kitchen table math, the sequel: Kate on teaching & tutors in an affluent district

Friday, June 19, 2009

Kate on teaching & tutors in an affluent district

I teach in a district with many wealthy families.

Some of the teachers at my school drive very nice cars. They are all married to someone who makes alot more than we do.

Some parents would hire a tutor whether their child needs it or not. They feel like if they don't, they're not doing everything they can. 

I don't think tutors are particularly helpful, for several reasons.

In my experience the main benefit of a tutor is that it compels students who tend to blow off/copy assignments to sit and focus on math for at least an hour a week.

I prefer my students not get tutored because they sometimes cop an attitude in class like they don't have to pay attention, because the tutor will teach it to them later. (This is not very many students...just an obnoxious, overprivileged few.) Overall it sends a message that parents don't trust teachers to get the job done.

All that being said, most of my students don't have tutors. They participate in learning activities and complete the work I ask them to, and we get good results.

Thanks, Kate!

(Back in a bit - I promised myself I would do "first things first" this morning. Sure, I've already broken that promise, but that's why God invented the mid-course correction.)


Anonymous said...

She says there are several reasons why tutors aren't helpful, but then fails to provide those reasons (other than to say that some kids cop an attitude). What about the kid who isn't learning in class? Sometimes tutoring is necessary. In fact, if a child is a weak student, it's often necessary.

Barry Garelick said...

I tutor students. The parents decide on tutoring when the child isn't doing well in class. I provide tutoring to help the student do the material that's being covered in class, and expect the student to do the homework assignments and pay attention. In some cases, paying attention does no good because the teaching is so bad. Tutoring then becomes the way they get what's going on.

My daughter just finished Algebra 1for the year. Her teacher was someone I knew from students of his I tutored over the years. He sequences the material appropriately but his delivery is very bad (he talks VERY LOUD, doesn't entertain questions--i.e., gets mad at the student for asking something that he feels he just explained and refuses to answer the question), moves too rapidly through material in class for students to grasp what he's doing, does not offer opportunities to practice the newly learned material in class and so on. I essentially taught my daughter what she wasn't getting in class. She did well but others were not so fortunate. Scores on quizzes and tests of other students were typically in the 60's and 70's.

If there was anyone in that class "copping an attitude" it might, just MIGHT, have been because they resented being yelled at for asking questions, and therefore shut down.

Kate Nowak said...

I should have stated the point more directly - it often lets kids off the hook for taking responsibility for their learning. "Teacher not doing his job" is not the only reason tutors are hired, nor the only reasons some kids are more successful when they have tutors.

But it goes both ways - if "a kid isn't learning" in a class, then it's a teacher's responsibility to both be aware of it and do something about it.

Thanks for sharing my viewpoint, Catherine. I appreciate that this blog refrains from gratuitous teacher-bashing. We are on the same side.

Amy P said...

Some of the time, the issue is that the kid just hears "wah-wah-wah" (the Charlie Brown teacher voice) when they're in class. If a tutor can break through and actually be heard, they are performing a major service.

ChemProf said...

I'll semi-agree with Kate. A few years ago, we implemented tutoring by the course TAs for students who were really struggling, usually because of inadequate preparation or miserable math skills. We found we had to put in a "miss two sessions and you lose your slot" policy, as struggling students also often blew off the tutoring session, partly I suspect because it was free.

Tutoring can work really well for a student who needs to see the material again, and who comes to the session having looked over her notes and with questions. There, I've seen 30-60 minutes with the tutor each week changing a low C into a mid-range B (or even in one extreme case, a student who had failed twice ending up with an A!) It can be nearly useless for a student who comes with nothing, hasn't looked at anything, and isn't even sure where to start. Of course, I'm also talking about college students, where "taking responsibility for your own learning" is actually appropriate!

Anonymous said...

We have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing the problems with math curriculum, the insufficient writing instruction, the lack of explicit grammar lessons, and other missing elements that may not prevent a student from getting an "A" in high school depending on the coursework.

These omissions will likely prevent most students from writing well, raeding with discernment, and thinking clearly throughout their lives.

What about those of us who hire tutors not to get their child ready for school where the standards are often too low. We're hiring tutors so that they don't get to college with "As" only to discover they lack the foundation to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer.

