L.A. students are hooking up with tutors in South Asia for help with their homework. Is this global economy cool, or what?
The scene in the Broder family's Beverly Hills home is, in most respects, a classic glimpse into the life of your typical Southern California teenager. Noah, a high school sophomore wearing blue-and-orange tennis shoes, is working out a quadratic equation under the watchful eye of his math tutor, Shani, a petite young woman in brown leather sandals who has a copy of his textbook open in front of her.
"Exactly, Noah," Shani says, flashing a thumbs-up sign.
"Cool," Noah replies.
Across town in Inglewood, a sophomore named Mariana Ibrahin is going over a biology assignment with her tutor, Roshan. They both hear the occasional roar of a jet on final approach to LAX over Mariana's house, but neither is distracted from the work at hand. Their twice-a-week sessions have helped lift Mariana's grade to a solid B, and Roshan adores her student. In fact, Roshan says later, "I'd love to meet my Mariana one day."
Nothing is quite as it seems here in the global village, where Noah and Mariana get their after-school help in a virtual classroom, separated from their tutors by 12 1/2 time zones. Tutors Shani Jose and Roshan Salim work beneath humming ceiling fans in a muggy port city in India, where, fittingly, today is tomorrow. They are connected to their pupils by a voice-over-Internet phone and an interactive computer "whiteboard" where teacher and pupil write using a stylus and pad and on which, when appropriate, the tutors can add a universally understood electronic symbol for a job well done: Thumbs-up.
The spread of outsourcing, especially to India, has touched millions of Americans in ways both frustrating and satisfying. Customer service agents answer our complaints from Bangalore. Law firms get their legal transcripts typed in Mumbai. Blue chip companies farm out high-tech work to engineers in Hyderabad.
In the last few years, a small group of companies, most started by Indian entrepreneurs, has tried a new twist on the theme. They've tapped India's pool of highly educated and, by American standards, low-paid men and women to shore up the math, science and even English skills of a new generation of Americans, catering to parents desperate to get their children into the best possible colleges. In Los Angeles, this flip side of the outsourcing debate unfolds in microcosm each weekday afternoon, in quiet moments between pupils and tutors.
Southern California's after-school landscape already is dotted with tutoring academies and SAT preparation classes. What these new businesses offer are lower prices, greater convenience and a window on the wider world—though sometimes with the same irritants that have made outsourcing so exasperating for so many Americans.
The tutors for both Noah and Mariana work for Growing Stars, a firm launched three years ago by Biju Mathew, a Silicon Valley software engineer. Mathew, a 42-year-old father of three, came up with the idea while hunting for a math tutor for his second-grade son. As a new arrival to the United States, he was shocked to find American tutors charging $40 to $100 an hour—prices that were "way beyond" his financial reach.
"I kept thinking: If I could just connect [students] with their teachers back in India it would be so much cheaper," Mathew says. "And then I realized there could be thousands of parents like me."
So, working from home at night, and enlisting friends in his hometown of Cochin, India, he set out to develop a computer program that would replicate the experience of one-on-one tutoring. He tested it on his children, developed a business plan, brought in an Indian American investor and leased a tiny office in one of the high-tech office parks on the 101 Freeway near San Jose.
Today, Growing Stars has 400 students, most in the United States, and its work force in India has grown to 61, including 49 tutors, four academic directors, and a sales and technical support staff. Growing Stars is the only U.S.-based firm whose teachers work together in a single academy in India. A competitor, Bangalore-based TutorVista, which has 2,000 students, has tutors who work mostly from their homes in India.
Mathew, his company's only full-time employee in the United States, is still waiting for his big payday. A slight, soft-spoken man, he rents his Fremont house and drives an old Toyota Camry with a missing hubcap. But he has high hopes. "If you have a great idea, you can make it happen in America," he says. "The [Silicon] Valley nurtures entrepreneurship, unlike in India. I don't want to remain small. I want to take it to the next level."
