Pop quiz: Take some of the public high schools in the Greater Philadelphia area that, according to a 2012 Pennsylvania Department of Education report, have the highest average for combined SAT scores: Masterman at 1925, Harriton at 1769 and Lower Merion at 1739. Then take the average SAT score of the current freshmen class at the University of Pennsylvania (2170) and at Penn State’s University Park (1855). Calculate the difference — then find a way to make up for it.
Tutoring is the solution for a rising number of students.
“SAT prep is now standard and not only is there no stigma, but having a tutor is almost a status symbol,” says Penny Kardon, director of career strategies at JEVS Human Services, a nonprofit organization that provides educational tutoring, college counseling and career guidance at sliding scale rates. “Tutoring is so common among families with means that, when we appeal to funders, we explain that we are trying to even the playing field for at-risk kids.”
Kardon’s point is illustrated in a 2012 report from the National Center for Education Statistics that shows a correlation between household income and SAT scores. In households with incomes of $80,000-$100,000, the average score is 1552. Parents earning $200,000 or more have children scoring an average of 1721.
However, not all tutoring costs money. In addition to JEVS, many public and private schools offer tutoring. For example, the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr offers academic support services, and Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station offers tutoring from both teachers and peers.
And it’s not limited to preparing for college entrance exams. “We work with students as young as 8th and 9th grade to prepare them for the entrance exams to private high schools, explains Mitch Blatstein, who has owned and operated Education Plus, Inc. for more than 35 years. “We also work with B+ students who want to be A students. And of course, we help students who have Cs and Ds. These days, I really feel that parents look at tutoring not just for students who are struggling, but even for kids who want a competitive edge in any academic area and certainly with standardized tests.”
While money can buy tutoring, it can’t buy academic success. “No amount of money in the world can teach a kid who doesn’t want to learn,” Blatstein says. “The most important things are finding the right tutor for that student and having that tutor understand the psychology of helping students succeed.”
Rob Stoller, the Greater Philadelphia area regional education adviser for Aristotle Circle, which offers an array of tutoring services, agrees. “No matter the subject area — SATs, physics, calculus — what comes first is the relationship between the tutor and the student. It’s really like matchmaking.”
How can parents and students find that right tutor? The experts suggest several steps.
Start with the school
“The teacher is the first one to check with,” Kardon advises. “Don’t just assume that the problem is academic. There may be a new social dynamic that is interfering with the student’s performance.”
If the problem is academic, there might be several factors in play. “For example, the student might not be turning in homework,” Blatstein says, “or he could be having a tough time on tests or quizzes. He might need help learning good time management or good study skills. Did the student miss key concepts or key skills in the classroom and is the lack of that knowledge preventing the student from advancing? Ask the teacher for insight into a specific reason for the student’s difficulties. That information can inform the parent and the tutor.”
Focus on process, not promises
“Companies often have glossy advertising without the track record to back up their claims,” Kardon cautions. “Ask exactly how the tutors are trained and what their academic backgrounds are. Be skeptical about outsized promises. I’d be suspicious if someone told me that, in four weeks, my kid would be reading at a certain level, or promised any increase in SAT scores. Parents want to believe that will happen, but they should really inquire about the process that the tutor will use to get that success.”
Interview the tutor
“See if the tutor’s personality will mesh with your kid’s,” Stoller says. “For example, if your kid doesn’t work well under pressure, then he won’t respond well to a pressure style. If your kid slacks off, he may need that pressure. Also, ask what happens if the first tutor isn’t a good match for your child. Will the company supply another?”
Understand the psychology of tutoring
“It’s really important to get the student in the right frame of mind,” Blatstein says. “We are asking a student to work harder at something in which he is not having success, so he may be resistant to that. His self-esteem may have taken a hit. He may have erected barriers or a false bravado to protect himself. We recognize that and understand his frustration. But we quickly set him on a new path because we need the student to commit to doing the work. My approach is to empower, then inspire the student. It’s about acting as a coach, so the student feels supported and encouraged. In that frame of mind, they will work hard, then be successful and own that success.”
“To be successful, tutoring should not be set up like a punishment,” Kardon says. “Don’t take away something social to make time for the tutoring. If the tutor can only do 4-6 p.m. and the kid will have to give up basketball, you’re setting that up for failure.”
And, keep a regularly scheduled meeting time, Blatstein says. For example, Blatstein’s tutors work on weekdays and weekends, afternoons and evenings, and meet students at home or other locations, depending on what is the easiest place for them to reach if they don’t yet drive.
Ask the tutor how parents can help
“Parents need to create a positive environment at home,” Blatstein says. “Sometimes, that means providing a quiet area in which the student can do homework. Other times, parents may have to create or enforce a schedule or structure. It might be that during this time, other activities, like Facebook or video games, are limited. Sometimes we ask parents to participate by quizzing the kids. Sometimes we ask them not to, if that will create WWIII. Maybe also mom is the one to handle some tasks and dad is better at others. Whatever the case, the parents have an important role to play. Students of all ages need academic support but also emotional support, and that comes from the parents.” l
Melissa Jacobs is a frequent contributor to Special Sections. This article originally appeared in The Next Step, a Jewish Exponent special section.