Early Childhood

Growing Niche for Tutoring Chains: Prekindergartners’ Academic Prep

By Rhea R. Borja — October 18, 2005 5 min read
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At an academic-tutoring center here in suburban Washington, Merrick Jansen glanced up at a clock. He scrawled “3:17” at the top of his worksheet, then got busy on pages of reading and writing exercises.

Five-year-old Merrick Jansen and classmate tackle worksheets in the Junior Kumon program at a tutoring center in Rockville, Md.

Merrick is 5. On this crisp October afternoon, he’d just finished a flashcard drill of simple words, and the children next to him were following suit. “Cap. Lap. Map. Trap,” they recited. “Cat. Fat. Rat.”

Academic tutoring has dropped down to the sandbox-and-nap-time set. In recent years, early-childhood education experts and industry analysts say, more parents have started sending their 3- to 5-year-old children to for-profit tutoring centers to give them an academic edge in elementary school.

Tutoring for tots, some say, has been spurred by increased academic accountability in schools, heightened competition to get into top-ranked colleges, and new research that links early exposure to books, music, and language to better academic performance in later years. And the convenience and recognizable brand names of some established tutoring companies seem to attract parents, some industry-watchers say.

“Parents are more aware of research that says that the long-term value of educational child care is very profound. They think [their children] will have a leg up,” said Kirsten Edwards, a senior analyst with ThinkEquity, a financial-services company in San Francisco. She includes pre-K tutoring in what she calls educational child care.

While pre-K tutoring is now just a tiny segment of the $2.5 billion K-12 tutoring industry—about 1 percent—that share is likely to grow as more parents and policymakers emphasize early-childhood education, Ms. Edwards added. She pointed to an annual growth rate of roughly 15 percent in the K-12 tutoring industry overall in the past few years.

Companies such as New York City-based Kaplan Inc.; Sylvan Learning Centers, a division of Baltimore-based Educate Inc.; and Teaneck, N.J.-based Kumon North America have recently started or expanded tutoring programs for younger children.

Merrick and his classmates participate in the Junior Kumon program, which Kumon unveiled in 2003. It’s now in place in all 1,700 of the company’s tutoring centers nationwide, said Andrea Pastorok, the educational specialist for Kumon North America. “It’s taken off like wildfire,” she said. “That speaks to the need for this.”

Capitalizing on Anxiety?

Other companies have followed suit. In March, Score! Educational Centers Inc., a subsidiary of Kaplan, partnered with Seattle-based Headsprout Inc. to include early-literacy software in 143 tutoring centers nationwide. Headsprout’s 80-lesson software program is supplemented with tutors at the Score! centers.

“What we hear from parents is that they are tremendously concerned that [their children] have a good and smooth transition into kindergarten,” said Beth Hollenberg, the vice president of Score!, in discussing the Headsprout partnership.

This year, Sylvan Learning Centers began pre-K literacy tutoring in 800 of its centers and plans to expand to all 1,200 by December, said Christopher Hoehn-Saric, the chief executive officer and chairman of Educate Inc.

Yet while some companies wax enthusiastic about pre-K tutoring, many early-childhood experts decry the trend. Tutoring 3- to 5-year-olds in a classroom setting with flashcards and workbooks can be overly prescriptive, dampen enthusiasm for learning, and even spur developmental problems, some scholars say.

“Parents have the idea that education is a race, but it is not,” said David Elkind, the author of the 1981 book The Hurried Child and a child-development professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “However well-intentioned, [pre-K tutoring] is a moneymaking thing that builds on parental anxieties, with no research or support.”

Veronica Irarte, an instructor in the Junior Kumon tutoring program for preschoolers and kindergartners, uses flashcards with Tyler Gainer at a Kumon tutoring center in Rockville, Md.

He pointed to European research on the consequences of preschool reading instruction. Studies found that in countries where reading was not taught until age 6 or 7, such as in Switzerland and Denmark, few children had reading problems, Mr. Elkind said. But in countries where reading was taught early, such as France, a high percentage of children had reading problems.

Early-childhood organizations, such as Pre-K Now and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, cast a wary eye on preschool tutoring.

“Are [parents] damaging their kids for life? Hardly,” said Barbara A. Willer, a deputy executive director of the Washington-based NAEYC. “But there’s a larger issue. As a society, do we make sure that tutoring is available just to those who can afford it, or do we ensure that there are high-quality pre-K programs for all?”

Tutoring can be an unnecessary expense for parents, said Libby B. Doggett, the executive director of Pre-K Now, based in Washington. The group advocates for state-financed prekindergarten nationwide. “If they’re getting a high-quality program with a certified, highly qualified teacher and with rich learning embedded in play,” Ms. Doggett said, “tutoring is not necessary.”

A Mix of Activities

Mr. Hoehn-Saric of Educate Inc. says that such criticism overlooks the age-appropriate curriculum of pre-K tutoring. Instruction is provided not only through drill and quizzes but also storybooks, games, and activities, he said.

Children also learn important social skills, such as playing nicely with classmates and following directions, he added.

“This is a structured curriculum, but it has to be entertaining and enjoyable for kids,” he said. “If we can help produce kids who are more fluent readers, who are more confident, who can enter school with that [academic] edge, it prepares them that much better to love learning.”

Merrick’s mother, Mary Jansen, would agree. She says the program encourages her son to achieve beyond his grade level. And that, she says, is necessary for Merrick to succeed in school.

“Kids can’t only be little kids anymore,” she said, after her son finished his half-hour tutoring session here. “I want him to go to the college he wants. As long as it’s [in the] Ivy League.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Growing Niche for Tutoring Chains: Prekindergartners’ Academic Prep


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