For These Tots, T Is for Tutor

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Times Staff Writer

Hunched over a small table at a West Los Angeles learning center, Sehajpal Singh is a study in concentration as he figures out that the dots on his work sheet add up to 10.

Sehajpal is 3, but he already has a good grasp of counting, simple words and sentences and taking directions. After a half-hour of work, he stretches and yawns, then seems eager to jump back into his lesson.

Sehajpal represents a growing trend of preschool-age children putting away the toys and picking up a pencil for private tutoring sessions. Driven by increasing competition to keep up with the baby Einsteins, parents are doing whatever it takes to give children an advantage they hope can be parlayed into better grades, better schools and better futures.


“I want my son to get a scholarship,” said Monika Singh, Sehajpal’s mother. She sat in a waiting room recently, watching through a window as Sehajpal peered at a picture of a fox and then pointed to the name of the animal. “I’ve called around to some private schools, and they said that he can get in if he’s really good. Here, my son is counting from 1 to 20, he’s doing the alphabet, vocabulary, small words. The curriculum here is different, and my son likes to come.”

Educators and parents alike say there is greater pressure to begin preparing kids at an earlier age to meet the academic standards demanded by the federal No Child Left Behind education act and state testing. Many states have adopted benchmarks for every grade level, including pre-kindergarten.

As a result, pre-academic preparation -- including homework -- is being shifted to children as young as 3 and 4, while academic skills once expected of first-graders are now being taught to 5-year-olds. A knowledge of phonemic sounds, words, shapes, names of animals and parts of the body are de rigueur these days for incoming kindergarteners, who also are expected to know how to write their names and be able to count to at least 30.

More evidence of a changing landscape: A school superintendent in Prince Georges County, Md., sparked heated debate two years ago when he declared naps for preschoolers a waste of time that could be better spent on academics. Many traditional half-day kindergartens are converting to full-day programs. Many parents are holding boys behind a year before kindergarten to give them time to mature and better compete. And a new satellite television network is offering around-the-clock viewing for infants and toddlers.

“There’s a competitiveness that’s scaring parents into feeling like they not good parents unless they enroll their children in tutoring programs,” said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor who has studied early childhood learning. “Commercial interests are stirring this sort of fear.”

Some early-learning experts say that private prepping of younger children robs them of playtime and the social and emotional development that goes along with it. They say children would do just as well if parents spent more time playing with them. Tutoring, they contend, is needless unless a child has a developmental disability.


“The most important thing we can do to prepare children for elementary education and beyond is to give them the opportunity for problem-solving and thinking skills,” said Richard Cohen, vice president of education for the Learning Care Group, which operates traditional child care learning centers. “What gets lost when children are tutored with work sheets and papers is solving meaningful issues or problems.”

An emerging concern, too, is that children whose parents cannot afford tutoring may fall further behind their peers as the educational stakes grow higher.

Tutoring is a $2.2-billion industry nationally, with about 1.9 million students participating, according to Eduventures, a Boston-based educational research and consulting firm. Nearly one-third of tutoring is devoted to preparation for college entrance exams. The availability of federal grants to support students in failing school districts is probably also feeding the private tutor industry, said educators.

Private services such as the Sylvan Learning Centers, SCORE! Educational Centers and Junior Kumon, which Sehajpal attends, began offering classes for 3- to 5-year-olds in the last few years and have expanded them recently as demand has grown.

Parents who pay for private tutoring say they want to give their children an edge when competing for spots in elite preschools and kindergartens. Others say their children simply seem ready and eager for academics. Many say they want their children to have an extra layer of individual attention in addition to the traditional preschool classes, which typically range from 20 to 24 students.

Some child development experts say that parents who send their children off to tutoring miss the chance for greater involvement. But many parents counter that tutoring merely supplements the help their children receive at home.


Deena Wilson is a stay-at-home mother who reads to her children and walks them to and from school, while husband Mark coaches the kids’ sports teams.

