Push for A’s at Private Schools Is Keeping Costly Tutors Busy
Siddharth Iyer spent eight Mays cramming for finals, first at Stuyvesant High School and then at Columbia University.
Nine years later, it is still crunch time for Mr. Iyer, a top tutor at Ivy Consulting Group, as his clients face a deluge of end-of-year exams. “He’s been prepping my son all week,” said the mother of one, a senior at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, speaking on the condition that she not be named because Riverdale discourages both tutoring and talking to reporters.
“Prepping” — in this case for an oral exam in Riverdale’s notorious Integrated Liberal Studies, an interdisciplinary class laden with primary sources instead of standard textbooks — did not start the week before the exams, the mother pointed out. She said she had paid Mr. Iyer’s company $750 to $1,500 each week this school year for 100-minute sessions on Liberal Studies, a total of about $35,000 — just shy of Riverdale’s $38,800 tuition.
Last year, she said, her tutoring bills hit six figures, including year-round SAT preparation from Advantage Testing at $425 per 50 minutes; Spanish and math help from current and former private school teachers at $150 an hour; and sessions with Mr. Iyer for Riverdale’s equally notorious interdisciplinary course Constructing America, at $375 per 50 minutes.
Private SAT tutors have been de rigueur at elite New York private schools for a generation, but the proliferation of subject-matter tutors for students angling for A’s is a newer phenomenon that is beginning to incite a backlash. Interviews with parents, students, teachers, administrators, tutors and consultants suggest that more than half of the students at the city’s top-tier schools hire tutors, an open secret that the schools seem unable to stop.
“There’s no family that gets through private school without an SAT tutor,” said Sandy Bass, the mother of two former Riverdale students and the founder of the newsletter Private School Insider. “Increasingly, it’s impossible to get through private school without at least one subject tutor.”
A decade ago, Advantage Testing, perhaps the city’s premier tutoring company, was essentially an SAT-prep factory; in the years since, said its founder, Arun Alagappan, academic tutoring has grown by 200 percent.
“More and more you have ambitious and intellectually curious students signing up for difficult classes,” said Mr. Alagappan, whose 200 tutors bill $195 to $795 for 50 minutes (though he said pro bono tutoring accounted for 26 percent of the work). “It’s no longer O.K. to have one-on-one coaching for sailing but not academics.”
What is most troubling to those trying to curtail academic tutoring is that instead of remedial help for struggling students, more and more of it seems to be for those trying to get ahead in the intensely competitive college-application race. Gone are the days of a student who was excellent at math and science just getting by in English and history; now, everyone is expected to be strong in everything (including fencing, chess, woodworking and violin).
As more solid or even stellar students hire expensive tutors, the achievement bar rises, and getting ahead quickly becomes keeping up.
“B used to mean good,” said Victoria Goldman, author of “The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools” and a Riverdale board member until 2007. “Everyone’s forgotten that.”
Michael Michelson, director of academic studies at Riverdale, said the school’s policy was to discourage tutors, and to make teachers accessible for extra help. “We believe that all of our students are capable of fully understanding this course material without the aid of tutors,” Mr. Michelson wrote in an e-mail. “We are troubled by the inequity that exists when families (we believe unnecessarily) employ tutors.” He said he believed that the vast majority of Riverdale students did not use tutors.
At a gathering last month of the heads of private school Parents’ Associations, the Dalton representative voiced concern about the escalation of tutoring, wondering how schools could better track it and what it meant for students who could not afford it, said one person who was at the meeting. (Ivy Consulting, Advantage and other tutoring outfits do offer free tutoring for low-income students.)
At Nightingale-Bamford, the May online newsletter linked to an article about the downside of tutoring, after the prevalence of high-priced help even in elementary grades became a frequent topic at lower-school coffees this spring, according to a parent who attended.
Some parents are outraged that the sky-high tuition no longer seems to fully buy the brand-name education.
“There’s always resentment when you are paying that much money and you have bright kids, that you have to supplement that,” said one Dalton parent, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the school does not want parents to speak to the news media.
But Larry Roth, who was head of the Parents’ Association at Dalton while his two sons attended the school, said the sentiment he heard was “If I am an affluent person, why wouldn’t I help my kid out?” a notion he found wrongheaded.
The schools have a complicated relationship with tutoring. Generally, they discourage it: Riverdale requires students to specify on graded take-home assignments whether they have had assistance; Dalton asks families to exhaust the school’s resources first, and then if outside help is deemed necessary, the school’s learning specialists try to coordinate it. But if tutoring lifts students’ scores and grades, and thus their admission chances at the most competitive colleges, that can benefit the schools’ reputations.
“The policy is that you are not supposed to have a tutor,” said the Riverdale mother. “The reality is that they all have them.”
Dalton has tried to level the playing field by offering free tutoring, starting in middle school a decade ago, then adding elementary grades and high school last year. The after-school service draws between 25 and 50 students, said a person familiar with the program. Dalton has 1,300 students.
And while the schools encourage students to work with their teachers instead of racking up tutoring bills, parents said teachers were often unavailable — because they have taken second jobs tutoring students at another school (they are prohibited from tutoring for pay at their own schools).
Some families are afraid to use the school services or let the administration know they are hiring outsiders, lest their child be perceived as struggling, leading to the widespread practice of what some call “stealth tutoring.”
Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Blessing of a B-,” said excessive tutoring, stealth or declared, can damage a child’s intrinsic motivation and self-esteem. “The tutoring is saying, ‘You have to perform at a high level in every subject and we don’t believe you can solve your problems on your own,’ ” Dr. Mogel said.
One common parental complaint is that a tutor seems almost expected for certain classes, like Riverdale’s Integrated Liberal Studies and Constructing America. “There are tutors who have bought an apartment with the money they’ve made on Constructing America,” said Ms. Bass, whose older daughter took the class the first year it was offered, 2003, and did not use a tutor.
Mr. Michelson said that a few years ago, Riverdale administrators met with Mr. Iyer’s business partner, Ryan Chang, out of concern that by Ivy Consulting marketing itself as “experts” in the school’s interdisciplinary classes, the tutoring was “harming our community.”
“Naturally, the only people they could appeal to were the families that could afford their high fees,” Mr. Michelson said. “Because they had worked with so many of our students, they had our materials, and they were using it and giving our students access to information — it created an inequity that was profoundly disturbing.”
Mr. Iyer denied it had a curriculum tailored to the course and said about 70 percent of their tutoring was geared toward standardized tests. He said the meeting was amicable.