Teaching or Cheating? Notes From the Tutoring Front Lines

Since last summer, my profession has proven positively tabloid: from reports of $500 workbooks for 4-year-olds to $1,000-an-hour tutors who circumvent school curriculums, and from mea culpa confessionals to SAT cheating scandals, the "Tutoring-Industrial Complex'' is shaping up to be Educational Enemy No. 1. This month’s indictment of the Princeton Review (and now others) for falsified records and fraudulent billing reads like the next installment of Tutors Behaving Badly. The entire industry has been stamped with the stigma of an illicit, unethical enterprise: at best, ineffective and overpriced; at worst, truly detrimental to students’ academic and intellectual development.

As the head of an educational company, Intelligentsia, Inc., I can’t blame schools for distrusting tutors -- or the press for dragging my profession through the mud. Companies that cannibalize the curriculum, simplify sources and implant information -- or worse, take tests and write papers for students -- are not teaching; they’re cheating. Some of us make the distinction.

Unethical tutoring does more than sabotage the system; it undermines the intellectual exploration of some of our brightest students, preventing their minds from achieving full potential and crippling our country’s competitiveness. In any profession there exist mensches and mountebanks; in all industries, the implementation of proper practice demands effort and enforcement. Taming the Wild West of tutoring will require a comprehensive, citywide approach, with clear methodological boundaries and real consequences to crossing them.

When tutors and teachers work together, we can create enormous intellectual and attitudinal improvement. This year’s headlines, however, have pushed us apart: more parents are asking me not to start a dialogue with teachers or deans because “the administration doesn’t like tutors,” and more schools have told me they’ve restricted outside referrals. As schools disengage from relationships with tutors and parents insist on secrecy, tutoring becomes stealthier, less transparent and less trustworthy -- driving the industry farther underground and farther from view, where improper practices proliferate.

This might sound familiar. For the past 40 years, our nation has adopted a similar approach in the War on Drugs -- and just saying no won’t work this time, either. The War on Tutoring promises similar rhetoric and will likewise prove problematic: Private tutoring is ubiquitous -- a recent article in The New York Times described it as one of the many "ancillary costs that now seem nonnegotiable'' of a private school education. It also takes place behind closed doors, so to speak. Neither the police nor your son’s precalculus instructor will force their way into your foyer, commanding the tutor to “Put down the graphing calculator and step away from the desk.”

Some schools have started to hold students accountable by requiring “acknowledgments” in which students itemize the support they’ve received on a graded assignment. Unless teachers “acknowledge” support without passing judgment or giving lower grades, an ex post facto admission does little more than make students feel guilty and add to the perception that tutoring is inherently illicit. More problematic is the growing practice of allowing teachers to privately tutor students from their department or even their own class. One student told me her dean suggested hiring her math teacher, but he was too busy — so she hired the head of the math department instead.

If combating tutoring creates more problems, what’s the answer? Doing nothing is not an option; schools are legitimately concerned that an unregulated, uncontrollable force is corrupting their students, their pedagogy, their curriculum and their community. Yet a case-by-case, piecemeal approach will be neither effective nor adequate.

The good news: a coherent course of action is in the works. A group of like-minded tutoring companies recently started working with teachers, administrators and learning specialists to forge a better way forward. I co-founded the Ethical Tutoring Consortium in September with Jon Rosenshine, director of the Buckley Upper School. The coalition has created a plan that includes a set of guiding principles, best practices and implementation strategies, as well as a blueprint for a certification process and oversight board. Schools would endorse (and, feasibly, enforce) ethical tutoring; tutors would respect school guidelines and commit to open communication. It’s not complicated: a simple introduction and weekly e-mail update allow tutors to create transparency and trust and to reassure teachers and administrators that they support rather than subvert classroom curriculums. Most critically, students would reap the benefits of coordinated support that encourages them to become their own academic advocates. If it works, it’ll be better than détente; it’ll be Camp David.

For better or worse, tutoring is an assumed part of many students' daily lives, especially those who attend private schools. Let’s make it for the better.