How progressive education drives the tutoring industry, pt. 2

In my previous post, I outlined some of the ways in which the progressive methodologies that pervade much of the American system inadvertently fuel a reliance on the private tutoring industry.

On its surface, the tutoring model would seem to be the holy grail of progressive education. Teachers are encouraged to “personalize” their approach to fit students’ unique learning styles, “empowering” them to “find their passions” and “take ownership of the learning process.” But this perspective is based on both a simplification and a misunderstanding of how teaching and learning actually work.

Oftentimes, tutoring is assumed to be effective simply because it epitomizes personalized learning. But although personalization is a component of what makes tutoring effective, it is far from the only element – nor, I would argue, is it the most important element.

Likewise, the importance of soft factor such as personality “fit” and the ability to inspire is somewhat overblown. Obviously, those factors do count for something. I had students I adored, whom I always looked forward to seeing, and whose families I have remained friendly with for nearly a decade now. I even had one student who genuinely fell in love with English, ended up as editor of his college newspaper, and is now a professional journalist! (To be fair, he was a star in English class before I showed up.)

But the reality is that I also taught students of whom I was not particularly fond; tutoring them was, to be frank, a job. It is unrealistic to expect that any tutor, like any other human being, will get along with every other person with whom they work. The point, though, is that provided those students did their work and showed up diligently, they still improved very significantly.

Conversely, some of the students whom I got along with wonderfully, and who could rhapsodize wide-eyed about their love of learning, never quite seemed to make the kind of improvement they wanted. Almost invariably, these students attended the most progressive schools. Somewhere along the way, they had clearly absorbed the belief that being excited about learning was synonymous with actually learning.

These students were often very enthusiastic, and we had a wonderful time together, but they were somehow unable to put in the necessary practice on their own. I always got the sense that they had never done the kind of work that real improvement would have required – that they literally had no concept of it. Sometimes, they even switched tests in the hopes that their scores would magically rise without their having to put in too much work. Needless to say, that approach did not pay off.

Interestingly, I have several colleagues who regularly find themselves in the position of being “second round” tutors – tutors who are called in after a student has failed to make sufficient progress with another tutor, or even multiple tutors. Like me, they are often stunned at the types of basic information their students’ previous tutors failed to impart, or at least to impart in a way that students were able to absorb. If personalization were truly the issue, these types of scenarios would not occur with such alarming regularity.

I suspect that many, if not most, of these formers tutors are well-meaning, but techniques that are ineffective in the classroom are just as ineffective in one-on-one situations. An adult who lets a student flail around for 15 minutes trying to “discover” a concept that could be easily taught in three is doing a major disservice. I’ve witnessed this kind of teaching, and it’s almost painful to observe. (I have to restrain myself from grabbing tutors by the shoulders, crying, “Just teach it to them already!”) One is left with the impression that these tutors have been so thoroughly indoctrinated with the importance of indirectly “guiding” students that they cannot really see what is happening in front of them.

For their part, students do not generally get overtly upset because they want to please their tutors, and tutors can consequently pat themselves on the back for helping students take control of their own learning. But the result is that basics are made out to be inordinately complicated and confusing, preventing students from ever really getting a handle on the subject or progressing to more advanced activities.

Sometimes this state of affairs goes on for months before it becomes apparent that something just isn’t working. Finally, parents start hunting around for yet another tutor, one who can really get the job done. At that point, they’re eager to have someone knowledgeable and competent, with a demonstrated track record, tell their teenager (and possibly them as well) exactly what to do.

I’ve had several recent discussions with fellow “second-round” colleagues about just what it is that makes the most effective tutors so effective, and the overwhelming consensus is always that the best tutors possess a very particular type of efficiency. Not only do they know their subjects phenomenally well and are able to present them in such a way that students can both retain the material and apply it when it counts, but they can anticipate the problems a student is likely to have and tailor sessions so as to cut off those problems before they even have a chance to occur. As a result, they can sometimes accomplish in only a few sessions what another tutor might not be able to accomplish in months.

Not coincidentally, this type of targeted tutoring is highly traditional in many ways – even if it does contain what are usually thought of as progressive elements. It is student-centered insofar as it is targeted to the student’s particular needs; however, its primary aim is not develop unique gifts or creativity (although the student may sometimes discover a new gift as a result) but rather to transmit information in as clear, coherent, and systematic manner as possible, and to ferret out points of weaknesses so that they can be directly addressed.

Although this type of tutoring must be a conversation in which the student is an involved participant, it is a conversation in which the tutor is unapologetic about knowing more than the student does and is fully willing to embrace responsibility for that fact. It also involves very considerable amounts of repetition.