Kate Nowak said...

Hey, I can't speculate on every parent's motivation for hiring a tutor. I never said there are no good reasons for doing so. I'm just commenting that I've observed cases where I feel a tutor wouldn't be warranted if the child was held accountable for the work expected of him/her. We should be building the expectations for student responsibility throughout high school, so that kids are ready to roll when they get to college, and not freak out when someone is not holding their hand and stroking their ego through every step of an assignment. I feel that sometimes throwing money at the problem is a substitute for competent parenting. I certainly don't intend to cast aspersions on every family that decides to employ a tutor.

If you are so displeased with the curriculum offered by your school, I hope you are taking political action at the local and state level to effect change. Many teachers are dissatisfied with curricula, too, you know. We could form a powerful coalition, teachers and parents together. I personally have a deep appreciation for the content leading up to a study of analysis; what we are supposed to be teaching to college-bound students. I'm as frustrated as anyone when I see it watered down, and that I have to deal with this mile-wide-inch-deep problem that plagues us in NY state. I would appreciate the opportunity to teach from an actual thoughtfully developed, complete curriculum, instead of the grab-bag of disjointed standards that we are handed in place of one.

Anonymous said...

The teachers cannot speak up because we WILL be forced out, non-renewed.

There aren't enough parents in the right place to change anything.

The textbook companies are in control.

The only solution is tutoring, if you gamble on the public school, homeschool, or private.

Kate Nowak said...

I truly don't believe it's as hopeless as you portray.

I don't understand "teachers will be forced out, non-renewed." I'm practically hoarse from speaking up, and I don't fear for my job one bit. Syracuse University this year is hosting a colloquium for teachers from around Onondaga County so that we can pressure NYSED to get the standards, even though they are not a real curriculum, revised with some sanity when they are up for review.

I don't understand "the textbook companies are in control", either. Schools don't have to purchase ANY textbook, if they don't want to. Check out Arlington. They wrote their own, it's fantastic, and it's available for free online.

But maybe you don't see it my way, "Anonymous" (a first name would be nice, really) and we are going to just have to be ok with disagreeing with each other.

Allison said...

Ms. Nowak,

Thanks for your courage hanging out here. I am not sure exactly what you meant by the "we" in "we are on the same side", but I'll assume you meant that you personally want your students to succeed and you believe their parents do too.

But I don't think you really understand the problem if you think parents at the local and state level can affect change when acting in their role as parents. It's absurd to think that. Catherine does yeoman's work trying to change a school district whose entire enrollment is less than 2000 kids, and even she hasn't yet succeeded in changing one stitch of curriculum. Some of us are fighting in districts 20 or 40 times that in size. It takes a Steve Barr to fight--and he doesn't have any kids at all--in fact, that' s about what it takes, otherwise you're a hostage. Unless it's your paid ambition, you don't have the firepower to make changes. They do what they do.

You said "it often lets kids off the hook for taking responsibility for their learning. " While I agree that college students need to be responsible for their learning, the idea that we need to work on this "responsibility" at an ever decreasing age is another way to blame the student. Even your phrasing of "letting the kids off the hook" indicates you mistakenly think that teens or preteens are little adults. But they aren't. They aren't ready to be more responsible now. They are young.

It does no good to pretend that just handing more responsibility to younger people makes them responsible.

The ability to handle more responsibility comes from creating mastery of actual responsibilities, and that mastery comes from being instructed in how to do it well enough that you don't feel the responsibility is a burden. That means actually being instructed in how to do it. You speak as if that main benefit--that it actually COMPELS A STUDENT TO DO MATH!" is a trivial thing. But it isn't! It's the very nature of what will actually make someone ABLE to do math, to take on the responsibility of solving a problem, of then solving 2, then 10, then 100. The real issue is why a tutor CAN compel that but a teacher can't.

It may be that some of your students feel they don't have to pay attention. But maybe, just maybe, what you call "Them not Paying Attention" is their teacher not keeping their attention. If teachers don't lecture, don't hand out enough homework, don't correct assignments, can't outline how the problem is solved until the student reaches mastery, then what exactly are they supposed to pay attention to?

