Picking the right tutoring

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If and when Chicago parents get to select tutoring for their children, what should they look for? Catalyst put that question to three experts on tutoring. Here’s their advice.

Timothy Shanahan, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the architect of the Chicago Public Schools’ Reading Initiative.

“The most important thing to look for is how much time is actually going to be spent on teaching kids,” he says. Shanahan says that many tutoring programs now in the public schools are focused more on rewarding and entertaining kids rather than instructing them. “A lot of time in tutoring gets wasted,” he says. “A lot of those after-school programs give very little instruction.”

He says good tutoring programs shape and reshape teaching to match individual student needs. “How are they going to target the kids’ individual needs?” he asks. “Are they using an ‘in-the-can’ program, or do they have the ability to adjust?”

Worksheets, workbooks and computerized programs cannot replace tutors working with students individually or in small groups, says Shanahan. But not every tutor has to be a certified teacher, he adds. Tutors just have to be trained, well matched with students and supervised by experts in instruction, he says.

Shanahan says that the reading specialists CPS now has in about 200 elementary schools should be involved in developing a coordinated program so that outside tutoring meshes with the school program. However, it remains unclear whether such interaction will take place.

Edward E. Gordon, an expert on tutoring and author of “Tutor Quest: Finding Effective Education for Children and Adults.”

He tells parents to look for the following:

An experienced company that has strong references.

Tutors with college degrees and coursework in the areas they are teaching.

Tutors who are well supervised by a master teacher.

A program that provides regular student progress reports.

A place that seems safe and appropriate for your child.

Gordon agrees with Shanahan that tutoring should be individualized. “We’re talking about one-to-one education,” he says. “This is not schooling.”

Gordon also says to avoid programs that focus on preparing students to take tests. “Tutoring does not do well at helping a student pass a test,” he says. “If that’s all tutoring is for, then that is really just a crutch.”

Daniel Bassill, president and founder of Cabrini Connections, a nonprofit that promotes tutoring and mentoring.

Effective tutoring also involves social and emotional support for the students, he says. “If you don’t address attitudes, aspirations and motivation, you can spend tons of money, but you may not get many results.

“When I say tutor,” he stresses, “I mean someone who is a surrogate parent.”