Far-flung tutors

A lot of American students are firing up their computers to get the tutoring help they need. A typical session goes something like this:

An instant messaging-type window opens, and the conversation-often an audio one--begins. "Hello, Brian. This is Ralph. Let's continue last week's review of algebra."

Only Ralph isn't Ralph-he's Raj. And he isn't sitting in a call center in Chicago, but a call center in Calcutta. He also has a Ph.D. in economics and several years experience teaching at the high school and college levels.

But Raj doesn't carry a teaching credential from any American state. Moreover, because Brian's school has been on the failing list for three consecutive years, the U.S. company that hired Raj is paying him with Title I funds.

And that's the rub, Rob Weil of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) tells the Washington Post. (See the story here.) "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."

On one level, his position is fair. There are lots of tutors out there, and those who provide Supplemental Educational Services (SES)-an NCLB provision that provides tutoring for students in failing schools (see here and here)-and are paid with government funds ought to be monitored for quality. 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-whether they are trained at Ivy League schools or Presidency College, Calcutta or  Moscow State University-can deliver the goods, what difference does having, or not having, a teaching credential matter? It doesn't. So if StudyLoft, Growing Stars, and Homeworkexpert can get the job done, let them. (None of these are currently approved SES providers, but they are working to become qualified. Brainfuse, however, is approved.)

At bottom, though, quality control isn't what riles Weil and the AFT (and the NEA). 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, is realizing that there are many capable people outside our borders. And they're not just making the shirts we wear and the cars we drive. They're competing with educated Americans. And 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. Neil Armstrong would never have walked on the moon, for example, had it not been for German engineer Warner Von Braun who designed the rocket that flew him there. The greatest advances in math over the past century were made by a poor boy from India, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

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 if they can do so well, our children will benefit. And so will we all. 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?

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