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Here Comes the 24/7 Classroom

Will private tutoring reconfigure learning?

Topics: Education
Here Comes the 24/7 Classroom January 4, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland

Three years ago, educational consultant Paul Bennett began investigating for a media outlet what academic researchers had been intrigued by for at least a decade: the growth in private tutoring of Canada’s school-age students.

Bennett discovered in the statistical literature and by anecdotal observation that a pedagogical practice once limited to a corner of the kitchen table after school had mushroomed into a kind of alternative educational life, and in the process had become very big business.

“Private tutoring is the ‘new normal’ for Canadian families,” Bennett told Convivium recently from his home base in Halifax, where he blogs on educational issues. “When you travel across the country, you see an incredible number of tutoring businesses. Every mall has one, all with slightly different names. Kumon is everywhere. And they’re growing by leaps and bounds in urban Canada, and in the fast-growing suburbs.”

On his blog, Bennett, a former headmaster at prestigious Lower Canada College in Montreal, estimates tutoring revenue at more than $1 billion a year in Canada alone. That’s a substantial industry based on helping children with what were once called the basic Three Rs of education. It’s a pittance, though, compared to the worldwide estimates for tutoring, which the market research firm Global Industry Analysts estimates will come in at $102.8 billion in 2018 and rise to $227 billion by 2022.

While Canada accounts for only a small percentage of the global figure, Bennett points to surveys done by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) that show about 35 per cent of Ontario families now pay for tutoring to supplement their children’s education. That is up a full 10 per cent since OISE asked the question in 2002. The growth comes at a time when overall public school attendance is dropping sharply. More, it reflects a significant rebound from the sharp hit tutoring companies took during the 2008 financial crisis.

“They took a tremendous hit in 2008. A lot of those companies in a lot of those malls closed. But as soon as the economy started recovering, they were back, greater than ever,” Bennett said.

The economic factor fed into research that led Bennett to research beyond official surveys, international statistics, and coverage of tutoring in business media such as Forbes magazine. He spent time phoning owners of tutoring businesses and franchise outlets across Canada to get “local intelligence” on how they were faring and what their client base might be. What he sensed from those interviews was later confirmed to an extent by the 2015 OISE study in which earlier questions on tutoring were reframed.

“The OISE survey had always indicated that [tutoring] wasn’t rationed according to socioeconomic status. But their last survey asked more specific questions about income level. It’s increasingly rationed by income levels. With affluent families, it’s almost a requirement to have your child tutored,” Bennett says.

The “requirement” is met, he adds, by “the rise of 24/7 private online tutoring. That is the number-one change between 2012 and 2016.”

Bennett identifies five additional factors driving tutoring demand.

One is a desire for basic skill-based learning. “They can do math, but do they know to read, are they going to be functionally literate?”

A second is a desire for academic excellence that is far more prevalent in many new Canadian communities than in homegrown Canadian families. “Where’s the drive for excellence coming from? Look at Toronto, where they break their student population down by ethnicity. It’s amazing how the Asian students are soaring, and others are lagging behind.”

The third is growth in worldwide expenditures on education. “Korea spends 8 percent of its GDP on education, Finland 6.8 percent, the US 5.4 percent, the U.K. 6.2 percent. If people and governments are spending more on education, why wouldn’t you expect there to be growth in tutoring?” 

The fourth is called “age-inappropriate learning,” and is tied to both immigration and the global educational emphasis in which students are “bored to tears” by the prescribed Canadian curriculum and seek out tutors to challenge them. “Parents say, ‘this is ridiculous, you’re from South Africa, you already know all this. You’re doing Grade 9 math but you’re working at a Grade 11 level.’ So after school, they start accelerating and mastering things beyond the age in North America where you would normally be taught them.”

Finally, Bennett says, there is an imbalance between declining student populations and an oversupply of teachers coming out of university education faculties. “There’s a huge indication of surplus teachers in most districts across the country. The student population has dropped from 5 million to about 4.8 million in the public school system.” Because of the rising demand, those who can’t teach in established schools are able to find tutoring jobs.

