutor can work sequentially with the children in one location, shaving travel time and keeping you marginally more solvent. Some tutors offer semi-private sessions and rates.

And beware permanent, expensive dependence. "A tutor comes to your house, he's friends with your kids, he knows your dog -- they can really invade your life," warns one educational consultant.

USE SERVICES AT HAND . . . Many schools (particularly private ones) teach organizational and study skills and assess children for possible learning problems, functions that were once performed almost entirely by outside
professionals. Most private schools and many public middle and high schools make teachers available to students for after-school catch-up sessions. Take advantage of every service your school offers before you hire a tutor. If your child is doing well overall but somehow missed that day they taught spelling, take it up with your school head. "Don't give up too easily -- the school may respond if you go make a ladylike stink," said one admissions counselor who asked to remain nameless.

A HOMEWORK HELPER IS NOT A TUTOR . . . Through local college-placement offices and some high-school guidance departments, parents find and hire older students to help their distracted elementary- or middle-schoolers focus and pace themselves through homework. They're generally paid between $10 and $50 an hour, and if you're not watching closely, they really may write your kid's paper -- easier than making the recalcitrant kid do it. School heads are skeptical of these helpers, whom some regard as paid stand-ins (more literate than the nanny) for working parents who don't want to start in on the history of the civil-rights movement when they roll home at 8 p.m. But some tutors -- among them Nancy Carlinsky, who helps kids with learning disabilities -- believe there's a role for them, particularly if they echo the tutors' strategies. Carlinsky teaches fundamental literacy skills, "with the full understanding that I'm not going to keep the child afloat with homework, or we'll never get done."

PATIENCE IS NO VIRTUE . . . This is not psychotherapy. You should see changes within three or four weeks. "Certainly as far as a child's motivation, and caring about the work, and being a little more organized -- that shows up in the first month," says education consultant Jane E. Kolber. Although an academic boost may not become apparent so quickly, "you can certainly know whether your child likes that tutor," which is critically important.

YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR THIS, BUT . . . Maybe your kid is in the wrong school. If he's seeing three subject tutors and working with the homework helper, and he's still frustrated and overwhelmed, "you need someone who's an adult to call a halt," says Carlinsky. But she disagrees with hard-liners who say that if tutoring is a permanent feature of a child's life, then the school is too high a reach. While some children are crushed by volume remediation, "that is a very different thing," Carlinsky says, "from hearing a tutored child saying, 'I'm working very hard, and I can't play with my friends in the afternoon, but you know what? I'm keeping my head above water.' "


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