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The Tutoring Dilemma

March 2009
The Tutoring Dilemma

What used to be merely a supplemental aid for helping children with the school curriculum now seems to have grown into a basic necessity for raising competent kids. Parents and experts weigh in on the pros and cons of tutoring, and on how soon is too soon.

By Ajay Vishwanathan

“The trouble with being a parent is that by the time you are experienced, you are unemployed,” someone aptly said.

The source of this quote remains elusive but the truth of the statement is not lost on today’s parents who sweat, scramble and sift to make the right decisions and make them quickly. Their children are growing too fast for them to remain shackled in mistakes.

One hot-button topic that attracts diverse and conflicting viewpoints is the need for institutional tutorial classes that now come in an increasing array of choices. Tutoring today has matured from mere supplemental help geared towards the school curriculum into an intensely structured learning experience that focuses on skill-building and development.

Institutional tutoring has mushroomed as parents strive to raise kids in an increasingly competitive environment of our technology-driven era. “When mothers meet, we only seem to be talking about things like ‘Is she eligible for an accelerated learning program?’ and ‘Does your son go to the advanced program?’” admits Kiran Gill, a resident of Suwanee, Georgia.

Many, if not most Indian-American parents may relate with Kiran. Broadly speaking, an “intense parenting” mindset as described by Scott Davies of McMaster University in the American Journal of Education is common amongst them. Davis describes intense parents as those that “place a great premium on education, value a cognitively stimulating environment for their children, and closely monitor their children’s activities.”

Intense parenting may well be the cause for the healthy growth in the tutoring business. An increasing number of franchises offer a variety of programs for both schoolwork and beyond. Jonathan Thill, M.Ed., who runs the Sylvan Learning Center at Toco Hills Center, Atlanta, says, “Sylvan helps transform kids into uniquely inspired learners with the skills to do better in school and the confidence to do better in everything else.”

“Parents come to my learning center for remedy or enrichment,” says Madhu Kapoor, who has been running a Kumon center in West Lilburn for almost five years now. “Very few seem to get enough from schools.”

Not surprisingly, some entrepreneurs are utilizing cutting-edge practices and technology to deliver tutorial options. Be a Star Tutoring is an online service that promises students 24/7 access to a highly qualified and experienced teacher in math or science from the comfort of their home.

Sailaja Gangadhara, a mother of two, felt compelled to consider some alternatives beyond school when she found Ananthu, her older son, struggling at an extra-curricular math competition for his age group. “I wish I had arranged for professional tutoring,” Sailaja concedes. “Solving such problems is all about time management. And [tutoring] would have prepared him for the competition.”

According to Kapoor, Indian Americans account for a large percentage of Kumon’s students.Not surprisingly, tutoring franchises that help prepare students for academic excellence are a desired service amongst Indian parents. Kapoor is one of several Indian American franchisees of Kumon, which has been recognized by Enterprise Magazine as one of the fastest growing tutoring franchise in recent years. The Kumon method uses proper entry-level placement, followed by step-by-step practice, and advancement only when a perfect score is achieved within a specified time. In sharp contrast to the American system, but not unlike the Indian methods, Kumon—in a single-minded pursuit of set goals—emphasizes rote learning characterized by drills and memorization.

Kiran, whose child goes to Kumon, believes that it helps with math; but she is unhappy with their reading lessons. “The same idea of drilling doesn’t apply to learning English,” she says. However, like so many other parents, she doesn’t regret sending her son to a tutoring center despite her concerns.

Kiran is amongst those who make possible the growth of an industry that has doubled since 2002, when the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation was passed in Congress in an effort to improve public education. Whether or not there is any direct correlation between the growth of the tutorial industry and this legislation is anyone’s guess; but many experts in the field agree that the results of NCLB did not match the stated objectives; and worse, had a negative impact on public schooling.

Are failing schools the cause?

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires,” said William Arthur Ward, an American inspirational writer. Unfortunately, the desire to inspire students has been crushed under the weight of test score requirements, oversized classes and a mediocre curriculum, some of which, critics say, can be traced back to changes implemented by NCLB.

Dr. Susan Belgrad, a renowned author and a professor of elementary education at California State University has, for 20 years, led state and national efforts to increase public awareness of teacher excellence. Although a strong advocate of public schooling, Dr. Belgrad recognizes flaws in the system that might drive parents to pursue supplemental training. She believes that NCLB has done more harm than good. “After six years, the most recognizable outcome is the loss of decision-making autonomy of even the most effective teachers,” she said in an interview with Khabar. Dr. Belgrad feels that the sweeping reforms made by NCLB have decreased the enjoyment and success of both learning and teaching.

One of the debatable practice coming from NCLB was that of labeling students by placing them in achievement groups designed to focus on weaknesses—with the objective of bringing every child up to a minimum performance level defined for their age. “Research tells us that these placements and the subsequent recognition of low performance (of the child) by both adults and peers will more likely result in the student’s refusal to continue trying,” says Dr. Belgrad.

