Bea Lennon said school had already been challenging for her 17-year-old daughter when the pandemic hit. She's dyslexic, and learning Algebra remotely among a class of 30 students proved to be impossible.
"Math is really hard for her. Doing it online was the worst," said Lennon, who lives in Portsmouth, Virginia. So she hired a tutor from eTutorWorld to help her daughter with Algebra over the summer.
So far, Lennon has paid $409 for 20 one-hour sessions.
"It's a lot of money, but I don't have a choice. It seems to be helping her," she said.
As parents grow concerned about the quality of a hastily assembled online education, many of those like Lennon who can afford it are hiring online tutors from private companies to supplement their kids' school learning.
COVID-19 fuels a growing market
According to a June report by market insights and analysis company Research and Markets, analysts predict that the US private tutoring market will grow by $7.37 billion by 2023. A July report by marketing research publisher Global Industry Analysts, Inc. examining the market impact of COVID-19 also indicated that the global market for private tutoring, currently estimated at $173.4 billion, is projected to reach $279.3 billion by 2027.
TutorMe, an online tutoring platform for high school and college students that provides 10,000 tutors available on demand in over 300 subjects, has seen a 300% increase in users since mid-March, the company reported.
"We're seeing demand from parents across the board to get that one-on-one support," said Myles Hunter, TutorMe's CEO and cofounder. He added that the company is continually onboarding tutors to meet that demand.
Tutor.com, which partners with institutions like school districts, universities, and libraries to offer tutoring services, similarly conducted over 457,000 tutoring sessions from March through June — a 40% increase over the same period in 2019, according to Sandi White, Tutor.com's vice president and general manager.
"Not every parent is an expert in Algebra," White said . "We were one of those resources they felt they could turn to."
During a time of transition and disruption, she added that tutors built student confidence. "They feel there's someone to help them and encourage them," she said.
The momentum continues off season
Business in the summer, which is often a quieter time for tutoring companies, continues to be brisk. Megan Stubbendeck, managing director at ArborBridge, which provides tutoring to roughly 1,500 students a year, said with camps and summer jobs cancelled, parents "need to fill students' time and they're doing that with private tutoring online."
She said that tutors are constantly looking for ways to keep their students engaged by finding an interest in their personal lives and then bringing that into the tutoring session. For example, if a student is interested in a video game, the tutor could assign an essay exercise to research the game's production, history, and links to other games to help the student practice academic research or writing skills. They may also use math puzzles, spelling games, and interactive virtual science experiments that resemble the experience of an interactive science museum to make learning fun.
Stubbendeck pointed to a recent study indicating that the typical summer learning loss will be more pronounced as a result of the migration to online learning.
Teachers, she said "are trying hard," but she argues that it's difficult to retrofit an in-person learning environment "into something it wasn't built to do."
Mukul Agrawal, CEO and cofounder of eTutorWorld, agrees. Teachers, he said, are not trained in remote learning, which he argues isn't designed to work well in a large classroom setting. "So we are filling that gap," he said.
The number of new customers at eTutorWorld increased by 43% from the first quarter of 2020 to the second quarter. He believes summer tutoring requests are driven in part by student and parent concerns about falling behind and not knowing when their schools will resume in-person interactions.
Tutoring companies anticipate they'll remain busy, as major districts, including those in Los Angeles and San Diego, have recently announced plans to continue remote learning into the fall. Bracing for the continued demand, some tutoring companies are planning to bring on more tutors; White expects to increase Tutor.com's staff from 3,400 to 4,000 tutors by the fall.
Tutoring brings benefits but also promotes inequality
Jackie Meier, who teaches math to seventh graders at Power Middle School in Farmington Hills, Michigan, said it's been challenging teaching math online. She believes that tutors can provide valuable personalized instruction during a time when students lack in-person contact with their teachers.
Meeting one on one online with the 125 students she teaches "isn't realistic," she said. At the same time, the situation has amplified a long-festering issue of inequality.
"Some families can afford to provide their kids extra support and some cannot, and so the achievement gap continues to increase," she said.
Tutoring services aren't cheap. The fees for eTutorWorld range from $20 to $25 an hour, and Agrawal said the most common purchase is 10 hours of tutoring. Meanwhile, TutorMe tutors charge $26 an hour, while ArborBridge charges $145 to $160 an hour — but Stubbendeck said that pro bono programs are available to families that need it and that the company has doubled its number of these programs during COVID-19.
A July 16 study released through the Annenberg Institute at Brown University using high-frequency internet search data to determine use of online resources once schools closed found more search intensity in wealthier areas with better internet access. Though these were primarily free resources — and the study didn't explore use of paid services — Andrew Bacher-Hicks, one of the authors, said he believes the results would be similar for tutoring.
Ethan Hutt, an assistant professor with the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the current situation will exacerbate existing inequalities.
"Wealthy families will have access to enrichment. We'll for sure see growing achievement gaps," he said. A June report by McKinsey & Company found that learning loss amidst COVID-19 will likely be the greatest among low-income Black and Hispanic students.
One nonprofit hopes to fill the learning gap with free service
To address this problem, Aly Murray founded UPchieve in 2018, which provides free tutoring in math and science to low-income high school students. Her nonprofit has 2,000 volunteers — from high school students to retirees — providing on-demand online tutoring.
The number of students requesting tutor sessions jumped from 450 at the end of February to 900 at the end of June, and students are asking for longer sessions, she said.
She's hoping to work with thousands more students in the fall but said she can only handle so many. She said that she hopes that as the for-profit companies continue to see a surge in business that they provide more free services to low-income students. Otherwise, with limited options for free tutoring, she said, the opportunity gap "is about to get a lot worse."