Between increased competition for spots in the best schools, or just making sure their kids are keeping up, more and more parents are turning to tutoring centers - and they aren't cheap. Costs can run anywhere between $50 and $100 an hour.

So when a local parent came to us complaining about her experience with one of those well-known learning centers, we decided to do a little digging into this $103 billion industry.

The competition starts early for Ohio's top schools. At Hawken's Birchwood in Cleveland, kids as young as four are vying for fewer than 30 spots per grade. But this mom just wanted her child to do better.
"When a kid is failing so young, it does play on their self-esteem,” she said.

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Mom asked us not to use her name, but wanted to share the story of her son, who was struggling with reading at his public school. Worried he wouldn't pass the third grade reading guarantee, and not move on to 4th grade, she enrolled him in a Sylvan Learning Center for 2 hours of tutoring each week. Even though – as a single mom – it was a financial strain.

“Sylvan led me to believe that he was going to have an increase in his grades."

Not only did her son's grades stay the same, but he failed the state test. That was despite Sylvan sending home reports saying he was making "great progress."

“For tutoring to be effective, it's really got to map across both the curriculum that's being covered in the classroom, as well as the particular needs that students have,” said Dr. Gail Sunderman, who knows a thing or two about supplemental education services like Sylvan.

She has researched and written 2 books on the industry, as part of a study on the No Child Left Behind Act. The findings: don't expect your child's grades to improve at these centers, as they often have 'cookie cutter' programs, which parents need to question.

“Do they try to find out where the child needs extra help or do they have a sort of set curriculum or a set approach that they sort of apply to every student?” Dr. Sunderman asks.

This is where our Mom gives Sylvan a failing grade. She says her son only needed help with comprehension, but claims tutors didn't focus on that.

Sylvan wouldn't comment on mom's son, but gave us a canned statement that sounded more like multiple choice answers to her complaints:

A. An individual program is developed based on every student's individual assessment.
B. Our certified educators teach only skills the student needs to master.
C. The tailored curriculum is based on college and career readiness standards."

It also points to third party studies -- proving they get results. Other centers claim the same.

But we found hundreds of complaints online, not just about Sylvan, but Huntington, Kumon and Tutor Doctor.
They’re from parents who spent upwards of $10,000 for little to no grade improvement. They’re also from teachers who claim kids are being shortchanged -- by an industry where there is no state or federal oversight, but where there IS an endless supply of parents with money, desperate for help.

“You'll pay whatever amount of money they tell you to pay. It doesn't matter and you don't care. Just make my child right. Make my child better,” mom said.

Now some kids do well at these centers. But if you send your child to one of them, you need to do your homework. Find out the qualifications of the teachers, make sure the tutors know what your child’s learning in school, and follow their progress every step of the way. Below are some more tips if you’re considering tutoring.

What to know before you send your child to a tutoring center:

Signs that your child may need a tutor:

Sylvan Learning Center Statement:

Sylvan Learning believes that each child learns differently, so an individual program is developed based on every student's individual assessment. Our certified educators teach only skills he or she needs to master, and the tailored learning curriculum is based on college and career readiness standards using a learning progression. The sequence of mastering skills is important as skills build upon each other. Sylvan uses third party sources to validate our results and all of our reports can be found at While we cannot comment on an individual child, most of our centers offer additional instruction at no charge if a child is mastering skills slower than originally anticipated. We believe that we should try our best to help the child reach his or her goals.

Statement from local Sylvan Learning Owner Barry Miller:

As a local business owner who has provided tutoring services to more than 30,000 students at five centers over the past 31 years, our goal is to help children learn and excel in their studies. Although I believe it is inappropriate to discuss a specific student's results, Sylvan's teachers work to help each student meet their goals. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how a student will respond to instruction and our educators do everything in their power to help students do the best they can to succeed, including additional, personalized tutoring at no additional cost.