Indian parents, who are, broadly speaking, academically inclined, are not blind to this crumbling cornerstone of their kids’ education. They turn to supplemental tutoring with varying objectives. Some want to help their struggling kids in a school environment where the overwhelmed teachers rarely have time to give individualized attention. Others are looking to provide their kids an enriched curriculum and a competitive edge.

The zeal for tutorial classes is hardly unanimous, however. Naushad Bhamani, an Alpharetta, Georgia, resident, doesn’t believe in supplemental tutoring for his son, Conrad. He also feels that failing schools are not the reason for the growth of tutorials. “Parents who send their kids to tutors would have done so regardless of the school situation.” He doesn’t see these learning centers giving his son anything that he cannot impart at home. “Conrad has always been a straight ‘A’ student who takes part in enough extracurricular activities to keep him well-rounded. I am worried that over-burdening kids will make them rebellious.”

Parents like Naushad suggest that the solutions to kids’ problems might lie at home. They advise the parents to closely assess the children’s needs, stop cramming, focus on basic concepts, involve school teachers and get their feedback, connect with the curriculum, use the library, and take the kids onto the streets so that they learn from non-academic interactions.

Some critics are worried that tutoring centers might be further undermining the very school system that parents find faults with. They feel that children would be better served if parents invest in their schools instead. “Parents can be instrumental in helping schools reach their academic goals by volunteering in classrooms, learning centers [at the schools] and on field trips,” suggests Dr. Belgrad. “If we are to expect more from our public schools, then families, communities and businesses must participate in their improvement.” She feels that while schools have a responsibility to provide a safe and engaging learning environment, parents also have a responsibility to ensure that their children arrive at school each day with a proper amount of sleep, a well-rounded diet, and a positive attitude towards adults and peers.

Elizabeth Webb, Director of the Innovative Academic Programs Division in the Georgia Department of Education, however, doesn’t believe that tutoring has weakened the school system. “Anything that gets children more interested in learning is good for schools,” she says. She is working hard with the Georgia school districts on different intervention strategies similar to tutoring, for children who fall behind. “We form flexible groups and ask our teachers to become facilitators. We now design individualized problems for smaller groups.” She has several examples of schools that have already used such methods, including Norcross High and Chamblee High.

A variety of views

Indeed, every child does not have the capacity to top the class without some external push. Some fall behind and get frustrated at their inability to keep up with their peers. To avoid affecting their kids’ confidence, many parents turn to tutoring.

The high costs of private schools also helps make a case for tutorial classes. Rather than deny themselves their indulgences, go without holidays for years on end, and make other sacrifices, some parents prefer to send their children to learning centers—a less costly option.

Some parents going the tutoring route are probably just keeping up with the Joneses, or avoiding the feeling that they may be shortchanging their children. “I have friends who know their kids don’t need help outside of school, but they see others sending their children to (such classes) and feel their kids are missing out,” says Shilpa Sarabu, an Illinois resident.

Then, there are those who enrolled their children in learning centers but later withdrew them. Dr. Harish Dwarakinath, an Atlanta-based nephrologist, sent his son, Ajay, to Kumon but realized that the monotony of the program was in fact damaging Ajay’s interest in learning. His wife, Radhika, recalls, “Ajay was a child with almost no exam anxiety.” According to her, he spent very little time studying, and wouldn’t sit in one place for long to focus on a specific subject. Yet, his grades were topnotch.

“I still saw that as a problem,” says Radhika. Would Ajay’s casual approach work at higher levels when the curriculum got harder, she wondered. Although Harish was skeptical, they enrolled Ajay in Kumon to instill discipline and a habit for longer practice sessions. Things were supposed to get better, but they didn’t. Since Ajay was placed in a level lower than what he was used to, he didn’t feel challenged enough. The repetitiveness of his assignments was tiresome to him. “When I saw a kid who always displayed a positive attitude towards learning now finding his studies a matter of agitation and repulsion, I figured it was not worth it,” says Radhika. She concedes that Kumon has helped several other children whom she knows. It was just that in Ajay’s case they didn’t get what they anticipated.

“Kumon is not a quick-fix program,” points out Kapoor. “New students rarely start at their grade level because our philosophy is to get a comfortable starting point for the child, which is usually a few grades lower, and help the students ease into a long-term schedule.” She concedes that she has had some parents fuss about it, but adds that this complaint is usually associated with older children who are new to Kumon. “Younger ones are more moldable and open to our approaches,” she notes.

Learning centers have also been sought out to teach subjects like advanced algebra, which a parent may not be able to help with. Indeed, acing the SAT Reasoning Test (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test—a standardized test for college admission) is an important landmark in the transition from school to higher education, and institutions that specialize in this significant objective are thriving. Sai Sevak, Director of Global Tutoring, operating from the Global Mall in Norcross, Georgia, observes that their student count has grown by as much as 70 percent in the last three years, enrollments continuing to rise even in recent months, amidst the economic meltdown. They prominently advertise their successes in helping students achieve stellar SAT scores.