If I were really overprivileged, why would my parents hiring a tutor compel me to do anything at all? It wouldn't--I could just as easily blow that off. So why does it work when the tutor's there, but not when the teacher is? Could it be that what the tutor DOES is the difference?

And finally--you're right, it DOES send the message that parents don't trust the teachers. For lots of us, we don't. And we shouldn't, because experience has told us that our childrens' math teachers don't know much if any math. That may be a world we each find tragic, but rather than being concerned that that's the message, the best solution would be to try and earn their trust, not simply be upset that a teacher has to do that.

Barry Garelick said...

Allison said it nicely.

In my view, as a tutor, I know from my experience with various students, including my daughter, that kids generally want to be able to do it on their own. My daughter was fortunate to have great math teachers in the 7th and 8th grades. I rarely had to help her with homework, or go over something they did in class. And she was proud that she was able to get it on her own "without Dad's help".

This year, we were back to where we were in elementary school. She did pay attention to the extent she could--there were times when she would tell me that my method of doing something was not how the teacher told them to do it, and so I could see she wasn't just spacing out in class.

So there needs to be a combination of good teaching and good curriculum. Students need instruction as Allison said. Unfortunately the ed school philosophy that direct instruction is "handing it to the student" sometimes prevails. There are times when you have to make the students think and come up with things, for sure. There are other times when they are ready to be told.

SteveH said...

"Overall it sends a message that parents don't trust teachers to get the job done."

The job ISN'T getting done. That's the whole reason for the existence of KTM. I tell parents that it's up to them to ensure mastery of basic skills in math because the school won't do it. I tell them to hire a tutor or send their kids to Kumon if they have to. It's too bad if some kids cop an attitude, but that's a reflection on the child and not tutoring. Many kids get lots of help outside of school and never cop an attitude.

"I certainly don't intend to cast aspersions on every family that decides to employ a tutor."

Well, that's exactly what you did when you started out.

"If you are so displeased with the curriculum offered by your school, I hope you are taking political action at the local and state level to effect change."

You must be new to KTM. We have years of practice. You can add national level to that list.

"...what we are supposed to be teaching to college-bound students. I'm as frustrated as anyone when I see it watered down, ..."

Schools reap what they sow. Low expectations start in K-6, where everything is warm and fuzzy and schools tell kids that it's all OK. They will learn when they are ready. Then they are hit in 7th grade by the new regimen; tracking in math and taking responsibility for your own learning or you will get really bad grades and/or detentions. By the time kids get to high school, it's easy to look at their attitudes, skill levels, and unwillingness to work and not look deeper into the problem. It's not just about setting higher standards in high school.

lgm said...

>>Schools don't have to purchase ANY textbook, if they don't want to. Check out Arlington. They wrote their own, it's fantastic, and it's available for free online.

Do you have the link? Didn't see that; noticed they took down all their end of term practice tests to.

I'd like to point out that Arlington is a district with a lot of techie and professional parents who push for their children to be math competent and for all to aspire to excellence. They are willing to fund those desires. They also allow students to challenge themselves - their barrier to honors courses is very reasonable.

The tyranny of the majority is the bigger problem here. Districts with high populations of people who view education as elitism are destroying students' chances at higher education by not providing the teachers and/or restricting access to courses needed to prepare the students for post-high school work. The politics in this state regarding education is horrible and is working against the interests of the students and the majority of the populace.

lgm said...

Please forgive my pre-coffee errors. I had not remembered that I could not edit after posting.

Catherine Johnson said...

I appreciate that this blog refrains from gratuitous teacher-bashing. We are on the same side.


The people who are accountable, ultimately, are administrators & school boards.

I still haven't gotten around to posting anything about Richard DuFour & Adlai Stevenson High School, but I will.

That is his message: the school, as a school, has to take responsibility for all students learning.

It can't be left to the individual teacher.

Catherine Johnson said...

Scores on quizzes and tests of other students were typically in the 60's and 70's.

Apparently there's one freshman biology class here where perhaps 9 out of 15 or 16 kids failed the class.

Either failed or very close to.

But again, fixing that situation is ultimately the responsibility of management.

