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  • Writer's pictureDr. Brian Harke

How Tutoring May Be Harming Our Students

Yesterday, a parent of a high school student asked me if I thought her daughter should have a private tutor to help prepare for college. I asked the parent why she thought her daughter needed a tutor. She replied, "well, everyone one else seemed to have one" and she didn't want her daughter to "miss out." This made me stop and think about tutoring and how it has changed in the past 25 years. I am a big fan of tutors and the use of tutoring as part of a learning process. The idea that tutors help students learn how to learn has been fundamental to how I have viewed tutoring. However, that framework seems to be outdated. Over the past 25 years, there has been a tutoring revolution. It has gone from a model based around remedial needs to one that focuses heavily on making students more academically competitive. Both parents and educators have jumped on the private tutoring bandwagon, piling more and more work on already stressed-out students. As a result, an entire tutoring industry has developed. Much of the tutoring industry's success relies on parents' fear that their student won't have a competitive advantage when applying to college. I understand the fear. Admittance to college has become very competitive. I know this, as I work for a very competitive university. That being said, this shift toward hyper-focusing only on academic growth -- "over-tutoring" -- versus the growth of the whole student comes at a great cost to parents, school districts and, most importantly, students. For this article, I use "over-tutored" to describe students who spend the majority of their waking hours stressed-out and focused solely on academic achievement. They are consumed with academic success and base much of their self worth on grades and SAT scores. They take many Advanced Placement (AP) classes, spend their afternoons with tutors or tutoring programs, have parents who micromanage their academic careers, etc. According to Edward Gordon of the Imperial Consulting Corporation, Americans spent over $15 billion on academic tutoring last year. I don't want to imply that it isn't needed, but I believe we should take a look at how we approach the need for tutoring. The new norm of over-tutoring students is creating a class of students who can potentially become academic drones. They excel at academic subjects, but suffer from lack of emotional and social skills because there simply isn't enough time to learn it all. Students are hit with a double whammy when you factor in the isolating effect social media has on these skills. But that's a whole other article (more to come in a couple of weeks). In the past, I've written about students who have unrealistic expectationsabout their abilities to manage the obstacles they will encounter at college. These unrealistic expectations cause almost 30 percent of all college freshmen to leave college during their freshman year. Over-tutoring is one of the culprits that can lead to this outcome. Over-tutored students may enter college with superior test scores and GPAs, but the focus on being academically competitive diminishes once the student hits campus. Having spent much of the past 12 years hyper-focused on academics, most students enter college without the skills that are needed to navigate their new environment. These students have a deficit I call "tutoring syndrome": they haven't learned the coping skills to deal with the emotional and social challenges college presents. They end up depressed, question their self-worth, and are often too emotionally immature to make good decisions. They have a low sense of self-efficacy. They are intelligent, but not smart. At this point you are probably saying, "that's not my student." It may not be; however, I ask that you keep an open mind and take a look at where your and your student's priorities are. Ask yourself the following questions: • Is your student emotionally ready to deal with living on their own if you aren't available at a push of a button to rescue them? • Can they make good judgment calls and deal with the social pressure associated with the college environment? • Do they have the skills to navigate the bureaucracy of an academic institution, without your help? • Do you, as a parent, spend more time worrying about your student's happiness and how well adjusted they are or their grades, SAT scores and what college they will get into? If you answered no, or hesitated for even a second before answering yes to these questions, then maybe it's time to take a step back and refocus. I don't mean to sound trite, but a 2400 on the SAT won't mean squat if your student winds up dropping out because they lack the coping and life skills to deal with what is to come. Final thought: I am a big fan of tutors and the use of tutoring as part of a learning process. If you go this route, whether for remedial reasons or competitive ones, remember that the balance between academic, personal and social skills should be part of the tutoring process. Find a tutor who embraces the whole student, not just their grades.

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