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Getting the Best Help for Your High Schooler

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Updated on Jul 14, 2008

From the classroom to the playing field, standardized tests to college applications, getting outside help in high school – in the form of SAT prep classes, individual subject tutors, athletic trainers, and private college counselors, among others – has become as mainstream as studying the Declaration of Independence. But although such support may be widely accepted, that does not mean it should be undertaken without care and consideration, and not only because there’s usually a hefty bill attached to it.

At the core of every educational endeavor exists a fundamental question: where is the line between true learning and superficial knowledge acquisition? With the first, students become self-sufficient, able to produce new and different results based on a set of internalized skills. With the second, however, students become dependent upon the provider of basic information, which they regurgitate without critical thinking. “Ideally, we’d like to teach our children to fish,” says David Altshuler, an educational consultant and former teacher based in Miami, Florida.

Along these lines, Altshuler describes one of his first tutoring jobs, with a client who had missed 40% of his middle school math classes and had 8 days to prepare for an exam that would allow him to pass the course. Altshuler spent many hours with the student, explaining basic concepts and going over examples. The student didn’t complete a single homework assignment or do any work without Altshuler’s help, but at the end of the week, he passed the exam with the highest grade in the class. At the time, Altshuler recalls, “I felt wonderful. Looking back, however, it’s clear that, in the long run, I didn’t serve his needs. Good teachers seek to guide and empower; kids need to be motivated and interested, spending time with the tutor as well as working on their own.”

With the sharp distinction between a single, test-driven goal and a life-long learning strategy, Altshuler’s anecdote portrays a classic conundrum facing parents and helpers alike: momentary success versus long-term achievement. Now, Altshuler says, he won’t work with a client who has a “whatever it takes” attitude. “Be wary of agencies or individuals who say, ‘write us a check and we will endeavor to raise a score or a grade,” he warns. “If there is no mention of motivation or love of knowledge, there is cause to be concerned.”

While seeking out providers who truly educate and inspire, parents and students should also be careful to set realistic goals and expectations for improvement, be it academic, athletic, or otherwise. “Every child is different. Some students are not Ivy League or Division I athletic material and no amount of outside help is going to get them there,” says Karen Plescia, an educational consultant at Leslie S. Goldberg & Associates in Braintree, Massachusetts. Plescia, a former college athletics administrator, says “the number one question parents should consider is, ‘What are your child’s goals and will additional, individualized assistance help them to achieve these goals?’”

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