Are Tutors the Academic Equivalent of Steroids?

Am I alone in being deeply depressed about the item in The New York Times a couple of days ago about the wide use of tutors at private schools in New York City?  My first emotion was amazement that people will spend $35K on a private school and then drop the same amount on tutors.  But my second emotion was darker, and I found myself wondering about the moral difference between a baseball player on steroids and a high-school kid stuffed to the gills to achieve higher results on the SAT’s or grades in class.

Let us assume that the tutoring does work. (I have no reason to think it doesn’t.)  First, there is the question of whether all of the pressure on high-school students is a good thing, and even more the question of whether all of the focus on passing exams or assignments is a good thing.  When I was at high school in England in the 1950′s, we did not have outside tutoring—we were boarding away from home—but we did have very extensive training on exam passing.  I referred in my last post to my difficulties at university and I am sure they were compounded by the fact that I simply didn’t know how to work and study on my own.  I had been so forcibly spoon fed for the previous five years.  I wonder if this also happens to American students today when they go away to college.

Second, does the tutoring have a lasting effect?  Are the successful (because of tutoring) students at high school really more successful at college?  This is an empirical question to which I don’t have a ready answer.  If this is indeed so, then is there a message for the rest of us?  Should regular high schools give the basic information through the equivalent of online courses—I am assuming that in the present climate no-one is going to pay for more staff—and then the teachers could be freed up for intensive one-on-one tutoring?

Third, if the tutoring does not have a lasting effect, then so what?  This seems to me to be the really problematic, steroid-equivalent case, because now we have kids who got into posh universities but who really don’t belong there.  At least, not on the academic qualifications on which they were admitted.  One possibility is that the universities are just being fooled on admissions and I wonder if they are aware of this and what steps they take to avoid the damage.  Again, an empirical question to which I just don’t have the answer.

Another possibility—and perhaps this is just a figment of my nasty imagination—is that the universities know precisely what is going on and acquiesce in the practice.  The tutor-stuffed, new students are rich, or at least their parents are.  Hence, the prospect of full payment of fees, not to mention donations down the road.  In the good old days, the universities would just have taken the kids.  Now they cannot be quite so brazen, but it still goes on thanks to queen-bee-jelly treatment before admission.

Please note that my concern is not with private education as such or with the very idea of tutoring.  There are times when steroid use is appropriate. But I am worried about what seems to me to be a systematic distortion of the system by the very rich.

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