Learning the Hard-cash Way: Israel’s Multimillion Dollar Private-tutoring Industry

Nearly half of Israel's high-school students are receiving lessons at home from private tutors. Why are families paying for this expansive but expensive education?

If you had told Efrat Danan years ago that when her two children were in elementary school she would be spending 18,000 shekels ($5,122) a year on private tutoring, she would certainly have said that sounded exorbitant. But today, that’s the annual bill for the extra teaching she believes they need to stay ahead and succeed. Other spend a lot more: The Kopell family from Kiryat Ata pays 28,000 shekels ($7,968) annually for private lessons for their two children, ages 10 and 13.

“When you get back home only at 7 P.M., it’s not the time to sit down and go over learning material and quiz the kids. The kids have difficulty concentrating at that time,” says father Mickey Kopell, explaining why he pays so much for tutoring. He also attributes part of the problem to the way classes are taught in school. “Many times they rush to get through all the material, and there are too many students in each class – the exact opposite of the reforms that were promised,” he says.

Danan says the tutoring is more to help her children stay ahead and challenge them than to make up for their schools’ shortcomings. “They tend to give reinforcement [in class] to those who are a bit behind. They don’t push forward those who are more advanced, for whom you need to invest your own money to raise the level [of instruction],” she says.

Nevertheless, the Education Ministry says that following the two major educational reforms – New Horizon and Courage to Change – at the end of the previous decade, time is set aside in schools to give students individual instruction for reinforcing lessons and enrichment purposes. It says the extra teaching is given both to students who are advanced and those who are behind.

However, the money spent by the Danan and Kopell families on tutoring is by no means exceptional. According to the Education Ministry, this year’s report on the Meitzav standardized exams found that a third of all students in the fifth and sixth grades received assistance in at least one subject during the year. Among middle-school students, the statistic reached 41%.

The subjects in which assistance was most commonly sought were math and English. In elementary school, 19% of those receiving private assistance were receiving help in math; among middle schoolers, this figure was 29%.

Last year, the Education Ministry published figures – for the first time – on the number of high-school students who received private lessons from time to time over the course of the year, a figure that reached 70%.

All the sources TheMarker spoke to in the private-tutoring industry and the Education Ministry agreed that this figure was roughly correct, given that the estimated size of the market for private-tutoring services in Israel is estimated at 1 billion shekels ($284.6 million). Some sources even said the ministry underestimated the rate and that the real number was above 80%, with the number peaking in the period before high-school matriculation exams.

This year, the Education Ministry said 46% of all high-school students reported receiving private lessons – 27% regularly, the rest every once in a while. The most common subject for private tutoring in high school was math, with one-third of students receiving help in this subject, followed by English (17%). The ministry explained the discrepancy between this year and last year’s figure by saying the 2012 figure was an error and that the updated, corrected figure was 46% from the previous year as well.

That number was rejected by a senior figure in the private-tutoring industry, who asked not to be identified. “If last year they published faulty figures, this year they are totally unrealistic,” he says. The only possible explanation for the 46% figure is that half of students cannot afford private tutoring, he claims.

For many families, private tutoring is the most important expense in the family budget after housing, says Sharon Levin, director of guidance at the Paamonim Organization, which helps families in financial distress by providing guidance, rehabilitation and professional assistance with finances and behavior. “It is a red line that families aren’t willing to cross,” she adds.

At Paamonim, they often see families willing to pay for not only private tutoring, but also extracurricular activities and private schooling. They are willing to give up other things to pay for these things for their children.

Levin says that because they’re such a large expense, parents should ensure private lessons are really needed before paying for them. Sometimes schools hold review days, and there are also partnered learning centers that offer reduced tutoring rates. If going with a private tutor – the most expensive option – parents or students should check that what’s included in the lesson covers the same material as covered in class and does not include additional subjects, she says.

However, despite the cost, industry sources say the traditional method of one-on-one tutoring at the teacher or pupil’s home is the most popular today. Roee Naim, manager of the website limudnaim.co.il, says different companies have tried to offer private-tutoring lessons over the web, but these services have not replaced the traditional tutoring model. “Video-recorded lectures still exist, but they are a complementary product,” says Naim.

At the same time, Naim says, students and private tutors find each other online, searching by price, area and subject. “Today, people look more and more at people’s comments and recommendations,” he says. “The possibility of commenting on a real Facebook profile, compared to a hidden user-comments section, creates an accurate picture that affects the price, which becomes much more transparent.”

Amiram Marcus, manager of the lamdan.co.il website for private tutors – which provides a database of 6,750 private tutors in Israel – agrees with Naim’s assessment. Marcus says parents have recently begun looking on his website for teachers with specialities beyond core subjects, such as teaching those with learning disabilities. “This year there was a 300% increase in searches related to learning disabilities, and it’s a niche that is only growing,” he says.

Prices, Marcus says, are determined first and foremost by a teacher’s professional background. A student will charge between 10 and 30 shekels ($3-$9) less per lesson than a professional teacher. On lamdan.co.il, one can see that the average fee for a lesson taught by a university student is 86 shekels ($25), while the average fee for a lesson taught by an academic lecturer is 107 shekels ($30), a 24% difference. Nevertheless, most students would prefer to study with a professional teacher or academic degree holder, who charge, on average, 99 shekels ($28) per hour and 94 shekels ($27) per hour, respectively.

Geographic location also affects the price of lessons. For example, the going rate for math lessons starts at 80 shekels ($23) per hour around the country, except for the Negev, where the average fee is 70 shekels ($20) per hour. However, the top end for tutoring fees varies greatly depending on the area. In the south, the maximum math tutoring fees reach 100 shekels ($28) per hour. In Jerusalem, the equivalent maximum fee is 105 shekels ($30) per hour, while in Haifa it is 130 shekels ($37) per hour. In Tel Aviv and the center of the country, though, it can go as high as 180 shekels ($51) per hour.

Ilan Assayag