Private Tutoring

Summer 2008

By Gary F. Gut, Joel Monell

Buckingham, Browne & Nichols School (BB&N), a pre-K–12 school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, known for its academic excellence, has successfully created an academic support system that has numerous capabilities and varying structure at each of its divisions. However, beyond the formal structure of academic support lies what some describe as a "shadow education" system of private tutoring. Tutoring, of course, has been around as long as there has been formal education, but, in recent years, the extent of private tutoring at BB&N and elsewhere has increased significantly. This change begs the questions: What is driving the growth of tutoring at independent schools across the country and what, if anything, should schools be doing about it?

A 2000 Newsweek poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe there is a "great need" for children to receive private tutoring. The National Tutoring Association reports that the number of individuals offering private tutoring has increased dramatically in recent years. Market analysts at Bear-Stearns now estimate that parents whose children are in the top and the bottom of their classes (21 percent of the total) are likely to seek tutoring. Under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, more and more public schools are being required to hire private tutors, at the schools' expense, after failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress for two years. Current estimates show that tutoring has grown into a $5 billion – $8 billion dollar professional service industry (Gordon, 2004), or as much as $150/year for every elementary and secondary student in the U.S. Globally, recent research suggests significant growth in private tutoring and links its prevalence to national achievement in international comparisons of student attainment (Baker, cited in Ireson, 2004).

At independent schools in the United States, there is very limited data on the school community's use of additional academic help, either inside or outside of school, to support achievement. But anecdotal reports indicate intensive use of private tutors by some families. At BB&N, we decided to take a closer look at the phenomenon in our own community, establishing a nine-member joint task force of teachers, administrators, and trustees. The task-force objectives have been to educate itself and the school about the opportunities and challenges in the area of academic support, survey the school community in order to establish a better understanding of current practices with regard to academic support, and suggest any areas that may need attention from the faculty and/or administration for either a policy statement or change of resource allocation.

Administered in May 2005, the survey was an anonymous, interactive, Internet-based questionnaire distributed to the parents of all students enrolled at BB&N in the 2004–2005 academic year. Questions were initially developed by the task force and vetted with certain faculty and administration groups and community members with relevant expertise. Hard copies were also available for those wishing to submit a paper-based response. Potential parent respondents were notified by written invitation from the school, by e-mail, and by notices in various BB&N publications.

A total of 484 families responded for a 70 percent rate of response, representing 628 students, or 66 percent of all enrolled students. Response rates were nearly identical for male and female students and similar across all divisions.

Over the course of a year, the task force discussed the topic of academic support and the results from the survey, reviewed meeting summaries on the subject of tutoring with each of the education policy committees at the lower school, middle school, and upper school, and read the results of literature searches on the subject and reports of visits to other independent day schools. A summary of the survey results was presented to the school's parent association and was also published in a school-wide newsletter distributed to all parents.
Percent of Respondents' Students Receiving Paid
Academic Tutoring by Grade

How Much Tutoring Is Taking Place?

Prevalence. Thirty percent of BB&N students used private paid tutoring in 2004–2005. Ten percent of the students have used tutors for most of their career at the school. Every division sees its fair share of tutoring (24 percent in the lower school, 28 percent in the middle school, 32 percent in the upper school), but there are significantly higher levels in certain subjects, grades, and ethnic groups. The highest percentage of students being tutored by grade is in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades (35 percent – 40 percent), second and sixth grades (35 percent), and seventh grade (32 percent); the comparable figures for all other grades are significantly lower (20 percent – 25 percent) (See Figure 1). There are smaller groups of students spending substantially more of their time with tutors. In addition, 28 percent of BB&N families have had at least one child tutored or attending academic classes during the summer.

Regarding differences by grade, the higher numbers being tutored as one moves through the divisions of the school are not surprising since the subject matter becomes more challenging and college admissions becomes a more important factor. Grade-level differences can possibly be attributed to idiosyncratic factors. For example, by second grade, parents have received feedback on reading-level performance of their child and grades start to be given in seventh grade, thus raising the academic stakes.

