Tutoring too far

Students, teachers and tutors discuss the relationship between tutoring, the Honor Code and tutor culture at the school.


Illustration by Sophia Evans

According to a Chronicle poll, almost 30% out of 249 survey respondents said they use tutors for academic classes.

Lily Lee

Cynthia* spent weeks researching and writing her United States History paper, but she did not know then that some of her classmates were acquiring fully written research papers from an alumnus who became a tutor after graduation.

“[The tutor] went to [the school] and he had all of the old tests,” Cynthia said. “He knew how to do every class perfectly. He was really big at helping with the 11th grade history research paper. He knew all of the homework assignments. In [Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Science], we had a lot of online quizzes and online assignments and he would just do them with people in my classes. I would be having the hardest time and they would be breezing through.”

According to a Chronicle poll, almost 30% out of 249 survey respondents said they use tutors for academic classes.

Cynthia said tutoring became rampant among a group of students in her classes. She said once she learned about how widespread tutoring was, she realized why some students were receiving dramatically better grades than her.

“Some students keep their tutors a secret,” Cynthia said. “When I was in high school, I realized that there was a group of people that shared tutors and it was very insular between that group of people.”

Cynthia said she thinks students with tutors end up with better grades than students without them.

“[Tutoring] is probably different year to year,” Cynthia said. “Students that use tutors often do a lot better than students who don’t. I didn’t realize that it was such a big thing until senior year, and then I realized that a lot of people in my grade had tutors for every single class. This is why they were doing so much better than me.”

Less than 5% of those who said they use tutors said they utilize the school’s Peer Tutoring program. The remainder of the respondents who said they use tutors hire professional tutoring.

Chloe Appel ’23 said she has a peer tutor through the program for AP Calculus B and a professional tutor for Honors Physics I. She said students hire tutors for two primary reasons: to understand the material and to increase their GPA.

“At such a demanding school, pressure to do well from teachers, peers and parents can be challenging, and having a tutor can make people feel more secure in their knowledge,” Appel said. “Personally, I got a tutor to better understand the material, but I know that many people only have tutors because their parents make them so that they can have a better GPA.”

Appel said she often procrastinates working on assignments, so her tutor keeps her on track by making sure Appel completes her work and helping her understand the course material.

“I just decided that it might be helpful to try and get help for classes that I wasn’t putting enough work into,” Appel said. “I had never thought about tutors before this year, but I realized that most kids have at least one, and some people have one for every subject.”

Professional tutor Sonny Ahad said he tutors students from many Los Angeles private schools, including over 20 students from the Upper School. He said the school’s academic expectations are part of the reason parents hire him.

“[The school sets] their standards really high, so [the students] try to get to the highest level,” Ahad said.

Max Dessner ’24 said he began working with a chemistry tutor after his teacher recommended that he reach out to the school’s Peer Tutoring program.

“[My chemistry teacher] recommended [that I get] a peer tutor in chemistry because I want to do better in the subject and, according to him, that was a good way to start,” Dessner said.

Dessner said many of his friends have tutors and that his grades have improved since studying with his private tutor. He said peer tutors are helpful because they are experienced in the classes he is taking now.

“[My tutor] helped with mainly just individual assignments, which is probably where the peer tutor will be better because they go to [the school] and they know [the expectations better], whereas a tutor from outside of school isn’t going to be as in tune with that,” Dessner said.

Head of Peer Tutoring Ariana Azarbal ’22 said most students who work with the program receive help in STEM classes, but she said the program also receives many requests for tutors in history and language classes. The program does not offer tutoring in English.

“Students can sign up to be tutored in a course and they’ll be assigned one of our peer tutors, [who will be] another student who has already taken the class,” Azarbal said. “Our goal is to make sure that all students have access to free, high-quality tutoring. Peer tutors can be great tutors because they understand class demands and know how to explain concepts in a digestible way.”

Azarbal said there are 30 student peer tutors who tutor 54 students.

“I hope that students know the Peer Tutoring program is available to them whether they’re struggling to stay afloat in a class or just want to brush up on some topics before their next test,” Azarbal said.

Even though the school offers peer tutoring, some students still hire outside tutors. Matthew Nguyen ’23 said there are ways that receiving help from tutors unaffiliated with the school can violate the Honor Code and become unauthorized aid.

“Having a tutor to teach or review topics does not violate the Honor Code,” Nguyen said. “However, having a tutor that inteprets text, answers assignments on behalf of the student and provides unauthorized aid is a violation.”

Mac Bailey ’23 said he does not view tutoring as against the Honor Code, as long as the tutor does not complete an assignment for a student.

“I don’t see tutors as a violation of the Honor Code,” Bailey said. “Obviously, if a tutor is writing an essay for you, that’s a violation. But in most cases, when they are just giving you problems and answering questions, that is totally fine because there is no unauthorized aid.”

Dean of Students Jordan Church said the Honor Code is an overarching guide and is not meant to catalog specific ways in which a student can violate the school’s academic values. He said there are roughly 20 cases per year in which a student uses unauthorized aid on an assessment. He said students usually know when they have violated the Honor Code.

