As tutors who work one-on-one with students, usually after school hours or on week-ends, we are well positioned to witness the strengths as well as the weaknesses of American education. And we recognize that often our schools, public and private, are not educating well.
Too many students who enter high school are not among the ranks of the graduating seniors four years later. Too many students feel discouraged or distracted or defeated for one reason or another. And even those students who perform well in school are often not creatively challenged in their classes and are not learning up to their potential.
Schools fall short in carrying out their educational mission for diverse and complex reasons. The popular movie made about American education, “Waiting for Superman,” blames inadequate teachers and teachers’ unions for the plight of our schools. But given the large class sizes and cutbacks in funding that have affected so many schools, along with the various kinds of discouragement that many students experience in their lives away from school, it’s not surprising that classroom education often falls short or fails.
Notwithstanding the faults of “Waiting for Superman,” there is a valid point that this film makes: personal attention can make a world of difference in a student’s educational experience. Near the end of the film, for example, we witness the response of a student, Anthony, who wins a school lottery contest and is accepted into a charter school. With pride he points to his name on a list of students. With an awareness of new opportunities for learning and growth that are now available to him — even if these have been exaggerated by the charter school — he appears ready to make his education the number one priority in his life.
This sense of renewed dedication to learning is something that we tutors witness time and again. The personal attention and guidance provided by one-on-one tutoring often proves educationally transformative in a student’s life. Students often underachieve in school for a simple reason: they get “lost in the crowd.” Students come to school from diverse backgrounds and diverse life experiences. Their interests and needs are not all the same. If they encounter cookie-cutter “one size fits” all instruction, they often do not do well.
Unfortunately, the personal attention that students need is apt to be scarce in school environments where too few teachers are responsible for too many students, and where other critical resources — good textbooks, clean and attractive buildings and grounds, well-equipped classrooms, a good library — are also lacking.
When we tutors talk with educators who teach large classes and to parents and students who attend those classes, they often remark on the shortfall of attention that individual students receive. As tutors, we can compensate for that, outside of regular school hours. But if we really want our schools to succeed, then we will create environments in which every individual student receives ample personal attention, guidance, and encouragement. “No child left behind” is a worthwhile aim, but achievement of that aim requires that we provide more economic and other kinds of support to our schools. Quality education, available to all, ought to be one of the highest priorities in our nation.