Between hovering parents and tiger mums, a growing number of children are getting tutoring outside the classroom in many countries around the world.
Too much tutoring?
When just right turns into overload...
Experts say there is a limit for how much knowledge can be gained from outside study — especially if sleep is sacrificed.
A 2012 study of 535
students from Los Angeles high schools found that adolescents who sacrifice sleep
to study had more trouble understanding school taught material the next day.
Be it for beefing up basic skills, college preparation or just to keep up with higher-achieving peers, tutoring doesn’t come cheap.
In general, each hour will cost a family the equivalent of $30 to $250 in or around major cities, said experts. The tutoring industry is growing at a rate of 7% per year in some countries and globally, is set to surpass $100 billion by 2018, according to Global Industry Analysts Inc a research firm in San Jose, California. It is already a $7 billion industry in the United States and tutoring rakes in ₩14 trillion in Korea ($13 billion).
The growth has come despite conflicting evidence on whether tutoring raises educational attainment. There are no global standards for good practice or even who qualifies as a tutor — many are practising teachers looking to make money on the side.
That’s part of the reason it can be difficult for parents to assess whether they are getting a good return on their tutoring investment, said Mark Bray, a chair professor in Comparative Education at the University of Hong Kong who has studied this so-called “shadow education” in both Asia and Europe for UNESCO.
Most parents opt for tutoring just to keep up with their peers, said Bray. “When you’ve got 72% parents tutoring their kids, the other 28% begin to feel nervous,” he said.
The number of hours that children spend in tutoring varies regionally. In Asia, students typically are tutored several nights per week. In Western Europe and the US, it's closer to two hours per week, said Bray.
In regions where academic hurdles are increasing — including new primary school entrance exams for children as young as 4 in some countries — seeking outside tutoring may seem necessary to parents. Decreasing trust in public education systems also drives the perceived need for tutors. In other regions, the opposite factors mean tutoring rates have stayed low.
Keeping up was on Sher-li Torrey's mind when she started her daughter in Mandarin tutoring at age 3. The Singapore resident thought she would wait until her child was 5 years old before beginning tutoring.
“I was hesitant about giving her extra lessons outside of classes, but also realised that the educational standards of Singapore are very high,” said the director of Mums@Work, a Singapore-based career website for working mothers. Torrey, 36, wanted to focus on language because she thought it would be more interesting for her daughter than learning math or science.
The need to keep up means ever-younger children are in tutoring programmes. “I felt that if I did not give her some extra lessons before she started her primary school, she would have difficulty catching up,” Torrey said.
In Northern Europe, for instance, test scores remain high and tutoring rates are low. “The old model persists where parents still trust the school,” Bray said. Denmark and Finland have some of the very lowest rates of outside coursework, but produce some of the best students. Finland was ranked number two in science and number three in reading, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment, a study of more than 470,000 15-year-olds in 65 countries conducted in 2009.
Elsewhere, parents say tutoring in math or languages can supplement the decline they perceive in the quality of public education.
“Parents think that their children do not have enough of the basics,” said George Hawkins, the director of Step Ahead Tuition in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Some European parents are sending children to one-on-one programmes after they complete primary school at age 11 or 12, said Hawkins, who has also taught students in the Middle East. Often programmes last the entire school year and are not just for people doing poorly in school. Tutoring is treated like any extracurricular activity, the “same as ballet class or swimming,” Hawkins said.
In the United States
In the US, the tutoring industry is growing by 5% to 7% each year, said Steve Pines, executive director of the Virginia-based Education Industry Association. Parents tend to turn to tutors when kids are around 10 years old in order to beef up knowledge in core subjects like math, science and reading rather than to allow children to learn ahead of the class.
“When report cards come home, it’s amazing how engaged families get,” he said.
In the last few years, many US parents have turned to tutors to build reading skills before their children head to first grade, Pines said. To cut costs, some parents have switched to tutoring programmes. Global chains like the Osaka, Japan-based Kumon Group charge as little as $10 per hour for courses given in a group setting.
New Yorker Jennifer Krosche, 41, said a tutor initially helped her daughter catch up in class after a medical absence. But now, tutoring has become crucial for helping her learn in subjects including reading, math, social studies, science and Italian.
“A lot of kids learn better one-on-one or in smaller classes and unfortunately our school system is not too flexible in this,” Krosche said.
Experts said that as long as parents continue to feel that way about public education in the US, their willingness to spend money on this shadow education is likely to keep rising.
Follow BBC Capital on Twitter @BBC_Capital or follow us and join the conversation about this or any other Capital story on Facebook: BBC Capital on Facebook.