With a teacher shortage in the United States and a swelling demand for tutors, more companies with foreign-based tutors are diving into the market. "We're seeing a globalization of education," says Don Knezek, chief executive of the Washington D.C.- and Eugene, Ore.-based International Society for Technology in Education. "For years, tutoring was an elitist activity for the elite. Now, the offshore operations are making it available to the middle class. It really fills a need in the nation right now."
Growing Stars fields an average of 75 inquiries a month from parents in the United States, and Mathew says his biggest challenge "is to convince people that online tutoring is really effective."
Noah Broder's parents approached this novel tutoring arrangement with a fair degree of skepticism.
Noah, an affable, self-assured 16-year-old, goes to the private Wildwood School in West Los Angeles, which touts a strong academic program in a noncompetitive environment. His father, Michael, runs a consulting company and is an associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA. His mother, Donna, works in children's publishing. Although Noah's parents like Wildwood, they are concerned that the math program is too theoretical. And Noah feels he needs more practice problems to understand the material.
"I'm a kinesthetic as well as a visual learner," he says.
They decided Noah needed a tutor, but private tutors are expensive and the couple, with 11-year-old Maya and 8-year-old Jake at home, didn't have time to ferry Noah to lessons. They heard about Growing Stars from a neighbor, who had two children in the program. But Michael's experience with outsourcing at work hadn't exactly been a success. His company had tried to save money by outsourcing searches of medical literature to India, but dropped the experiment after missed connections and poor quality work.
Still, the Broders decided to give it a try. They paid a $50 initial fee for the program, invested less than $100 in a headset, stylus and pad and signed up for two sessions a week at the rate of $160 a month. Noah took quickly to the arrangement, in which he confers with Shani from 7:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. every Monday and Tuesday. His first tutor was hard to understand, and he had to adjust to the slight delay in the phone line. But there are positives. "One of the good things is that they are less of a 'teacher,'" he says. "There's less pressure. You can ask a question that you think they might have already covered."
His parents have had some trouble communicating with the academic directors who call to discuss Noah's progress. "They're really hard to understand," Michael says. "But Noah's of a different generation. I expect it just doesn't get under his skin the way it does with me."
No one in the family argues with the results. "It's really amazing. Amazing that it works," Michael says. "For sure, his grades have improved."
"The truth is," Noah's mother says, "if convenience wasn't important for us, we might not have done it. But it's definitely succeeded."
Mariana didn't need any lessons in cultural diversity. Her mother, Ana, is from Brazil, where Mariana was born. Her stepfather, Keith Laidley, a financial analyst at Northrup Grumman, is a Los Angeles native.
Mariana spoke only Portuguese when she moved to the United States five years ago to join her mother. Now a tall 16-year-old with dark, cascading curls, she speaks English and is enrolled at Alexander Hamilton High School, a magnet school where her specialty is modern dance. Mariana's family, which includes her Brazilian grandmother and her two siblings, 4-year-old Giancarlo and 7-year-old Isabella, live in a modest bungalow in Inglewood.
When she entered high school a year ago, Mariana was struggling with her grades. Keith enrolled her in a computer-based tutoring center, but, he says, they eventually decided "we needed something more aggressive." He looked into professional tutors, but they charged $120 an hour. Even a student tutor at UCLA, at $60 an hour, was too expensive. That's when a friend of the family suggested Growing Stars, where lessons are just $20 an hour.
"We were nervous at first," Keith admits, "but we had the luxury of saying, 'Let's see if this pays off.'" In November, Keith signed up Mariana for four hourlong lessons a week—Monday and Thursday in math and Tuesday and Wednesday in biology.
Mariana adjusted easily to the virtual classroom, connected to India through the laptop in her room. "She's already into the computer," her step-father says. "Even when she's not studying, she's into that space." When she mentions that her biology grade has risen to a B, the news takes her stepfather by surprise. "We didn't know that!" he says, smiling broadly.
The only hitches have been technological and logistical. Sometimes the computer link goes down, though it usually is quickly restored. And classes have had to be rescheduled twice because of transportation strikes in India. Also, Keith found it difficult at first "to get clear exactly what day it is there and here," he says. "There are some things lost in translation. But when we have trouble, we communicate with them by e-mail."
