Toronto high-school student Julian meets up with his tutor, David Laredo, once a week for extra help on his Grade 9 math.
He started last fall, in part because a friend was also signing up and because his parents thought it would supplement his school work. It certainly wasn't because his grades were slipping; he brings home solid As and Bs.
Tutors are no longer just for children flunking out at school. What used to be a remedial fix is now commonplace for good students. In fact, 73 per cent of children being tutored are like Julian, according to recent research by the Canadian Council on Learning.
But with one in three parents now paying for private tutors - with increasingly refined accoutrements such as door-to-door bus services and healthy snacks - tutoring is considered a logical and convenient way to help kids maintain their grades. And to battle the homework juggernaut.
University professor Molly Ladd-Taylor, Julian's mom, says that was one advantage of her son's new regimen.
"I think it's been quite good for him. It keeps him on top of the homework in a positive way with positive reinforcement," she says.
While many parents complain their kids have too much homework, they are inspired to manage it, experts say. Seventy-five per cent of Ontario parents say their children have "somewhat" or "much more" homework than they did as a child, and by the time their kids are in Grade 4, 77 per cent of parents say they're helping out, according to a recent Ontario Institute for Studies in Education report.
Some schools are trying to respond to what many see as a homework crisis. The Toronto District School Board, for instance, is currently conducting its own homework survey of parents, which could affect its homework policy. It plans to look at the results in April. For now, most parents see homework as a necessary evil.
"They're accepting the stress as part of the price of their children's success," says Paul Cappon, president of the Canadian Council on Learning. "But they try to alleviate it. And one of the ways they alleviate it is by bringing in tutors."
In addition to the now-quaint kitchen-table tutor, there are online tutoring services picking up the homework slack, such as Tutor.com, which can be reached for a midnight math query.
But it's the bricks-and-mortar businesses, which charge from $40 to $70 an hour, that are booming - the Kumons, Sylvans and Oxford Learning centres. Oxford, for instance, started with a single location in 1984. Today, there are 85 franchises across the country, 35 in the United States and three abroad.
"Time and time again we get those phone calls you know come straight from the argument at the kitchen table. A lot of times it's the homework wars," says Emma Cecchin, who runs an Oxford Learning franchise in London, Ont.
Since the 1990s, Canadian researchers say businesses such as these have grown by 200 to 500 per cent, depending on the city. They're growing faster than the school-age population, says University of Waterloo sociologist Janice Aurini, who studies private tutoring and upper-middle-class parenting. She calls the growth a "revolution."
"Parents have very high expectations and have a different sense of what remedial means," she says. While Dr. Aurini says most people in the private tutor business are caring and have a desire to do a good job, they are a reflection of today's more intensive forms of childrearing - for good and bad.
Parents who hire tutors are wealthy and educated, and tend to put their children in camps and take them on educational vacations, she says. "Everything's a teachable moment," she says. "Tutoring just becomes part of the repertoire of child-rearing activities parents engage in."
Now, a new generation of centres is emerging, offering extra services such as busing to and from home or school, supervised homework stations and healthy snacks.
"The only thing they don't do is make dinner," says single mom Rachel Kent, who registered her 13-year-old daughter at a new Toronto spot, Light in the Attic Learning, which offers these enhanced services.
It's the brainchild of Toronto math teacher David Laredo, who currently tutors Julian and many others.
One-on-one tutoring, he says, "addresses the individual student whether they are bored in school, they need things explained in a different way, or they just need some help organizing their time and work."
But do they work? "That's the million-dollar question," Dr. Aurini says. "Unfortunately, these businesses do not compile or advertise data so it's difficult to determine their relative success rate."
Tutors, of course, face the same challenges as any teacher. They can't control the things that happen outside the session. They can't know if their lessons are being reinforced at home, she says.
There is some evidence that tutoring can be effective in the short term with respect to the particular curriculum, Mr. Cappon says.
"And that's important to families in terms of stress," he says. "But whether they actually help children develop long-term cognitive skills is an open question."
And according to Dr. Aurini, parents who look to tutors for homework relief are not likely to find it. Research shows parents who hire tutors actually spend more time with their children on homework, not less.
"I could see anecdotally night after night you're having a big fight and it's a big struggle within your house, you might think maybe somebody else stepping into this role would be a better idea to save our relationship," she says.
Until more is known, though, Mr. Cappon says it seems most reasonable to enroll a child in tutoring to inculcate a love of learning. "That seems to be a smart choice," he says.
Experts agree the growth does not reflect widespread disappointment with the public school system.
"Parents don't connect it to a belief that public schools are failing," Dr. Aurini says. "It's more a case of giving their kids a bit of a boost, a bit of an edge."
Ms. Cecchin says her centre tutors a number of honour students who are also school athletes and helps them manage their busy schedules. "It becomes an extra-curricular activity," she says.
Hunting for homework help
If you're looking for a tutor, a few shopping tips from experts:
Ask about the credentials of the tutors. Are they former or moonlighting teachers? Find out their area of expertise - knowing school curriculum is helpful.
Buyer beware There are no real guarantees. Some places will offer
a one-grade jump, but they're only referring to their internal grading system, not the school's, says University of Waterloo sociologist
Ask about curriculum Do they have their own that they will
push your child to follow? Or can they respond to specific problems your child is having? Also ask if your child can use his or her own
textbooks to tackle specific problems.
Ask yourself why you're signing up. If it's about getting your child into Harvard, you may need a parenting reality check. A more realistic goal, says Paul Cappon, president of the Canadian Council on
Learning, is inculcating a love of learning.
Some of the best tutors make contact with your child's teacher
to co-ordinate efforts.
Are there extra perks included in the fees you pay? A quick,
unscheduled phone call on the eve of a big exam or essay deadline can be a lifesaver.