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It Doesn’t Add Up: Why Does 39% of Our Student Population Pay for Math Tutoring?

Untitled-1Senior Kayla Blair describes herself as a driven student. When Blair needs academic help, she is proactive and seeks assistance from her teacher. Yet, halfway through her junior year, Blair started to fall behind in Advanced Algebra and, after attending multiple tutorial sessions with her teacher, she still felt she needed additional support outside of class.

“Even though I am the type of student who self-advocates, and I try to go out of my way [to get additional help], I still feel like it’s not enough,” Blair said. “I can’t imagine the kids who are a bit less outgoing, and especially when they see there’s a 10-minute line waiting for a teacher [during tutorial]. I try so hard but just can’t get help at Tam…and that should mean something.” Since that point during her junior year Blair has attended a study group session at Sage Educators, which consists of  a group of several students receiving instruction from a private, paid tutor every other week, in order to obtain the extra math instruction she feels she needs.

I’m disturbed by the notion of outside learning….If it’s needed, why can’t we provide that here at Tam?

-Counselor Sarah Gordon

Among the less outgoing students that Blair described is senior Walker Sapp. “When it comes to asking questions about a subject I’m completely baffled by, I tend to keep my head down and pretend I understand rather than asking what might constitute a dumb question,” Sapp said. “For kids who don’t understand things the first time and are hesitant to ask questions, they can go from slightly confused to behind in a matter of days.”

Sapp and Blair are among a large population of students at Tam who feel that they benefit from a private tutoring program such as Lifeworks Learning Center or Sage. According to Gregg Althen, a site director at Lifeworks, the location’s tutoring program is meant to provide students with both the structure and instruction that they feel they need outside of class in order to succeed.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of having a space where students know there aren’t many distractions and they are just able to sit and focus on their work,” Althen said of Lifeworks’s role in learning. “There are other times when having someone teaching or re-teaching them the material is exactly what they need….I have [math content knowledge] to offer, but I can also be a presence that just says, ‘Hey, let’s get organized here.’”

In a recent Tam News survey of 282 students in grades nine through 12, 43 percent of surveyed students stated that they have used a form of tutoring. Of those who received tutoring, 96 percent focused primarily on math. The survey indicated that 39 percent of Tam students pay for math tutoring and bypass the free options available at school. Why  are so many students paying for math tutors? Many students interviewed were quick to point to inadequate instruction as the reason for the high rate of paid tutoring, but the complete answer is likely more complex.

Counselor Sarah Gordon expressed concern over the large percentage of students who use paid tutors for math.  “I find it disturbing that we don’t hold the school accountable for students’ learning. These tutoring companies are great, but what if you can’t afford it?” Gordon said. “To supplement what’s being taught is one thing, but to go [to supplemental learning centers] to actually learn the material is another thing….Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve talked about [the tutoring] issue, but nothing has ever been done. I’m disturbed by the notion of outside learning….If it’s needed, why can’t we provide that here at Tam?”

The survey data reflects Gordon’s concerns, calling into question the quality of instruction in the Tam math department. Of the surveyed students using math tutors, 54 percent said that they began tutoring because they felt their math teacher was not giving them adequate instruction. Numerous students cited a bad relationship with a teacher as a motivator for going to tutoring. Senior Marley Townsend explained how she dropped her math class and opted to take math online with the help of private tutoring after developing a negative relationship with her math teacher. “I actually had to leave math at Tam, because I had such a poor experience with teachers…because [one teacher] refused to work with me and refused to help me get better, and I’m not the kind of person who learns math quickly.  She was moving the class at such a fast pace that I couldn’t…keep up,” Townsend said. “The biggest problem is there’s a sort of lack of support for students who fall through the cracks.”     

Similarly, Sapp began to consider tutoring after he had trouble getting individualized help in class with material that he found challenging.  “I remember being in [my] math class asking [my teacher] countless times for help on a specific problem, and he would refer me to my notes every time,” Sapp said. “Unfortunately I didn’t understand the notes I had taken, and he seemed unwilling to help me understand them.” Sapp began attending tutoring sessions at Lifeworks as a result.

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A decline in math standardized test scores raises additional questions about the quality of instruction in the Tam math department. Between 2009 and 2013, all freshmen were required to take the Algebra I California Standards Test (CST). In 2009, 45 percent of students scored proficient or above on the test. In 2010, 37 percent of students were proficient. The score went down to 30 percent in 2011, 29 percent in 2012, and finally fell to 24 percent in 2013. The CST was discontinued at Tam following the 2013 school year, and in 2015 students began taking the California Student Assessment of Student Progress (CSASP), better known as the “Smarter Balance Assessment.” In comparison to other Marin schools such as Redwood and Drake, Tam students have generally performed worse than their peers on the the CSASP. The results of the test taken in 2015 showed that only 52 percent of Tam students met or exceeded the proficient mathematics achievement level. Fellow Tam District high schools Redwood and Drake scored 74 percent and 64 percent in the same category, respectively, according to the California Department of Education website. Although this decline in student performance on the exam seems congruent with the criticism of the department’s teachers, there are a variety of factors that may have influenced this trend.