The culmination of these forces pushing tutoring to the fore, he says, will be—and in some ways already is—a reshaping of how education is delivered, and even what we understand education to be. One of the most important shifts he identifies is in the understanding of when education is occurring. Just as 24/7 internet and social media devastated newspapers, just as 24/7 online shopping assaulted brick-and-mortar stores, so 24/7 private tutoring online will inevitably change how education is accessed. Bennett thinks ministries of education are as woefully unprepared for that moment as newspaper executives were in the early 2000s, or mall owners were when Amazon launched.

“What they don’t want to acknowledge is that learning starts at three o’clock, it doesn’t end at three o’clock. There is a huge blind spot in all of public schooling. They still don’t get that a significant amount of learning takes place after three, and online. They’re completely missing in action when it comes to after-three learning. They’re not in the game.”

Scott Davies, a University of Toronto professor and coordinator of OISE’s educational leadership and policy program, shares Bennett’s sense that educational bureaucracies are largely unconcerned with tutoring, though he does not think that’s cause to believe they’ll be blindsided at some point.

“I think their attitude is that it’s really not their business to tell parents and their children what to do after school,” Davies says. “I don’t think they see tutoring as fundamentally different from taking private music lessons. If someone wants to learn to play the trumpet after school, or go to a tutor, that’s up to them.”

Davies, who did his doctorate in sociology at the U of T and has published widely on school choice, educational inequality, and the learning gap caused by students being off school in the summer, uses the phrase “shadow education” to describe add-ons such as tutoring. He does agree that the convergence of online learning and tutoring, among other forms of “shadow education,” will lead to more flexibility in the way education gets to students, which he regards as only beneficial. For example, parents who add tutoring sessions to their child’s school kit are probably more likely to consider online study programs for either remedial or work-ahead reasons during summer vacation. Keeping kids engaged with learning on the family vacation can contribute to an easier, more productive return to formal schooling in the fall.

Davis is cautious, though, about overemphasizing the push and pull of tutoring and online learning as forces for education and therefore social change by themselves. He is not at all convinced that the wholesale embrace of online classrooms at the university level will cause a downward effect on public schools to prepare students for that form of learning. Likewise, he is politely skeptical that tutoring will create a wedge for greater social inequality in Canada.

“Tutoring tends to reflect the neighborhoods where it takes place,” Davies says. “The people who come to, say, a Kumon centre are generally people from that area. So, in that sense, it’s not a lot different in terms of inequality from the local school at the corner.”

This is borne out by Reesa MacKinnon, customer relations manager for the Teachers’ Tutoring Service in Vancouver. While the tutoring referral service is located on West Fourth Avenue across False Creek from the downtown core, it serves neighbourhoods and communities throughout metro Vancouver.

Accredited teachers or university students in graduate school put their names in a database. Parents or pupils from across the city and its suburbs request someone in their area to help them with a given subject. Most of the time, she says, geographic proximity is an important criterion for both student and tutor.

Demand is high, and rising, she says. With 330 tutors available to teach, the Teachers’ Service had 4,050 customer requests in 2016, leading to 1,550 confirmations. When Convivium spoke with her in November, that number had already grown to 5,500 tutoring requests, and 1,900 confirmations this year.

“And 2016 was up from 2015. We’ve been on a steady progression upward for the last four year,” MacKinnon says. “There’s been a change over the last ten years in how tutoring is regarded. It used to be something that was seen as remedial: you didn’t get a tutor unless you really needed help. Now people get tutors as a matter of course. It’s no longer ‘oh, you have a tutor.’ Now, it’s ‘who is your tutor?’”

MacKinnon says part of that shift is a result of cultural differences, with an increasing number of people in Vancouver coming from countries where external help is just a normal part of the schooling. But she downplays, for example, the influx of people specifically from Asian countries as a prime factor.

“There are more people requesting in general, so the makeup of the people is dependent on who lives where, and what population source is calling us from what area. It’s just a general acceptance of tutoring as a natural part of education.”

MacKinnon says that socioeconomic status is not the dividing line many think it is. There is a broad range of people who take advantage of the Teachers’ Service, from those who can easily afford the extra educational help for their children to those who struggle to find it in the budget but do so because they believe it’s important. Surprisingly, the Teachers’ Service attracts students from the city’s posh, costly private schools and its public schools in similar proportion, she says.

