Need a tutor? Call India.
NEW DELHI AND CHICAGO
Somit Basak's tutoring style is hardly unusual. The engineering graduate spices up lessons with games, offers rewards for excellent performance, and tries to keep his students' interest by linking the math formulas they struggle with to real-life examples they can relate to.Skip to next paragraph
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Unlike most tutors, however, Mr. Basak lives thousands of miles away from his students - he is a New Delhi resident who goes to work at 6 a.m. so that he can chat with American students doing their homework around dinnertime.
Americans have slowly grown accustomed to the idea that the people who answer their customer-service and computer-help calls may be on the other side of the globe. Now, some students may find their tutor works there, too.
While the industry is still relatively tiny, India's abundance of math and engineering graduates - willing to teach from a distance for far less money than their American counterparts - has made the country an attractive resource for some US tutoring firms.
It's a phenomenon that some hail as a triumph of technology, a boon for science-starved American students and the latest demonstration that globalization is leveling the playing field, particularly when it comes to intellectual capital. But critics worry about a lack of tutoring standards and question how well anyone can teach over a physical and cultural gulf. The fact that some of the outsourced tutors may be used to fulfill the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) supplemental education requirements - and get federal funds to do so - has been even more controversial.
"We don't know who's tutoring the students, we don't know what their qualifications are, and we're concerned about their familiarity with the curriculum in the districts of the students they're tutoring," says Nancy Van Meter, director of the Center on Accountability and Privatization at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Ms. Van Meter says she's concerned about the lack of quality control for all tutors hired under NCLB, but "the offshore tutoring raises that issue even more dramatically than we've seen here in the States."
Still, while the AFT and others, including US Rep. George Miller (D) of California, have been quick to pounce on the practice, its proponents wonder why qualified teachers should be kept from helping kids, just because they're in a foreign country.
"With this, there's an added wrinkle in the outsourcing debate, because the beneficiaries are not just the teachers," says Francesco Lecciso, a spokesman for BrainFuse, an online tutoring firm in New York City. "The beneficiaries are the students who are getting the tutoring." Still, BrainFuse has been "cautious" about outsourcing - about 50 of its 850 tutors are located overseas - because of the political questions as well as technical challenges and concerns about culture gaps, he says.
"We would be reluctant right now to put a tutor from India with a fourth grade student from North Carolina, for instance," says Mr. Lecciso. On the other hand, he says, a high-schooler with specialized science needs might benefit from such tutors, many of whom have superb math and science backgrounds.
"In spite of all the criticism of learning by rote, the Indian teaching system has produced some of the greatest professionals in the new world economy," says Anirudh Phadke, an official at Career Launcher, where Basak, the math tutor, works.
Career Launcher is one of just five Indian firms currently tutoring US students. Some contract with American e-tutoring providers, and some work directly with schools and students. Mr. Phadke estimates that Indian tutors are now working with some 20,000 American students, but he hopes the market will increase as technology improves and demand from NCLB rises.