Frustrated by the lack of clarity on reopening plans from the private school where she spends $20,000 a year, Bonnie, a mother of three from the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, is betting that she can organize a better educational experience in a pandemic.
She’ll hire a private tutor to teach between six and eight kids in a rented office space for four hours a day. She estimates the tutor will cost $100 an hour. The rent is $1,300 per month. The total cost for each student? About $1,200 a month.
Bonnie sees it as a bargain. (For fear of being shunned from her children’s private school, she requested we publish only her first name, noting “how bananas this [situation] has turned into.”) If her idea works, she won’t have to deal with potential school shutdowns. Nor will she have to pay full tuition for a remote or hybrid education.
“I mean, you know, I can afford it. I’ll pay for that all day long,” she says. “And the sad part is, our kids are going to be ahead of other kids who won’t.”
As school districts across the US waffle on re-opening plans and as coronavirus cases in the country continue to surge, the pandemic is pushing some parents who can afford it to consider private tutoring, whether at home or in groups.
Worried that remote learning isn’t cutting it either academically or socially, they’re seeking services ranging from one-on-one home visits to small-group learning to “extracurriculars” that go beyond academic work. Google Trends shows a spike in searches for “pod learning” and “private tutoring” in the past couple of weeks.
Meeting the demand
In recent weeks, tutoring companies have been fielding a lot calls from concerned parents—and scrambling to meet demand.
After California governor Gavin Newsom announced in July that two of California’s largest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, will be going completely remote for the fall, Eric Boshnyak, manager of Elite Tutoring, says he received in one week more inquiries about homeschooling services than he had received in the past year.
Most parents are looking for tutors to re-teach what their kids missed or struggled with in the previous school year, says Boshnyak. (NWEA, a K-12 education research firm, forecasts that due to school closures, students could return in the fall with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and smaller gains in math.)
Boshnyak has been making calls to different school districts to help clients understand curriculum needs for homeschooling. Depending on the subject, Elite Tutoring’s fees for homeschooling range from $54 to $62 an hour.
Due to the rising interest, Boshnyak says the company, which has about 400 clients and 150 tutors across California, will be looking to add a “few more in-house tutors” to the roster. One challenge, he says, is finding tutors who want to work in an environment where they risk exposure to the coronavirus. He predicts there will be a big rush for online tutoring as well.
Meanwhile, Daniel Faust at Timberdoodle, a business in Washington state that sells homeschooling curriculums, says the company achieved more than half of last year’s sales just in the month of July.
Homeschooling in the US remains niche—about 3% of the school-age population was homeschooled in 2016. But Faust says it’s been a challenge for Timberdoodle’s staff of 20 to keep up with orders now, partly because of the spike in demand and in part because the number of employees allowed in the warehouse at any one time is limited due to safety measures tied to Covid-19.
Faust says one of the company’s vendors recently commented that “homeschooling curriculum is the new toilet paper.”
The rise of learning pods
Research has long-shown that small-group tutoring can produce big learning gains for students. The model has been around for years, primarily within charter schools and private schools, but also, more recently, with micro-schools popularized by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
In 2014, Elon Musk famously decided he didn’t like his kids’ school, so he started his own. But not all of these endeavors have been successful. Last year, Alt School, backed by venture capital firms like Founders Fund and Andreessen Horowitz, pivoted from personalized learning to selling ed-tech software, while trouble at WeWork led to the demise of its WeGrow school, where tuition ranged from $22,000 to $42,000 depending on the student’s age. But the current interest in small-group learning, thanks to a public health crisis, could boost the privatization of this type of education.
New York-based SchoolHouse, which was founded in January, offers pod services ranging from $14,000 to $23,000 per child per year, depending on the size of the pod and the specific instructional offering. The families will put down a deposit, and SchoolHouse will vet and match appropriate teachers with the pod; families will interview and decide on the teacher.
Originally, the plan was that teachers would set up their own learning pods and micro-schools, and SchoolHouse would help with the real estate and financing. But that plan quickly got replaced when families reached out to SchoolHouse co-founder Joseph Connor in March, asking if teachers could come to their homes and if he could help them negotiate wages and hours. Salaries for teachers retained by SchoolHouse range from $86,000 to $102,000, the company says.
The first SchoolHouse pod opened as soon as New York’s shutdown orders were lifted. Now, Connor says, there’s a surge in parent interest whenever state officials make announcements about school re-opening plans.
Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, a neonatal nurse practitioner and an associate professor at George Washington University’s nursing school, says she will send her children back to their public schools in Washington DC if the district decides to reopen the buildings. Otherwise, she is considering a pod for her children that focuses on bi-lingual learning—and will either take on the homeschooling duties or hire from a local tutoring company, where prices range from $50 to $70 a child per hour.
Haves and have-nots
Bonnie, who is part of a 12,000-member Facebook group for North Shore moms, says that discussions about learning pods have spread like “wildfire” in the past couple of weeks within her group of affluent parents.
It’s hard to forecast how prevalent or permanent the trend will be, but what’s clear is that not all families will be able to access such resources.
Already, lower-income families may face hurdles on remote-learning necessities like internet access, and many working families have concerns about job loss or reduced pay. The disparities in access to tutoring could widen the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.
Remediation on a large scale?
In the US, private tutoring traditionally has been used mainly for remediation purposes. It often comes with stigma around needing to catch up. In Asian countries, the service is popular among higher-achieving students, with the primary purpose of either getting ahead of other students or providing enrichment, says Jaeklung Lee, a professor at University at Buffalo.
It’s possible tutoring will quickly become de-stigmatized for wealthy Americans who are using it as a substitute for high-quality, school-based education. What will perhaps become more more common is parents taking responsibility for educating their children themselves with the help of online resources. A recent survey by jobs marketplace ZipRecruiter found that 40% of public school parents plan on switching to homeschooling or virtual learning, and less than 1% plan on hiring a teacher or tutor.
Education: a public or private good?
One way to view public education is as a public good and a way to strengthen families and neighborhoods; another way to view it is as a private good, in which some customers are being poorly served, says Jack Schneider, a historian and education policy analyst at University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
Katja Ramirez, who lives in Portland, Oregon, says she will enroll her six-year-old son, who has ADHD, in a private school costing $10,000 a year, as she is concerned that a disruption in learning in the public system could lead to a regression for him. Her five-year-old son will be part of a learning pod that will cost about $5,500 per month. “The people who aren’t getting help are mostly those who are still depending on the public school system,” she says. “It’s a disaster.”
With all the uncertainty about what the new school year holds, parents are “feeling more desperate,” says Schneider. “In many cases that is really great for these [educational startup] organizations that would have otherwise wouldn’t really have a chance of breaking into the market,” he says, referring to private providers of online or hybrid services.
If that creates more demand for tutors, the jobs should be easily filled, perhaps by recent college graduates whose early-career aspirations have been delayed by the pandemic.
Bonnie, who just recently began her search for a tutor, says she’s already seen an “incredible amount” of interest largely from college graduates. She’s not necessarily looking for more advanced credentials than that, noting she doesn’t need “a Harvard PhD to be teaching my kindergartener.”