“Some people struggle with writing, some people struggle with math, and that doesn’t matter if you’re in private or public school. If you have trouble with those subjects, sometimes you need to get external help. There’s still only so much one teacher in a classroom can do.”

Teresa Murray in Hamilton would give a hearty, though qualified, amen to that, though perhaps not with quite the positive spirit MacKinnon intends. Murray retired about five years ago after thirty-two years teaching in the city’s Catholic schools. She left bitterly frustrated at how little one teacher could do to help pupils learn in the face of curriculum changes that she says make learning all but impossible.

Since then, she has become an activist advocate for curriculum reform, meaning a return to fundamental-skills learning and away from trends such as whole language and discovery math. She finds herself in an awkward paradox. She offers tutoring to help desperate parents salvage their children’s education. Yet she believes philosophically that tutoring only masks the very pedagogical problems it is used to resolve.

“I would never recommend tutoring. I think it’s a terrible thing. Most kids shouldn’t be getting tutoring. They’re getting tutoring because the schools are not providing what they need. The curriculum standards are too weak.”

She sees a vicious circle in which the curriculum-driven incapacity to read and do basic arithmetic in grades one and two, which she taught for much of her career, leads to serious learning difficulties in higher grades. Parental panic inevitably results.

“They feel lost. If my child is coming home and trying to do ridiculous homework, and screaming and crying, and I go to the teacher and the teacher can’t do anything and I go to the principal and the principal can’t help, what do I do? I turn automatically to tutoring. Most of the children I have tutored don’t need a tutor, and their parents know it. But they look at me and say, ‘Well, my child is not learning at school. I have no choice.’”

The deep problem, she says, is for those parents at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale who simply cannot afford tutoring the way those at the upper end can quite easily, or even the way those in the middle can make do with a bit of budgetary belt tightening. Few if any of the parents in the economically disadvantaged Hamilton schools she taught at over the years could imagine being able to pay for a tutor, she says. Their children, already facing steep obstacles as they entered school, were at enormous risk of falling further and further behind, she says.

Murray uses the word “segregation” when she speaks of what she’s seen happening in schools, and she doesn’t use it lightly. Every single child should have the opportunity to learn to read, add, subtract, multiply, divide, and acquire the basic learning foundational to educational success.

But with what she dismisses as “postmodern” educational theory rampant in schools, with textbooks that teachers simply can’t teach from, and with even primary-school children “discovering” what they want to learn, those opportunities are increasingly available only to those with money to pay for education outside the public system. The poor aren’t among them.

“Tutoring isn’t the best idea, but it’s proving better than the school system,” she says. “It’s giving parents what they want, which is basic arithmetic for their children. At least that’s better than having groups of six- and seven-year-olds who can’t even print numbers sit in groups and make meaning for themselves,” she says.

Public outcry against change gone too far, including petitions such as the one Murray herself has launched, have gone some way to restoring workable curriculum at least in math, she acknowledges. But there is still tremendous—and she believe unjust—pressure on parents to both pay for the shortcomings of the public system and give their own time for remedial work with their children.

She’s heard of some parents who put in 2,000 hours of supplementary work to undo the damage done by failure to teach children properly early on. In one survey she conducted, 90 per cent of 120 respondents blamed “lack of basics in the early grades” for later educational crises. How, Murray asks, is a single mother working two jobs to make ends meet supposed to pay for tutoring and/or put in two 2,000 of supplementary teaching that the school system has failed to provide?

“You can feel the desperation. I get random phone calls from parents who tell me they don’t know what to do, their child’s not learning, they want to put the child in private school, but they can’t afford it. They want to hire a tutor, but they can’t afford one. I hear these stories over and over again. But, I mean, who am I? Just some idealistic grade-one teacher who taught poor kids for most of my time.”

On Vancouver Island, parent Tara Houle confesses to feeling some of that “desperation” at times too, though in her case it’s directed at the political class and the educational bureaucracy that refuses to acknowledge there is even a problem in BC schools. Houle, founder of the BC branch of the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math), has been fighting for years to get “failed” curriculum models out of the province’s schools, and proven teaching methods restored.

In that time, one of the lessons she’s learned is that other parents can’t always be relied on to grasp the seriousness of the situation. Nor is it always most effective to work for change from the inside, she says.

