Politics & Policy

Far-Flung Tutors

There's no reason to fear foreign tutors.

Many American students are firing up their computers to get the tutoring help they need. A typical session might go something like this: A student sits down at his computer and opens up an instant messaging-type window. The conversation begins, typed, but often accompanied by audio.

“Hello, Brian. This is Ralph. Let’s continue last week’s review of supply-side economics.”

Except the tutor who calls himself Ralph isn’t named Ralph–he’s Raj. And he isn’t sitting in a call-center in Chicago, but at one in Calcutta. He also has a PhD in economics and several years of experience teaching at the high school and college level.

Nevertheless, Raj doesn’t carry a teaching credential from any American state. Brian’s school has been on the failing list for three consecutive years, so the U.S. company that hired Raj is paying him with Title I funds. And that’s the rub. As Rob Weil of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) explained to the Washington Post, “Quality control doesn’t end at 3 o’clock when the school bell rings,” he said. “If you need a highly qualified teacher in school at 2:59, you should have a qualified teacher as a tutor after school at 3:01.” And, needless to say, Raj’s PhD isn’t the qualification Weil has in mind.

On one level, his position is fair. There are numerous tutors out there, and those who provide Supplemental Educational Services (SES)–an NCLB provision that provides for tutoring for students in failing schools (see here and here)–ought to be monitored for quality, especially since they are being paid for with government funds. Indeed, federal law requires this. If providers can’t prove that they’re accelerating student learning, they’re supposed to be removed from states’ lists of approved tutors.

But if these online tutors can deliver the goods–whether they were trained at Ivy League schools or at Presidency College in Calcutta or at Moscow State University–what difference does not having the right teaching credential matter? It doesn’t. So if tutoring companies such as StudyLoft, Growing Stars, and Homeworkexpert can get the job done with foreign tutors, let them. (None of these is currently an approved SES provider, but they are working to become qualified. Brainfuse, for instance, is approved.)

At the root of what riles Weil and the AFT (and the NEA, for that matter) is not a concern for quality control. Consider this line that Weil offered up: “We don’t believe that education should become a business of outsourcing. When you start talking about overseas people teaching children, it just doesn’t seem right to me.”

Just what “doesn’t seem right” isn’t clear. But here’s a good guess: Weil, like a lot of Americans, realizes that there are many capable people outside our borders, and not just when it comes to making the shirts we wear and the cars we drive. They can compete with educated Americans. For those with a stake in keeping control over the teaching profession (and by this I mean the unions, not the teachers they represent), that’s a frightening proposition. When it comes to free trade and globalization, all unions stand stalwartly opposed. But for those interested in seeing that children get every opportunity they need to excel in the classroom, there’s nothing more exciting.

A quick review of some of the larger online tutoring providers shows that they offer services predominantly in the hard sciences–math, chemistry, physics, and biology. Cultural relativism is irrelevant in these subjects. You either understand calculus or you don’t. Math is a universal language. Americans do not now have, nor have we ever had, a monopoly on these subjects. We’ve always drawn on international brainpower in these fields.

Programs such as SES–not to mention the private-pay tutoring market–are opening the door to the wider educational world. This is an accomplishment to celebrate, not a threat to be feared. Having foreigners train Americans may not “seem” right to U.S. unions. But the simple reality is that if these foreign tutors are capable, then our children will benefit.

America is an exceptional nation, not because we have the market cornered on knowledge, or because we have superior intellectual abilities, but because we as a people adapt to innovation and profit from it as few others in history have. The Industrial Revolution, the Tech Revolution, the transition from a service economy to an information-based economy — all these came with predictions of gloom and doom. And in the wake of each upheaval, America experienced unprecedented growth.

Raj, I’m pleased to know you. Do I have to call you Ralph?

Martin A. Davis Jr. is senior writer and editor for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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