Math department teacher leader David Wetzel attributes the drop in standardized test scores to a range of challenges. One such challenge that Wetzel described was the frequent teacher turnover in the department. “The more stable a math department is, the more consistent the scores will be, which you saw in this department five or six years ago, when we had teachers that had been here for 10 years and working together for 10 years,” Wetzel said. “I think you’re going to see that trend no matter what department you’re in.” Tam’s math department has experienced significant turnover in the past few years, such as when three young math teachers were unexpectedly let go in 2014, a move that was protested by many teachers, students, and parents.

Tam’s growing student population is another trend that poses problems, according to Wetzel. Since the 2009-2010 school year, Tam’s student population has increased by approximately 300 students, and Tam’s enrollment is projected to increase by 328 students over the next five years, according to the TUHSD Enrollment Projection. “What I’ve found over the last few years is that our low level courses have had 29, 30, 31, 32 kids in [them] which just makes it impossible for me to get around to every kid who needs one-on-one help every day,” Wetzel said. “I’ve found that every day when the bell rings there are kids who haven’t gotten the attention from me that they needed, which makes it difficult for them to get back up to speed.”

Students have also noted that an increase in class size has negatively affected their relationships with their teachers. “I would try and talk to my teacher during tutorial, but he was always busy so I could not get the right amount of attention that I needed,” junior Olivia Phillips said.

Administrators are aware of this issue and have expressed their concern. “The student-to-teacher ratio is very high, which is not uncommon in large public high schools,” assistant principal Leah Herrera said. “It’s challenging to give substantive feedback when you have 150 students.”

A constant challenge for math teachers is that many students simply don’t enjoy math. “Math is a very difficult subject, and especially in the high school levels,” counselor Alex

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Hunt said. “Not everybody grasps it the same way, or can grasp it, period. So math teachers are inherently cut off at the knees at the get-go. Not to mention there’s a major negative stigma against math…not a lot of kids say ‘I’m excited to go to math today.’” The Tam News survey indicated that 28 percent of students who attend paid math tutoring do so because they feel that their teacher is instructing them adequately, yet they still need more help.

So quality of instruction at Tam may only be part of what’s driving students to paid tutoring, and perhaps not even the most significant part. According to a June 11 article published by the Redwood Bark, approximately 45 percent of 160 surveyed Redwood students said they paid for a math tutor. Given that Redwood students use paid math tutors at a higher rate than Tam, the quality of math instruction at Tam may not be the biggest reason students seek out paid tutors. Many Tam students may be attending tutoring because they can, not because they need to.

In an article for The Observer, Helen Zelon hypothesizes that parents often “hire tutors because the tutor is a kind of high-powered human shortcut to a desired end.” Students view the extra time and mental exertion that they could spend doing homework by themselves as a nuisance, and turn to tutoring as a means of homework efficiency, according to Zelon. “I don’t think all kids who go to tutoring actually need it, but they do become reliant on it, or think they [need to go to tutoring],” counselor Alex Hunt said.

Wetzel agrees that many students may use tutoring as a shortcut. “Students that stop using my [math] help dislike the fact that I make them work, I make them think. I don’t just answer their question so they can get their work done,” Wetzel said. “I make them show me that they understand what they’re doing when they leave the room, and that’s too much work for a lot of kids.”

Blair attends math tutoring once every-other week, which is far less than many Tam students for whom paid tutoring can be a weekly or even twice-weekly event. She said that it was  frustrating to hear how friends complete their work with the ease of a tutor’s help. “Hearing how my friends only spent an hour on an assignment because they did it at Lifeworks while I slaved away for hours alone at my desk made me want to go to a tutoring center,” Blair said. “I would just think, why should I have to spend my entire night on this when everyone else is breezing through it with a tutor? It’s definitely hard to be in a class where everyone is going to a center to do the work.”

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Wetzel thinks that the affluence of the community combines with a lack of willingness to grasp the nuances of material lead students to tutoring. “The first flippant reason [that students might go to tutoring] is that the money’s there, so why not grab another resource?” Wetzel said. “We have a population here that strives for grades, and when they find out that they didn’t get the grade they wanted, i.e. an A, they try to find a tool that will help them get the grade. And I would say the flaw in that logic is, they’re trying to get the grade, they’re not trying to get the understanding. I see the results of that flaw when I give tests. Students will have a 100 percent in homework, because they went and got support for it, and then they come back and they get a 72 on a test.”

Hunt acknowledged that, in a community where students are as high-achieving as Tam’s, parental and college pressures are driving forces behind students’ decisions to go to math tutoring. “This community is incredibly competitive, to the point where it’ll have a negative effect on a lot of our kids,” Hunt said. “Parents want the best for their kids, but they think the best for their kids is the best college possible, and by that just the most competitive, and so every kid should have above a 4.0 and a perfect SAT score. And that’s just not a reality that anyone can live up to.”