The day begins early—very early—for Growing Stars tutors in the city of Cochin, which rests on fingers of land reaching into the Arabian Sea. Cochin is the largest city in the state of Kerala, where 32 million people live in an area smaller than West Virginia. And this stretch of the Malabar Coast, 1,600 miles south of Delhi, is the world's center of ayurvedic medicine, a holistic treatment of massage and oils that is said to rejuvenate body and mind.
Drivers collect the early-shift tutors from their homes shortly after midnight and deliver them to a two-story office building, where work begins at 1:30 a.m.—just after school lets out on America's East Coast. Noah's and Mariana's tutors, like others catering to West Coast students, are on the "late shift," which starts at 4:30 a.m. Soon after the late shift arrives, the sun begins to rise on a lush Indian neighborhood of houses and apartments, palm and banana trees. The temperature is already 88 degrees, and rising.
Inside, the tutors sit in high-backed desk chairs in plywood cubicles that stretch across a gleaming white tile floor. Math tutors are on one side, science on the other. A few English tutors and administrators sit in between. Bookshelves against the unadorned walls are filled with American textbooks. It's library quiet, save for the air conditioners and fans mounted on the ceiling and walls. Tutors spend about half their day preparing lessons and the rest speaking into headsets to students half a world away.
Most of the tutors are young, in their 20s, with résumés that include teaching stints as well as master's degrees or other postgraduate work in India. As everywhere in India, the women are dressed in saris of dazzling color, while most of the men wear jeans. The early hours are tough, but the salary helps make up for it. Tutors here earn from $250 to $400 a month, compared to less than $200 a month for public school teachers.
The center is run by Bina George, a former banker, whose most difficult task is finding tutors. "You can find good English speakers, and there are plenty of people with master's degrees," she explains. "But it's hard to find people with master's degrees in science or math who also speak good English."
The primary language in Kerala is Malayalam, and although English is taught at school, very few people speak it at home. Even fewer have contact with native English speakers. When Shani Jose came to work here two years ago, she says "I had never even spoken to an American before." Overhearing her remark, George adds: "Actually, none of us had."
Poor English is the biggest complaint from parents, so new tutors attend a daily "accent reduction" class taught by 24-year-old Greeshma Salim, one of a handful of English tutors at Growing Stars. She received her own offshore tutoring in accent reduction—on the telephone from a language specialist in California. She admits that having a nonnative English speaker tutoring American students in English "might seem ironic." But, she says, "when you learn English as your mother tongue, a lot of colloquialisms come in. I can treat it like any other language."
The Indian tutors often are amused and sometimes baffled by the expressions of some students. Greeshma was tripped up by "leaping lizards."
"Now I know it just means something you say when you're surprised," she says. When another tutor's student made an error on a problem and declared, "I'm thick," the tutor shared it with the group.
All new tutors are warned about the informality of the Americans. "It was a shock, initially, to hear them call me by my first name," says Leelabai Nair, one of the academic directors. "But now we're used to it."
It's tempting to see this virtual bridge that links the California and Malabar coasts as a healthy cross-cultural experience created by the combination of entrepreneurship and technology. But that's only part of the story.
Noah jokes that he imagines Shani and the other tutors being whipped by evil taskmasters as they toil away in small cubicles. He doesn't know, though, that Shani lives in a small home with her parents and brother, who gives her a ride to work each morning at 3:30. Or that her father, who works at a naval base, didn't go to college but was determined that his daughter would.
Mariana knows that her math tutor, 24-year-old Vineetha Vijayan, spends her weekends studying for a national exam to teach in college. She doesn't know, though, that the hardest part of her biology tutor Roshan's day is when the alarm goes off at 2:30 a.m. and she rises to make steamed dal and chapatis for her two children to take to school.
In fact, these new relationships are built on a simple economic principle—giving American pupils homework help at a low price by paying Indian tutors more than their country's classroom teachers. And growing numbers of American parents are learning that the cheapest way to sharpen the skills their youngsters will need to survive in the competitive global economy is to move, posthaste, into that global village.
By Scott Kraft
Scott Kraft is national editor of The Times. May 6, 2007