In that regard, it is the polar opposite of pretty much everything current wisdom about education holds dear.

But because this type tutoring is so personalized, and often so engaging, no one really notices its more traditional features. (Indeed, “traditional” and “boring” are so thoroughly conflated in the popular imagination that any teaching that is not boring is automatically assumed not be traditional.) Besides, when college admission is on the line, educational theories are the last thing anyone worries about. And the inescapable fact is that whatever someone happens to think about it, this type of teaching works.

Thus, tutoring largely escapes the kind of criticism that, in another context, would be heaped on the type of pedagogy it employs.

To come at this from another angle, I think it’s fair to say that the lack of regulation is simultaneously the best and the worst aspect of the tutoring industry. Anyone can throw an ad up on Craigslist and advertise their services, and there are a lot of hacks out there. On the other hand, the lack of oversight means that private tutors are not compelled to march in lockstep with pedagogical fads. They remain free to use techniques more common in 1986, or even 1966, without any fear of pushback. Pragmatism is free to trump ideology.

People who wonder why bright college grads don’t want to go into teaching should look no further than the tutoring industry because there are certainly plenty of them there. If schools don’t offer sufficient autonomy – in my experience, successful tutors tend to be somewhat quirky as well as fiercely independent – the private sector certainly allows these individuals free reign, not to mention potentially far higher compensation.

The supply side only exacerbates the issue.

As more students come through a progressive-inf(l)ected system, college included, fewer and fewer graduates have experience with the most effective type of direct instruction. And people can’t normally teach in a format they haven’t experienced themselves. On this subject, a quick anecdote: A colleague, a decorated AP teacher, told me the story of a group of younger teachers sent in to observe him teach. They had heard he was “traditional” and were astonished to discover that he did not simply talk at his students for the entire class but actually allowed them to ask questions. And this was in a highly ranked district in one of the most educated states in the country.  

Furthermore, the promotion of STEM and “practical” (read: business) degrees has also lead to an ever-declining number of students achieving advanced competencies in the humanities. Despite the popular rhetoric about useless English majors working at Starbucks, the reality is that only 6.1% of all college students received degrees in all areas of the humanities combined in 2014.

In addition, humanities departments at many schools are notorious for their lack of rigor as well as their grade inflation. It is usually safe to assume that even English majors have never had to diagram sentences.

The people who do acquire serious skills in the humanities tend to come out of a small group of elite schools and be fairly privileged to begin with. Within that group, the number of people who can also teach well is quite small indeed. An even smaller group actually wants to teach. And don’t even get me started on “soft” factors like reliability.

Now, basic economic theory of course states that decreased supply of an item or skill will cause prices for that item or skill to rise. And nowhere is this clearer than in the private market for test-prep tutoring, where the ability to effectively teach a certain set of skills usually deemed “irrelevant” is actually in very high demand.

As a tutor, I spent a good deal of time covering material I had been directly taught for free, in public school – material that was very clearly foreign to my students. To put it mildly, it always seemed to me that there was something not quite right about that.

Essentially, the direct instruction of crucial skills that used to be – and that should still be – standard fare in classrooms across the country has now become something accessible to a much smaller fraction of students.

Techniques that would be viewed with distaste when associated with less privileged students have been transformed into a coveted marker of status. I know of one Manhattan tutoring firm, famous for its exorbitant rates, whose tutors reportedly dictate notes while students write them word-for-word, by hand.

I do think that this situation is in large part the result of misplaced good intentions. But in seeking to avoid one extreme, it is possible to go too far in the other direction. Pedagogical strategies that are appropriate for preschoolers are far less suited to high schoolers; and to return to one of my favorite themes, what makes students happy in the short term is not necessarily what will serve them best in the long run.

Looking back on my own high school experience, some of the teachers from whom I learned the most were not the inspirational ones, but rather the merely competent and unremarkable ones who, in their own steady, dull way, taught me what it meant to acquire a rock-solid foundation in a subject. For a girl whose parents could not help her with her homework (not until I was out of college did I realize that some of my classmates had probably received that kind of support), and who was only dimly aware of the concept of professional tutoring (which would have been unaffordable anyway), that was not a small thing.

That foundation took me very far in college, and I literally would not be where I am without it. I suspect that those types of teachers are in much shorter supply today. I am sorry for that, and for all the students whose educations will be shortchanged because of allegiance to a theoretical ideal.  

Unfortunately, as education schools increasingly promote the teacher-as-facilitator model, other approaches are largely reduced to a caricature. And as teachers come under increasing administrative pressure to employ progressive pedagogies, teachers who don’t fit the mold are unlikely to remain in the classroom for decades the way their predecessors did. That is a shame for the education system – but for tutoring industry, it is a boon.