Expenditure. Annual expenditure for tutoring by BB&N families is estimated at $1.5 million; considered across all students, this averages to $1,500 per student per year, some 10 times the comparable national average. The typical tutored student spends $5,250 per year. Another observation from the survey responses is that some families feel they are handicapped from either participating at all, or from fully participating, in the "shadow" system due to lack of financial resources. This unmet demand for private tutoring could be as high as $585,000 per year; a sizable portion of which would probably qualify for financial aid.

Student time. On average, tutored students spend approximately 10 percent of their routinely available time for homework and study with tutors; it may be as high as 25 percent for the top 100 student users of tutors (Figure 2).
How Much Time Are Students Spending Getting Tutoring?
Hours per subject per week
Median or Average
General Purpose
Foreign Languages
History/Social Studies
Total average per subject
1.7 hours
Average number of subjects with tutoring
1.35 subjects
Total hours per week-avg.
Hours per subject per week X Number of subjects =
2.3 hours
Available "study/homework hours" per week
5 days X 4.5 hours per day =
22.5 hours
Portion of available time
"Top" 100 student users of tutoring

In What Subjects or Areas Are Students Tutored?

Math (37 percent) and English/reading/writing (27 percent) combine to account for 64 percent of all private tutoring. Lower school tutoring is focused on learning the basic skills, especially English/reading/writing. Upper school tutoring is centered on math, with almost 60 percent of school-wide math tutoring going to upper school students. The bulk of science tutoring takes place in the upper school, particularly 10th grade where 17 percent of students are tutored in science. Looking at the prevalence of tutoring by subject area through the grades, the task force noted very different patterns for math, English, and science: following seventh grade, the prevalence of tutoring for English fell off while that for math and science increased (Figure 3).

Also of note is that there are significant differences by subject in the rate of teacher-suggested tutoring: 51 percent of those tutored in English received a suggestion from the teacher; versus only 23 percent of the math tutoring suggested by a teacher (Figure 4). Overall, teacher-recommended tutoring accounts for only 32 percent of the tutoring.

Why Are Students Being Tutored?

The principal motivation of parents is to help their child keep up with classroom work, or "maintenance" (48 percent). But there is a 
Tutoring in Math, English, and Science by Grade
significant frequency of tutoring for "enhancement" of already satisfactory grades, admitted to by 11 percent of respondents (Figure 5). "Enrichment for personal knowledge," never a dominant

motivation, decreases to less than 10 percent of the indicated motivations once students pass through fifth grade.

The survey also indicates that as much as half of the tutoring includes, as part of its purpose, the learning of course content; and less of the tutoring is just for more appropriate skill building (a clearer distinction in upper grades and non-mathematics courses.) Also noteworthy is that, of the 73 percent of families whose tutors had either "no" or only "occasional" contact with the teacher, more than three quarters believe the school isn't interested or would penalize the student if they were open about the tutoring.

Tutoring Arrangements

For 61 percent of parents, tutoring was "very helpful" in achieving their objectives, with 27 percent saying "somewhat helpful." Families found a tutor with help from the school only 25 percent of the time. Twenty-three percent of tutoring is provided by school faculty or staff (restrictions prohibit tutoring of students currently enrolled in a teacher's class), 23 percent takes place at the school, 14 percent during the school day, and 43 percent in the afternoon, when most extracurricular activities are taking place.
Was the Tutoring Suggested by a Teacher or the Schoool? 
Parents seem mostly unaware of the full range of support services offered by the school, as well as generally recognized attributes of effective tutoring, especially regarding coordination with the student's teacher. However, those using school academic services are mostly satisfied with the services they have experienced. Nonetheless, parents express a strong desire for the school to do more — such as consistently recommending which tutors to hire. There is also interest in increasing schedule flexibility to allow more opportunities for individual learning during the school day.

Implications for All Schools

The survey, combined with research and discussions, explodes some myths around tutoring and leads to several general conclusions. Evidence suggests that not "everyone is tutored," nor do "most students get tutoring help," nor is "tutoring required to be successful." It's not "mostly a boys (or girls) thing," nor "mostly a high school thing." We also know that, for the most part, it's not families striving for the very highest grades that make up the bulk of the tutoring. Instead, it is families concerned with maintaining academic pace and avoiding low grades.