Sapp said that his decision to go to tutoring was prompted by his parents’ wishes for him to improve his performance in several of his classes. “[My decision to go to tutoring] was mostly influenced by my parents pushing me,” he said. “[It became] clear that I needed to get help somehow because they wanted me to have every opportunity to go to whatever I college I wanted to.”

While staff and students interviewed agreed that paid tutors are appropriate in certain cases, few students seemed aware of multiple free tutoring programs offered on campus. Wetzel provides tutoring before school in his classroom. Math teacher Rebecca Henn leads a Link Crew tutoring program, in which Link leaders tutor students on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the library after school. Other math teachers offer before school, tutorial, lunch, and after school times where students can come and get help.

Wetzel expressed frustration about the underutilization of Tam’s free tutoring opportunities. Junior Georgia Pemberton, who is a Link Crew peer tutor, described how she has volunteered since December and has only tutored two people the entire year. Even though Pemberton and other Link Crew members have made regular announcements about these opportunities, most interviewed students were unaware of them.  “I haven’t gone to the Tam tutoring sessions purely because I wasn’t aware of it before I started Lifeworks,” senior Gavin Sakamoto said.

Hunt thinks that Tam offers many opportunities for students to get help without having to pay for it. “I think we allow a lot of time and support here, at Tam. I don’t know that students utilise that to the best of their ability,” she said.

Wetzel and AP Calculus teacher Susan Proksch also said that if students took more advantage of class time to ask questions and comprehend the material they are learning, paid tutoring after school wouldn’t be as necessary. “I don’t know why they [go to paid tutoring], since I have a full tutorial [during which they can get help],” Proksch said. “During my help times, I don’t have a lot of students asking for help. Students aren’t really using that time, and they aren’t asking questions…there’s a lot that don’t, and they’re more relying on Lifeworks and …Sage.” Proksch recounted instances when students who were struggling with her material would spend class and tutorial time on their phones or talking to each other, and would count on paid time at a tutoring company after school to learn the material they had missed out on during class.

Regardless of whether 39 percent of students truly need paid math tutors, such a high percentage can have negative repercussions. By running to a tutor the second they encounter a problem they cannot understand, students may miss out on the reward of struggling – a reward that neurologists have shown helps development. According to psychologist Jason Moser, who studied the neural mechanisms that operate in people’s brains when they make mistakes, mistakes prompt distinct electrical signals that move between synapses when learning occurs. Many staff members interviewed expressed concern that some students view homework as a path to a grade – one that should be crossed in the shortest time possible – rather than an opportunity to work through difficult concepts and come out with a deeper understanding and ownership of the material.

Another concern is that the large segment of Tam students paying for tutoring may have begun to develop a classist system within a public school. The cost of off-campus private tutoring is staggering – a two-hour session at Lifeworks costs $100. Segments of Tam’s student population aren’t equipped to pay for this. Some of these students who are aware of on-campus tutoring opportunities might be receiving the extra help they need, but those who aren’t are left completely in the dust. Students who attend a public school are in theory all supposed to receive the same educational benefits, but the playing field becomes skewed when a large segment of the school’s population is receiving extra instruction that other students simply cannot afford.

“[Students who can’t pay for tutoring are at] a major disadvantage,” Hunt said. “Yes, the students who can’t pay for tutoring, they can get help from teachers. We also do have free tutoring, mostly in math, on campus. But…that means they have to give up tutorial time, or lunch time, or before or after school. What if they play sports? Just because they have less money that doesn’t mean that they don’t have just as many time constraints as other kids.”

None of the people interviewed for this story – neither teachers nor students – seemed happy with the fact that 39 percent of Tam students pay for math tutoring. A number of steps are being taken to reduce this figure – our district is exploring methods to keep class sizes down, our math department is working to stabilize and improve instruction methods, and students are being made increasingly aware of opportunities for free help on campus. Once this is taken into consideration, parents and students may want to think twice before hiring that paid tutor – if they think they might want to do so, a discussion with teachers and counselors about the student’s learning needs and the ways their teachers can better service those needs might be in order.  “I believe that tutoring, whether it’s here, or paid, is a tool,” Wetzel said. “What you use that tool for is dependent on [the individual needs of] every student.




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  1. F. H. Fabend

    An excellent article that covers all the bases. These students ought to consider investigative reporting as careers.
    I had trouble with math back in the 1950s, and I had to repeat Algebra 1 in 10th grade. I did okay in Plane Geometry (75%), and in my senior I took a full-year course in Intermediate Algebra, which was normally a semester course taken in the 11th grade. These were all good options for the student who was able but not so able in math. Good math students often helped poorer ones on a free-lance basis. I don’t recall any formal tutoring programs, but it sounds like Tam is on the right track to figure out and improve the statistics. Congratulations to the reporters! Excellent information presented in a legible and coherent way.


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