Presumably if this teacher were capable of teaching better he/she would do so.

If, and I'm speaking hypothetically, he/she is not capable of teaching better or is unwilling to teach better, that is management's responsibility, too.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Here,

Non-renewed, forced out.

This means that you are made to feel so uncomfortable in your position that you look for another job and you are unable to even get an interview at another school in one of the 15 largest districts in the country. So you move to another district, lose the "tenure" and then are non-renewed due to budget cuts and mostly disagreement with teaching fuzzy math.

I taught at one of the states way down there on the list of funding. I think it's 49 or 50. I was doing fine until I had a daughter. Then I started looking at every kid like she was my own. I'm not proud of that fact, but at least I finally saw the light. That's when things started going wrong. It also coincided with Everyday Mathematics being adopted by the district. I saw gifted kids in the 6th grade who couldn't multiply and divide. Kids who should have been able to move up to algebra in the 7th grade. I had work to do. I had to re-teach them everything from 4th and 5th grade and do 6th and pre-algebra so they could be where they should be.

When I was anonymous at school I wasn't bothered, but I got so excited by the changes that I started talking about it. The beginning of the end was the first week of October 2006.

I wish that I had quit first instead of them "quitting" me. I am starting to realize that I don't want to work in the system anymore. My daughter does Kumon, because I want other teachers for her besides me. Her Kumon teacher is from India. We will begin ALOHA abacus training, another teacher from India, next month. I hope to begin teaching abacus in the near future.

I know that the emotion and frustration you are reading here are not very productive, but I have been dying inside for a long time.

Former Public School Teacher

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous,

It sounds like you're from IL.

No, seriously,

You're in good company here. But, we don't just complain. We also try to share what we're doing about the situation.

Make sure you check out some older posts, as well as the old KTM. And, I hope you'll let us know how it goes with your daughter. It sounds like you're doing the right thing.

I noticed a good amount of groupthink involving our teachers when the new reform curriculums were being implemented. The teachers who had problems with them almost seemed to be whispering their opinions with doors closed.

Many teachers who saw specific problems were just looked at as old and needing to retire.


Lsquared said...

I'd like to apologize to Kate on behalf of all of those students who don't pay attention. Like my daughter. Not that she would have an attitude like "I don't have to pay attention", she just wouldn't notice what you were doing. We do what we can, including trying out various versions of ADHD meds, but really, she's been this way since she was 2, and I don't know that, even with the best will in the world, that it's going to change any time soon. If you talk with her 1-on-1 she catches on quickly, thank goodness, but in a classroom, nada. I know it's frustrating for you. It's frustrating for me too. Good luck. Thanks for hanging in there.

Catherine Johnson said...

Many teachers are dissatisfied with curricula, too, you know. We could form a powerful coalition, teachers and parents together.

Absolutely --

Kate: you're in New York? Do you know about the new United States coalition for World Class Math??

Can't log onto the site just now - but I believe the idea is to set up a 'branch' in every state.

New York doesn't have one yet.

Kate Nowak said...

The Arlington Algebra 1 text is available here:

And one of the authors wrote a text of similar format for Algebra 2, here:

Catherine I forwarded your links to the professor at Syracuse University coordinating the effort to pressure NYSED to bring some sanity, focus, and rigor to their MST commencement standards. She is in a better position to effectively coordinate with US4WCM.

I'm going to disengage now, because I don't feel I have any more to add to the discussion. I originally just wanted to point out that sometimes tutors are hired when they aren't needed, and this can be detrimental to a student's development. It was a truthful observation based on direct experience. I'm not equipped to respond to the comments about problems with schools and teachers have nothing to do with me. Peace.

Catherine Johnson said...

great - thanks!

lgm said...

Thanks for the links to the textbooks. I appreciate it.

Crimson Wife said...

As a parent, I don't trust teachers to get the job done properly. Sometimes it's because of incompetence, but mostly it's because of poor curriculum (I live in a district that uses "Every Day Math") and the teacher not having the time to work with each student 1-on-1 like I can in our family's homeschool.

For all the lip service paid to "differentiation" and "challenging all students" in practice it rarely happens. The class almost always gets taught to the mid-level of ability, and bright kids like mine are bored.