Tensions over Tutoring Reveals Educational Issues

Craig Dathe

Tutoring can be a sticky topic for discussion.  Some students swear by it, others won’t go near it and still others wish they had it but can’t afford it.  On the other side of the desk are teachers who support tutors, teachers who couldn’t care less, and teachers who harbor hard feelings and bitterness toward the tutoring profession.  With so much underlying tension, the tutoring scene at Miramonte must have something to tell us about our educations.

First, let’s look at the institution of tutoring itself.  In a perfect world it wouldn’t exist: the education system would be effective enough that students wouldn’t need outside help.  However, as we well know, the world falls short of perfection.

Public education in this country, and especially California, is terrifying if you allow yourself to think about it long enough.  Public schools receive mandated curriculums from the state but they struggle to find the time and facilities to fulfill them.  Even when the standards aren’t arcane and outdated, there is no way for one teacher with five 30+ student classes a day to fit those standards to each student’s individual learning styles.

It would then appear that tutors provide a necessary service.  Students can get outside help to supplement the inadequate public education system.  Whether we like it or not, high school grades are integrated into the college admissions game, a crap-shoot of an affair that needs as much revision as does public education.  Scoring well on the SAT/ACT tests practically requires learning a new language, which is a feat that is much more easily facilitated with an expert on the subject.

It is almost impossible nowadays to get a substantial job without a degree, so for most students, getting good grades and scoring high on standardized tests are of the utmost priority.  Tutoring can help make that priority a reality.

All this would be fine and dandy except for one thing: tutoring isn’t free.  In fact, the best tutors can be very expensive.  A month of services from a local tutor can range from $200 to $300.  Like so many other conflicts, the money question is to blame for some of the tension.  However, the true issue at hand does not concern the annual incomes of Miramonte parents at all.

I turned to Tom Clements, the most well-known local private tutor, for his opinion on the subject.  He has the build of a former football player, the vocabulary of a graduate school English professor, and the smarts to run an institution that, if the principles of capitalism are to be believed, generates great success for its clients.

Clements disregards the popular assertion that tutoring is simply a way for those unqualified to be teachers to make more money than teachers do, and to do so with minimal effort and societal contribution.

“Like everything else in life, there are good tutors and bad tutors,” said Clements.  “Bad tutors don’t get much return business so market forces and subject-matter expertise combine to winnow out the less-knowledgeable and therefore less successful tutors. Moreover, just like good teachers, goods tutors spend a great deal of time preparing the material they present. For example, in my classes I don’t just ‘do homework;’ I actually teach the material, providing lectures on concepts and procedures for problem solving.”

From my own personal experience of a year and a half’s worth of sessions with Clements, this is the truth.  You can ask just about any student that goes to Tom and they will give you the same answer.  I loved Physics, but the course would not have been manageable for me without Clements helping me to learn the concepts.

So it should surprise no one that Clements is not a tutor without credentials: he was in pre-med as an undergrad and studied applied mathematics in graduate school, and he taught English at St. Mary’s College before taking on tutoring full-time.  So what do teachers have to say on the matter?  I asked Jennifer Moore, who teaches Chemistry and AP Chemistry, for her opinion.  Chemistry courses are notorious for their difficulty, so predictably many chemistry students seek help from a tutor.  Apparently this situation has caused friction between Chemistry teachers and Chemistry tutors in the past.

“I’m totally in favor of tutoring if the students need help,” said Moore.  “But [I’m not in favor of it] when the student is like, ‘I’m not going to pay attention in class because my tutor’s going to teach me it later.’”

Considerable tension arises from this corner of the ring.  Parents and students who are against academic outsourcing will nod in agreement with furrowed brows when reading the following sentence.  Is it that in-class education isn’t enough and students need the outside help, or are Miramonte students too lazy and rich for their own good and can afford to have a tutor streamline the education process for them?  Especially in a course like Chemistry, which is, as Moore describes it, “one of the first classes that’s challenging even for the smart kids,” the temptation to shut down and find a back door to a high grade is incredibly high.

Academic purists believe that this backdoor is unfair.  Wealthy parents should teach their children to work harder if they get bad grades, not medicate each bad grade on a report card with a tutor.

“Teachers do the best they can burdened with large class size and bureaucratic constraints,” said Clements.  “Tutors are free of that and students who come to tutors do so because they want to excel and succeed, not because they’re lazy. Academic excellence is the goal. It’s absolutely criminal to criticize kids for trying to enhance their understanding of difficult subject matter and improve their grades at school. Kids who put in extra time each week with tutors should be applauded, not denigrated.”

We live in a capitalist society, and in capitalist societies services are offered where there is a need for them, and are sold at the highest price that the market will accept.  Some of us can meet that price, and others can’t.  Capitalism is not fair.

All this ignorant money tension is also given steam by the misconception that Orinda is a NorCal version of Beverly Hills.  We probably received the richer-than-God stereotype because Orinda started out as a vacation-home area for San Francisco urbanites, but it hasn’t been that way since the Caldecott Tunnel was built.  Lazy kids can be found in every socioeconomic stratum, so banish accusations against character from your mind.  It is horrible to criticize someone for using all the means at his or her disposal to conquer this beast called public education.

What’s more, teachers and student peers offer free tutoring in the library after school.  This service is terribly underutilized, and hopefully more students will use the help right here on campus in coming years.  If you believe that the current education system is adequate, then you need to take a big step back into reality.

And perhaps most important of all, the local tutors are compassionate, supportive members of our community.  They really care about students; otherwise they wouldn’t spend hours every day with them, and students wouldn’t keep returning for their help.  They should be the last subjects for your criticism.

The education dilemma is a much greater problem than any puny drama over tutoring.  After all, we the students, parents, tutors and teachers are all on the same side.

So let’s stop throwing rocks across the fence at each other and confront the issues that face all of us.  Hey, voting yes on Measure A would be a great place to start.  Students, tell your parents to vote yes for it; parents, stuff that ballot box.  I hope I’m preaching to the choir here, but if that measure doesn’t pass, then another very large nail is going into the coffin of the rising generation’s future.