“You sit on the parents’ council, and they love you as long as you’re there to help with fundraising. The minute you start asking questions about failures in the curriculum instead, you’re not so popular anymore. They don’t want to hear from you,” she told Convivium from North Saanich, just outside Victoria.

The essential defensiveness of those pushing “pseudo-scientific edu-babble and edu-fads” in the schools, she says, is part of the reason parents turn to tutoring or even private schools. They simply get fed up with being ignored, and follow the path to market-based educational alternatives.

Houle does not see the turn as a good thing. She is a staunch believer in public schooling. She deplores the creation of a “two-tiered” educational system where those who have can pay for supplementary benefits, and those who don’t can sink or swim.

“It’s estimated that up to 50 per cent of children now receive some form of math tutoring outside the classroom just to learn their times tables [either] at home, with a private tutor, or at a learning centre,” she wrote in a Vancouver Sun op-ed last May. “Those who can’t afford tutoring . . . fall even farther behind, increasing the gap even further.”

In a conversation with Convivium, her frustration bubbled when she spoke about the refusal of British Columbia’s educational establishment to take seriously the signals being sent by parents resorting to tutoring, private schools, or some combination of the two. She said she is consistently told that no figures are available on the use of tutors, and there’s no sense of urgency to do so.

“Wouldn’t you think you’d want to know?” she says. “You have parents paying [tutors] out of their own pockets so their children can learn what they aren’t learning in school, and you don’t want to know how many there are, or why? What that tells me is, you don’t want to admit you have a problem.”

Sociologist Janice Aurini, an associate professor that the University of Waterloo, suggests the problem might go far beyond more edu-cratic intransigence. No one really knows with any certainty, Aurini says, how tutoring works, or even whether it does.

“One of the thorny things that tutoring businesses struggle with is that they can’t demonstrate it actually works,” Aurini says. “Parents sort of have a sense it works, but then they’re the ones that are seeking out the service, so they’re probably doing other things as well.”

When she did her doctoral dissertation on the private tutoring industry a decade ago, Aurini spent a year working as a tutor for one of the large companies. She would oversee up to three children at a worktable. Some of them would be doing remedial study. In some cases, the children were getting enrichment. In both cases, she said, it was impossible to determine whether progress was a function of the tutoring and the approach, or whether it resulted from reinforcement by parents making the choice to pay for tutoring.

“Just the fact these parents are choosing means they’re a different kind of parent than the non-choosers,” She says. “The tutoring companies can’t actually show that, irrespective of other things, it’s the tutoring that makes the difference.”

This is the reason, she said, tutoring companies large and small don’t claim to be able to raise children’s grades. The large companies such as Kumon and Oxford will administer diagnostic tests at the beginning of a tutoring program, but advancement is measured purely against the tutoring company’s in-house standard.

“The child starts off at, say, level C in the program,” she says, “and by session twelve or whatever they promise, [the tutoring firm] will guarantee the child will go up to a level D. So the child technically goes up a level, but whether that maps onto how the child will do at school is another thing. My suspicion is, the parents who purchase tutoring are probably also doing other things, it’s part of a suite of things they’re doing. So it’s more the fact they’re aware there’s an issue that makes the difference.”

The uncertainty of cause and effect is one of the things that make Aurini, like her husband, Scott Davies, cautious about over-ascribing social inequality to such “shadow learning” practices as tutoring, especially in a Canadian context. Indeed, while she doesn’t quarrel with the 35 per cent figure cited in the most recent OISE study of parental purchase of tutoring, she does question what it really means.

The survey questions are frequently asked in terms of whether tutoring has been purchased in the last two or three years, as opposed to whether a child is receiving tutoring at that time. But Aurini points out that Canadian parents will most often buy a series of tutoring sessions for a child in the aftermath of a bad report card, or when the child reports struggling with a given subject.

“Then, if things seem to go well and the child increases the grade, the parents stop,” she says. “That’s very different than in other countries where tutoring is really institutionalized. There, tutoring is not seen as an intervention. It’s seen as a continuation of the school day. That’s very distinct from Canada, the US, and Australia.”

The distinction matters, she says, because of what it says about the quality of public schooling available in countries where tutoring is institutionalized, and in countries such as Canada, where it isn’t. It’s also reflective of the reality that in many of those countries, failure to get into the “right” university can have irrevocable, lifelong social and economic consequences. The margin for remediation after high school graduation is thin to non-existent, which ramps up enormously the pressure to succeed before post-secondary life starts.