“But I also know that parents can only do so much,” said Wilson, whose son Alek, 5, began tutoring at a Sylvan center in El Segundo when he was 4 1/2 . Sister Sarah, 8, also attended Sylvan classes.

“The expectations are higher than what they were when I was in school,” Wilson said. “I want them to excel. I never want them to feel that they’re unable to do something.”

Studies show that children, especially those who are poor or minorities, benefit from attending high-quality preschools. The evidence is contradictory as to whether those gains are long-lasting. Virtually no studies have looked at the effects of private tutoring.

The private programs say they follow established child development guidelines and provide curriculum that is appropriate for young minds. Although some educators contend that private tutoring puts pressure on students that turns them off to learning, private providers say the opposite occurs.

The Junior Kumon program was developed about three years ago and uses such materials as work sheets, flashcards, books and magnetized alphabet and number boards to introduce children to reading and math. Children usually attend twice a week for 45 minutes to an hour, sitting at desks with an instructor and one or two other children. Fees range from $80 to $110 per subject per month.


Enrollment in the junior program has increased about 27% each year and now includes about 24,700 children, officials said. Developed in Japan, the program is especially popular with Asian and other immigrants.

“We were asked by a number of parents couldn’t we have something for the little ones who were very anxious to emulate their older brothers and sisters,” said Andrea Pastorok, an educational psychologist for Kumon North America who helped develop the curriculum for the Junior Kumon centers. “We went into the background of what’s appropriate for 4- to 6-year-olds, with the knowledge that kindergarten is the new first grade.”

Julie Young enrolled her 4-year-old daughter Georgia in the Junior Kumon classes because the little girl wanted homework, just like her 7 1/2 -year-old brother, who also attends the West Los Angeles center. Georgia, an outgoing, bubbly tyke with a mass of blond ringlets, also attends a traditional preschool that is more developmentally oriented, and Young thinks that the two programs complement each other.

“She can count to 100 and does some sight vocabulary,” said Young. “It’s really helped her with her fine motor skills. She really loves the classes and likes the group interaction.”

When asked what she liked best about her class, Georgia was quick to answer: “Buying candy.” The children earn points as an incentive for their work that can be exchanged for small toys, snacks and, for Georgia, a stick of cherry Laffy Taffy.

The Sylvan Learning Centers accept no children younger than 4, said the firm’s vice president for education Richard Bavaria. And unlike those in some other programs, Sylvan instructors must be certified teachers.


“We recognize there are a lot of people who say young children should not be learning formally how to read, that children at this age should be discovering and playing and enjoying the many pleasures of childhood, and to that we say we agree,” said Bavaria. “But we also know there may be 4- or 5-year-old children motivated to read.”

Pamela Leon said her son Nicholas has blossomed since he enrolled in tutoring classes at a Sylvan center in Rancho Cucamonga. Leon said she and her husband became concerned when Nicholas’ preschool teacher suggested he was behind in learning his alphabet and they considered holding him back.

He started Sylvan at 4 and now, at 5, is thriving in kindergarten and continues tutoring classes twice a week.

Leon, herself a preschool teacher, said the more early learning children receive the better. “There’s a lot of pressure on public schools right now to make sure we succeed.”

Expectations for incoming kindergartners in the Irvine Unified School District, for example, include knowing the features of print and literature, such as the cover of a book and its title and the ability to retell a story. But many parents focus too much on the academics, said Merri Jo Hooven, the school district readiness program coordinator.

“I think the political agenda does drive expectations, obviously,” Hooven said, “and in Irvine, where you have many parents who are highly educated, so many things are being introduced at a very young age.”


Leon said parents walk a fine line between pushing their children too hard and preparing them for a lifetime of academic rigors.

“I did struggle with that,” she said. “I don’t feel like Sylvan is aggressively pushing him to do anything he isn’t ready for. A lot has to do with parents accepting children for who they are.”