International studies indicate that only the Asian countries of Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea have tutoring levels as high as we are seeing in the U.S. (Ireson, 2004). It is also more likely than not that parents have underreported rather than overstated their use of tutors for fear of being seen as criticizing teachers or admitting to low ability for their children. Perhaps of even greater concern than the overall prevalence of tutoring is the fact that some portion (in our school, 10 percent of the students — 9 percent males, 12 percent female) are habitual users of private tutors and may be dependent on one-to-one assistance in order to make satisfactory academic progress.

This survey does not attempt to explain why there has been a rise in tutoring in the culture at large or in independent schools over the past decade. What seems clear, however, is that there is a general heightened level of anxiety over education in this country. Added to this is the presence of social influences. Parents and students in contact with others who employ tutors are more likely to do the same. Cultural beliefs about the nature of childhood and the value of educational achievement, as well as parental levels of education and income, all have an effect on the prevalence of private tutoring (Ireson, 2004). What this research does tell us is that, if you accept the notion that tutoring can be beneficial, schools need to better understand the scope of tutoring within the school community, how individual students are being tutored, and with what kind of tutoring they are involved. From an educator's perspective, undisclosed private tutoring can mask issues that should be dealt with earlier, rather than later. We also have concern that tutoring for "enhancement" — where the goal is to attain grades among the highest in a class — can be counterproductive to the student by creating unhealthy stress and consuming scarce time for extracurricular activities. It can also be unfair — giving an advantage to students with the financial means for tutoring — and create unnecessary competitive stress for other students.

However, we feel strongly that there is also an important role for tutoring — when the tutoring objective is to help the student develop necessary skills, strategies, or background knowledge that enables effective learning in the classroom. Many educators believe that tutoring is most effective as an aid to student learning when (1) identified purposes and objectives are established at the outset, (2) there is a plan for limited duration of the tutoring, together with assessment of the progress, and (3) when there is coordination and discussion between the tutor and the classroom teacher. Presently, it is clear that these factors are not well understood by parents. The current climate of "secrecy" about private tutoring, practiced by many, does not help the students.
What Was the Principal Motivation for the Tutoring
The fundamental questions for a school relate to the appropriate role for the school in establishing tutoring guidelines and educating families (see sidebar on page 28). The quantity and quality of communication between the school and parents and students is of critical importance. The traditional hands-off position of many schools also needs to be reviewed and answers need to be developed as to how far a school should and can go in providing staff, facilities, screened providers and financial aid for tutoring, as well as other forms of academic support.

More clearly defining the duties of faculty and expectations the school has for families and tutors are further opportunities for clarity and openness. In the absence of a clear statement of school philosophy to families and faculty, uncertainty about potential reactions will contribute to a culture of hiding information. A school needs to work in close partnership with parents and students, advising them of the best route to take (e.g., teacher "extra help," in-school specialist, private tutoring, summer programs, etc.) for individual academic support. Families may also benefit from a school's guidance in evaluating the success of a tutoring arrangement. Beyond the question of whether there was any positive impact on a student's immediate performance, there are potential gains, as well as risks, on many other dimensions of quality. There are also related questions as to how to make a school's counseling and academic support services better known and whether or not they could be organized differently for better effect.

Finally, we recognize that many of the answers to the questions raised by this project are inevitably affected by the implications of big-picture decisions about the degree of difficulty of a school's curriculum, the quality and methods of its teaching, and by the school's admissions standards and practices. The data in this report is certainly relevant to all of these considerations, but not sufficient on its own. Many more discussions and members of the community need be involved in the conversation. What is clear is that schools need to open the conversation on the tutoring phenomenon and how this connects with the schools' own academic support services and to the overall mission of the school.


Edward E. Gordon, Ronald R. Morgan, Judith A. Ponticell, and Charles O'Malley. "Tutoring Solutions for No Child Left Behind: Research, Practice, and Policy Implications," National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin, Volume 88, Issue 638, March 2004.

Judith Ireson. "Private Tutoring: How Prevalent and Effective Is It?" London Review of Education, Vol. 2, No.2, July 2004.

Gary F. Gut

Gary F. Gut is vice chairman of the board of trustees at Buckingham Browne & Nichols School (Massachusetts).

Joel Monell

Joel Monell, a former assistant head of school for academic affairs at BB&N, is now on the board of trustees.