Experts estimate that millions of youngsters, some as young as 4, are being tutored — to stay on par with peers, compensate for a learning disability, boost their scores on high-stakes assessment tests required for promotion or acceptance into gifted/talented programs, or simply to grab that competitive edge. And not surprisingly, in this, as in just about every parenting issue, experts are at odds over whether all this extra work is such a good idea.
A Brave New World
In the last decade, as education has zoomed to the top of the national agenda and demand for higher standards and more accountability on the part of schools has increased, tutoring little kids has become big business. Many parents are opting to supplement their children's education with outside assistance, whether in the form of private help with a moonlighting or retired teacher, college student or recent grad, or small classes at one of the national chains. The largest, Sylvan Reading Systems, has 950 centers in the U.S. and Canada; other big players include Huntington Learning Centers and Kumon Math & Reading Centers.
What's more, test-preparation giants such as The Princeton Review and Kaplan (with 150 centers in 11 states), long aimed at college-bound high school students, report a surge in demand for their services at the elementary school level. Both companies now run publicly funded tutoring programs in city schools as well as online programs, complete with access to 24-hour-a-day tutors, for children as young as kindergarten.
That Competitive Edge
Perhaps it's not surprising that, in an age when the college admissions frenzy causes angst even in families still buying diapers, some parents of kids who are doing just fine feel compelled to seek help so that they can do even better.
"There is nothing wrong with tutoring in principle," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., co-author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less and a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. "But what I'm hearing today is that children are being coached to get into the right preschool. This generation of parents believes it's never too early to start academic learning — and that you must grab every opportunity. But childhood is not a race; it's a journey. And faster isn't always better."
When Tutoring Can Help
On the other hand, tutoring for the right reasons can spell the difference between a child who flounders and one who flourishes. "While the major work of learning takes place in school, a qualified tutor — working in tandem with the teacher — can perform a valuable function in helping to reinforce a child's reading and writing skills and apply them to homework assignments, as well as introduce study and organization skills," says Sally Shaywitz, M.D., co-director of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention and author of Overcoming Dyslexia.
In fact, for many kids it's not only appropriate, but necessary to have a tutor. "When specific, basic skills are not developing as you would expect, or when a child has a diagnosed learning disability, having a tutor can help her build those special skills or compensate for the ones she lacks," says learning specialist Susan J. Schwartz, M.A. Ed., clinical coordinator at the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the New York University Child Study Center.
For time-crunched parents, themselves baffled by their kid's homework, or those whose child has a learning disability, a qualified tutor can personalize lessons to accommodate learning style, boost self-esteem, and end the nightly battles over homework. It's a boon, as well, for children lost in the shuffle of the large class sizes all too common in today's public schools.