“We rely on teachers to identify course-specific areas of concern, but ultimately I’ve found that students do not have trouble understanding when they have crossed an ethical line,” Church said. “They may rationalize or justify this behavior in the moment, but rarely do I find a student in violation of one of our policies who did not know they were gaining an unfair advantage by their actions.”

Junior Prefect Aiko Offner ’23 said receiving help from tutors is not against the Honor Code as long as students tell their teachers and use their own words and ideas in their work.

“The main thing about tutoring is that, regardless of if it’s for an essay, lab or test, the student must be transparent with their teacher about the aid that they are receiving,” Offner said. “It is for common courtesy of the teachers. When you submit something, it should not only be in your own words, but it should also be your own ideas. It makes sense if a student wants help on how to phrase things or grammatical structures. That’s completely understandable and within the Honor Code.”

Offner said teachers bring tutoring cases to the Honor Board when they see ideas being written about that they did not teach in class. Offner said another reason a teacher would bring a case to the Honor Board is if a student writes about
a topic that would not make logical sense for the student to have been able to connect the class material to that conclusion.

“The basic tutoring [Honor Board] case is when a student introduces an idea that usually was not taught in class [and] is very obviously from a tutor,” Offner said. “[If] it was not taught in class, [we ask], ‘Where did you get these ideas from?’ It’s always a teacher who brings a case to the [Honor Board]. When different concepts that were not taught in class are used to answer the lab questions, it becomes obvious and defeats the point of the question or project because [the student] is not applying what [they] learned in class. It is a fine line, and it’s sometimes hard [to determine what crosses the line].”

The school’s Honor Code forbids the use of “unauthorized aid,” yet the definition of that term varies according to each department’s policies.

History Teacher Celia Goedde said students are allowed to use history tutors and that tutors can be beneficial in certain aspects of the learning process.

“A tutor [can be] very helpful [with] organization [and as a] study buddy who students can go over the material with,” Goedde said. “[Tutors] may give students frameworks for organizing [their] notes, notebooks and study materials for an assessment.”

While Goedde said tutors are allowed, she said students should not be turning over work to a tutor. She said while tutors can be useful when studying, she believes classmates can also act as helpful resources.

“Discussing a rough draft would be fine,” Goedde said. “Any time that a tutor is actually making annotations either physically on a page or on a google doc would be too far. In terms of content, if a tutor is serving as a study buddy it can be helpful, but a classmate could do that just as well.”

Goedde said she thinks families with the economic resources hire tutors to ensure that their children do well in their classes.

“I think it’s just an extra safety net for some families that [feel] if it’s not a financial burden. Why not have an extra person come in and give that student a few extra tips?” Goedde said.

Goedde said parents have asked her for tutor recommendations, but she advises that the Learning Center is a great resource for students.

“I think I would be shocked at the number of students [who have tutors],” Goedde said. “I had parents ask me [for tutor recommendations]. The Learning Center can do everything that a tutor should be doing for a student.”

The English Department’s plagiarism policy statement defines a tutor as someone outside or inside a family, and it details what is deemed acceptable versus unauthorized aid as well as the policy on secondary sources. The English Department policy document states that a student’s English teacher must be informed if they are being tutored so that they can accurately assess the student’s work.

[name obscured] said he has a tutor for focused and guided study, to help him stay on task and to reexplain concepts. [name obscured] said if students told their teacher about having tutors, it would most likely not affect the class.

“I don’t think people usually tell their teachers [if they have a tutor],” [name obscured] said. “Although I don’t think that’s a good or bad thing, the teacher knowing more about where their students are at [in the class] could be good. I doubt a whole class structure would change because a couple of kids are being tutored.”

English Department Head Larry Weber said English teachers delineate what is acceptable versus what is unauthorized aid, but he said the process of doing so is imperfect. He said it is better for a student to meet with their English teacher than to hire a tutor.

“We want a level playing field and we want to make sure that the program is instilling real confidence,” Weber said. “Rather than having a third party be the one to be communicating with students, [we want] it to be more between teacher and student where the teacher is the coach and the student begins to trust that relationship and then [theirself].”

Weber said since tutors and teachers are not in contact with each other it can be hard to determine what a tutor’s role is in the learning process.

“Tutors can be really good in that process, but since we are not, as teachers, in dialogue with that process, very often it’s
hard to know the extent to which they are grabbing the rudder from the student’s hands,” Weber said. “Therefore, the student doesn’t really benefit from the instruction.”

Further, Weber said tutors can interfere with teacher-student relationships.

“I’m afraid that the numbers [of students with tutors] are really high,” Weber said. “When I say ‘afraid,’ [I mean that] it makes my work as an English teacher feel absurd sometimes because [I ask myself], ‘What am I grading’ or ‘Who am I trying to help?’ We assume a dialogue with a student when we are writing comments or having feedback lessons, and sometimes I feel like I don’t know how pure that dialogue really is. It’s hard not to wonder and it’s hard to fight cynicism. ”

* Name has been changed