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.
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.
One big reason for the outsourcing is, of course, cost. Take Growing Stars, a small company headquartered in Fremont, Calif., and a center with 20 tutors in Kochi, India (all of whom start their workday at 4:30 a.m.). Lower labor costs allow the company to offer one-on-one services for $20 an hour, significantly less than the $45 to $80 an hour charged by big-name tutoring companies like Sylvan and Kaplan.
"My teachers are all highly educated, come from math and science backgrounds, and have prior teaching experience. American teachers of comparable quality would be doubly expensive," says Biju Mathew, who started the company last year.
When San Antonio resident Johan Verzijl decided to hire an online chemistry and math tutor for his 11th-grade son, Nick, he had no clue at first he'd be working with someone from India. The cost of Growing Stars attracted him - so much so that he wondered at first if it was for real.
"When I found out it was based in India, my initial concern was - whoa!" he says, citing worries about technical problems and language barriers.
But he decided to give it a try, and now says his son and his two tutors developed a good relationship after a week or so of getting used to the tutors' accents.
Twice a week Nick sits down with a headset and a whiteboard tablet to write upon, working through problems with the tutors over the Internet. The tutors received copies of his textbooks so they could see the assignments, and got information ahead of time about Nick's interests and activities to help build a rapport. "They've bent over backwards with us to make this work," says Mr. Verzijl.
Still, while Growing Stars works directly with families, other US companies provide most of their services to children at failing schools. After the school spends three years on the "needs improvement" list, NCLB requires tutoring to be offered. The fact that tutoring providers are allowed to hire overseas just underscores an overall lack of oversight of the industry, say critics. They point to what they say is a gross double standard: allowing such loose hiring practices while prohibiting some failing districts, including Boston and Chicago, from offering their own tutoring, even though that may mean fewer children receive the services.
"Our members who are working with kids every day in the classrooms are, in some cases, being told by the Department of Education, 'Your school has been labeled in need of improvement, therefore your district can no longer be providers,' but at the same time they're turning around and saying we can send tax dollars overseas without knowing the qualifications or materials that tutor is working with," says Van Meter of the AFT.
As technology develops and the barriers to communication erode, most agree that tutoring is likely to join the list of other jobs facing global competition. Some hurdles remain, of course. Indian tutors undergo training to learn an American accent and US teaching methods, but still face some cultural gaps. And just dealing with students online - rather than face to face - can be tough.
"Empathizing with students, motivating them, and promoting higher-level thinking are all challenging when the student can't see the tutor but only listens to her voice," says Swati Chopra, a finance graduate who joined Career Launcher as a math tutor a year ago.
Her colleague Basak had to get used to another challenge of working with US students. "I find that we tutors also need to shower a lot of praise for the students' good work," he says, "which is very uncommon in India."