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Homework Help, From a World Away

Amita Achutuni, 15, of Potomac works with her Indian tutor using a headset and computer writing tablet.
Amita Achutuni, 15, of Potomac works with her Indian tutor using a headset and computer writing tablet. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006

It was almost 3 a.m., Alex Del Monte recalled, and he was cramming like crazy. He gulped can after can of Red Bull to stay awake, but the George Washington University sophomore knew he would flunk his Statistics 52 exam later that day if he didn't call his tutor for help.

But so late at night? Not a problem if your tutor works 8,500 miles away and 9 1/2 hours ahead in Bangalore, India.

In an hour-long session that cost just $18, the Indian tutor, who said his name was Mike, spent an hour walking Del Monte through such esoteric concepts as confidence intervals and alpha divisions, Del Monte recalled. He got an A on the final exam. "Mike helped me unscramble everything in my mind," the 20-year-old said.

Thousands of U.S. students such as Del Monte are increasingly relying on overseas tutors to boost their grades and SAT scores. The tutors, who communicate with students over the Internet, are inexpensive and available around the clock, making education the newest industry to be outsourced to other countries.

Tutoring companies figure: If low-paid workers in China and India can sew your clothes, process your medical bills and answer your computer questions, why can't they teach your children, too?

But educational outsourcing has sparked a fierce response from teachers and other critics who argue that some companies are using unqualified overseas tutors to increase their profit margins.

"We don't believe that education should become a business of outsourcing," said Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers. "When you start talking about overseas people teaching children, it just doesn't seem right to me."

To 15-year-old Amita Achutuni, though, tutoring on the Internet just makes sense. On a recent Monday afternoon, the Potomac resident kicked off her shoes and logged into her home computer. Then she put on her headset.

"Hi, Amita!" a woman with an Indian accent said cheerfully. "How are you doing?"

The voice belonged to Lekha Kamalasan, a $20-an-hour tutor who helps Amita with her geometry homework during twice-a-week, one-hour sessions. Using an electronic white board and a copy of Amita's textbook, Kamalasan guides her through the nuances of cross-multiplication, triangle similarity and assorted geometry proofs.

Amita is one of 400 students enrolled with Growing Stars, a California-based company whose 50 tutors, most of them with master's degrees, work in an office in Cochin, India. Although her Indian-born mother was worried at first that Amita might not be able to understand the tutor's accent, she urged her daughter to try the service, which was much cheaper than the $80-an-hour private tutors her older son once used.

"I didn't want to do it at first because I thought it would be weird," said Amita, a freshman at Wootton High School. "But it really doesn't make a difference. I just can't see her face."


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