US Private Tuition Industry – worth $5 billion

SmartMoney – a monthly magazine published by The Wall Street Journal – has just published an indepth article on America’s private tuition industry. It’s a fascinating – if rather frightening – read, bearing in mind that the UK often picks up on trends from across the pond.

The article opens with an assertion that, at an estimated $5 billion, the ‘supplemental education’ sector in the United States is now worth a staggering ten times as much as it was in 2001. Although increased competition for university places is in part driving the unprecedented expansion (“Experts say the fastest-growing group of tutoring consumers is high school students, driven by cutthroat competition for college admission”), this does not do full justice to the phenomenon. In a set of concepts pretty alien to a British reader (at least for now), it seems that:

“Tutoring firms no longer offer just subject-specific help in, say, Latin or chemistry; increasingly, they’re marketing a dizzying menu of test prep, study skills, enrichment tutorials, scholastic summer camps and prekindergarten readiness programs.”

Moreover, according the article’s author, the tutoring field is now “increasingly centralized … and corporate”. Kumon Maths and Reading Centres is the largest US tutoring chain, boasting 1,400 centres nationwide. “The idea is not for Kumon students to be “tutored” per se but to “self-propel” through the material, says center director Naomi Suzuki, pointing to a wall of cubbyholes brimming with neatly stacked newsprint work sheets.”

If such an approach seems anathema to the spirit of private tuition, the article also cites plenty of critics. In fact, it was the tension between the tuition centre approach and personalized learning that I found to be one of the article’s most interesting insights:

“But talk to experts like Gordon [Edward E. Gordon, author of ‘The Tutoring Revolution’] … and you start to hear the same mantra: Personal, one-on-one attention and customized teaching (not work sheet curricula) is the preferred way to help students deal with their academic challenges — especially since many youngsters need help and encouragement just learning how to learn”.

The conclusion of the article also revealed some home truths about what really may be necessary, echoing some of my thoughts from a previous blog post:

“Ironically enough, for all the money and time families are spending on highly specialized tutors, some families need something much simpler. Some firms now offer “homework helpers” who, for an average of $20 to $50 an hour, will sit with a distractible child when, say, both parents are working, to make sure he doesn’t gravitate to Facebook before finishing his fractions and maybe help him get unstuck from a confusing problem … “It’s serenity in the home now,” says the [parent], who’s usually right there preparing dinner when the tutor comes. “And the job gets done.”

I do recommend the full article. It is perhaps a sign of things to come in the UK.