“If you consider that high-stakes testing culture, and the variation in institutional prestige at the post-secondary level,” she says, “getting into the right post-secondary institution is incredibly high stakes and can make or break you. We don’t have that here. We’re very open, we give people second and third chances, and you can enter the post-secondary system at multiple points in your life.”

Because those contrasts are so institutionally embedded, Aurini says, it’s unlikely that Canada will adapt the reflexes of those who arrive from other countries and “get a job, get a house, and get tutoring for their children in that order.”

On the contrary, says Randy LaBonte of the Canadian eLearning Network (CeLN), it’s highly doubtful that Canadians will ever swing radically toward market-driven educational choices, whatever their dissatisfactions might be with the public system. Instead, the CeLN CEO contends, the evolution of K–12 education in this country is much more toward a “blended model” that combines the strengths of online learning and private tutoring with the necessity for a teacher-based classroom.

“Students in the K–12 system require some level of supervision, support, coaching, and counselling,” LaBonte says. “There’s a social-emotional aspect in a child’s development that has to be dealt with [face-to-face].”

LaBonte readily acknowledges the desire among Canadians for more flexible learning options, of which tutoring is a part because it allows students to be at school fewer than five days a week, and outside the traditional 8:30-to-3:30 time constraint. Nor does he question the role that e-learning, distance learning, and online tutoring play in that.

In fact, he says, Canada has a very rich history of distance learning reaching back to the nineteenth century.

“In the past, it was on paper. Now, it’s digital. But part of the strategy in K–12 has always been to build some level of engagement and support for students,” he says.

Even the turn to tutoring relies, at least in part, on that strategy since when parents and students show up at a learning centre or online facility, they encounter supervisors and teachers based in a physical place that essentially substitutes for the local school.

“They see it as the location where learning occurs. The presumption is that there must be a school of some kind,” he says.

Those who see private tutoring as a natural replacement for conventional schooling quickly discover the gaps it suffers in terms of quality, evaluation, and accountability. LaBonte also bristles at the very idea of “educational delivery” through the various portals of shadow education.

“We don’t deliver education. We encourage students to learn. And we support them in their learning.”

In fact, he says, the initial enthusiasm of five years ago for disembodied pure online learning has largely collapsed back to working with students in their own physical communities so that they can find time for classroom sessions to supplement the digital lessons. What LaBonte describes as “blended” learning roots technological opportunity in the firm ground of human reality. At the same time, it allows for the independent learning that is one of the basic appeals of the turn to tutoring.

“In our traditional model,” he says, “the teacher was the fountain of knowledge, knew everything, doled it out to us, encouraged us to engage in learning content, and then would create a level of assessment we would have to pass to show we understood.”

He continues, “Now, the learning model is evolving to the point where a student says, ‘I’m really interested in this stream and why it’s flooding’ so we go and look and soon we’re studying local geography and then on to climate change, and following where it leads. The teacher’s role is to tie that to the curriculum learning outcomes that are part of a particular program.”

Technology, even adapted for such things as Paul Bennett’s 24/7 private online tutoring, is an irresistible ally in this process, LaBonte says, but we are already learning that we cannot count on it to carry the full weight by itself. A human face will always be necessary in the classroom.

Back in Halifax, Bennett doesn’t dispute at all the need for educational counterweights, much less for the social and emotional supports young students need to learn well. He remains concerned, though, that Canadians aren’t listening carefully enough to what the rest of the world is telling us by what it’s doing in a fiercely competitive global educational environment.

“As far as tutoring goes, it’s funny the way there are always people in the school system that are very resistant to outside incursion into the curriculum. But what surprises me most is how very few people even care about this at all,” he says.

He goes on, “In highly competitive urban societies around the world, these are huge issues. Here, I have to fight just to keep kids in school so they’re not closing them for snow days. I get a lot of pushback for that. As far as these really important issues go, maybe five per cent of people worry about them. I don’t think that’s a good thing.”

We hope you have enjoyed this piece. We look forward to enlarging the conversation on important public issues with a long form series entitled Convivium Explorations throughout 2018.

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