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When hiring a tutor, do your homework

Even with a college degree in elementary education, Kelly Orser-Ferguson figured she wasn't the best person to help her 11-year-old daughter improve in writing and spelling, so she decided to get a tutor. She never imagined that this seemingly simple decision would turn out to be so complicated.

The first tutor she hired for Abby last year in their home town of Edmond, Okla., was just starting out in private practice. Although they made some gains, the relationship never clicked. Abby's second tutor helped her maintain academic skills over the summer break, but now Orser-Ferguson is considering Plan C. The third tutor, she hopes, will be someone who "thinks out of the box" and better understands the way a fifth-grader learns.

"The process of finding a fit is difficult," she said. "Making a good fit with my child's personality and learning style has turned out to be a very important part of this process."

Parents are going through a similar process in countless homes across the United States, fueling an explosion in demand for tutoring services _ for students from nursery school through college _ and enriching an industry that by some estimates brings in more than $2-billion a year.

Amid growing pressure at school to do well on standardized tests and stiff competition to get into colleges, students say they seek tutors for a variety of reasons: to catch up or sprint ahead in a particular course, to learn basic study strategies, to seek a calmer learning environment than a noisy classroom. And in some cases, students simply work better one-on-one or have difficulty relating to their teachers.

At the same time, more and more parents, even those who have to struggle to pay for it, are opting to let somebody else assist their children. Some parents say they don't have time to do it themselves, while others are tired of fighting with their kids over homework or don't understand what's being taught.

The right match of tutor and student can be a transforming experience. Whitney Dennis, a 17-year-old senior at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, said her academic life has been shaped by working with tutor Thomas Redicks since seventh grade. "He helped me so much with critical thinking, the broader ideas and not just the data," she said. "On a personal level, he influenced me so much that now I tutor, too."

But as Orser-Ferguson found out, the search for help brings with it challenges.

It isn't always easy to know when to call in a tutor, how to select one and how long the relationship should last, said Lisa Jacobson, founder of Inspirica, a New York tutoring firm. With math, parents should not let their children get behind on the basics and should consider a tutor at the first signs of trouble, she said, while in reading it's a trickier call because some young students just need more time with their teacher.

A parent also must be clear on the goal: Is it to help a child with math homework or to address a broad learning issue? And, Jacobson said, "part of the responsibility of the tutor is to know when to cut the tie."

But it can be difficult to know how to measure success, she and other tutors said. Improvement in a particular test score or a grade is one obvious way, if that was the goal of the tutoring, but the equation changes if a parent is hoping for more long-term changes in a child's approach to learning.

"The net effects of tutoring are not easy to quantify," said David Halstead, president of Brain Power Learning Group in Winnipeg, Manitoba, an educational resource firm. "Parents should be aware that . . . rote learning of this work may not translate into success in the next level of course work."

Sarah Rainsberger, founder and director of Mostly Math Enrichment Club, a tutoring company in Toronto, said parents need to recognize that tutoring is not a "watered-down" version of teaching, but rather its own craft with different skills than those required of an effective teacher. Tutors, for example, don't generally plan "lessons," she said, because they must be flexible and adapt to the student's needs.

Thus, there is no tried-and-true formula that can lead a family to the right tutor. The widespread popularity of tutoring is so new, in fact, that only now is the nonprofit American Tutoring Association developing national standards of practice, said Redicks, the association's president-elect.

The rising demand has increased options for parents, though. There are more private professional tutors than ever, as well as commercial learning centers, online and volunteer programs, and in-school efforts in which students tutor other students.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates that public schools provide tutoring to certain underachieving children, has already "translated into a tidal wave of parents and students at our door," said Raymond Huntington, founder of a commercial learning business called Huntington Learning Center.

Tutors say the best way to find a good one is to ask teachers, school administrators and other parents for recommendations, though parents should take responsibility for learning about the tutor's qualifications and methods.

Parents should also be sure that their child is ready for tutoring, as even the best tutor can't help a child who refuses to be helped, said Kathryn Spivey, an algebra teacher at John Hanson Middle School in Charles County, Md., who has turned down some tutoring offers for that reason.

"It's not fair for me to waste my time, the kid's time or the parent's money," she said.

Another tip for parents, experts say, is to have realistic expectations. There are, for example, numerous volunteer tutoring programs springing up across the country, but they are only as good as the training the volunteers receive as well as the individual tutor's commitment.