But does such a premium emphasis on testing and scoring come at a price? How about instilling creativity and innovation in growing minds? Also, could such a performance-based approach create anxiety and aversion to learning? Quite the contrary, says Sevak. She believes that it builds the child’s confidence. However, she agrees that the tutor’s role in a student’s development should be only a single prong in a multi-pronged approach that parents and the students implement themselves.

Too much too soon?

Almost every parent has a dream: we imagine ourselves in a well-attended room illuminated by frequent photo flashes and filled with sounds of ovation as our youngster’s name is called, and the list of his life’s biggest influences is detailed. As admiring glances come our way, our misty eyes recollect all the tough choices we made as our child gradually blossomed—some questionable, a few unnecessary, but all well-intentioned.

Early tutoring has become one of those choices that so many muddle through. TIME magazine called it “kindercramming.” Madhu Kapoor, who also runs Junior Kumon, calls it “preparatory.” Kids can doodle carelessly but should be able to count dots, they can run aimlessly in circles in the park but they should know the sounds of each letter of the alphabet. Parents today are encouraging their toddlers to value a pencil as much as their toy.

But many wonder if an overall zeal to cram too much learning too fast in very young children is advisable. The famous Montessori Method, while putting a high premium on instilling independence through involvement of young children in practical chores, is averse to structured curriculums. Other experts have also favored quality family time and impromptu “alone” time for very young children—as opposed to tutorials or academic emphasis.

We asked Bhawna Saluja, who runs Aloha Mental Arithmetic classes in Alpharetta for children four and up, if classes such as hers might compete with the increasingly scarce family time, and if it might cause performance or test anxiety amongst young children. She replied, “At Aloha, learning occurs in a fun-filled environment where the child never feels the burden of learning a new concept every week.” Keeping work-family balance in mind, their classes are only once a week, with homework of only 15 minutes a day, for four days a week.

Sandy Zinzuwadia, whose six-year-old son, Pratham, goes to Aloha, feels that unlike in India, where children can independently keep themselves occupied after school, lifestyles here do require us to direct them towards some structured activity. She feels that Pratham enjoys the challenge, and that the 15 minutes to half-an-hour that it takes him to finish the Aloha work is a good counter-balance to TV time.

“I wish I had sent Karan to [tutoring] when he was a toddler. That would have taught him discipline,” regrets Kiran Gill. “When I told him to get a crayon he would say ‘Mommy, you bring it.’ Generally, Indian parents are guilty of pampering their children a lot more than the average American family.” Kapoor agrees. “A sense of rule and restraint needs to be taught early in a child’s life,” she says. “Have you noticed any American kids running around unattended during concerts, or making loud noises in a movie theater?”

Advocates of tutoring for toddlers put forth several other reasons in its favor: the chance to interact with other children, along with its opportunities for team play and social give-and-take. Children learn to rely on themselves and gain a new level of confidence as they become familiar with what to expect in school. Some parents want their toddlers to realize that life is not merely slides, swings, and balloons; they feel that early tutoring will prepare them for routines and rising competition in the future.

This growing trend of head-start tutoring is not without its share of critics. “We’ve taken the measuring stick of elementary school standards and pushed it downward,” says Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of developmental psychology at Temple University and co-author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. Yet, there isn’t much in terms of research to suggest that pushing higher standards on younger children helps them get better grades in the future. Jean Padberg, an Atlanta-based immigration lawyer, was one parent who did not fall for the temptation of early tutoring even though her daughter, Virginia was a slow starter at lower grades. “I did not panic or regret not having enrolled her in tutoring, because I didn’t want her to be conscious of her drawbacks.” As she grew, Virginia flourished without any supplemental support, and did very well. She went to a Georgia magnet school, and is now considered one of the most promising youngsters in her class.

Jean’s approach of not succumbing to institutional tutoring is exactly what many experts favor. “The parent who provides a variety of play experiences using blocks, plastic containers, puzzles, art media, collages of natural world collections, and who reads wonderful stories aloud, telling anecdotes and much more, will far exceed the gains a child might have sitting with a tutor going over print materials or computer programs—no matter how ‘fun’ the developers have tried to make them,” opines Dr. Belgrad. “A reward-based academic program can make kids anxious,” says Dr. Michael Thompson, coauthor of The Pressured Child. “You start seeing stomachaches, headaches, acting out, and sleep issues,” he adds.

There is also caution against the tendency to rush learning for children. Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University, brought to the attention of TIME magazine some of the recent brain-imaging data that show children aren’t ready to read until around age five. She notes, “To hasten that process not only makes no sense socially or emotionally, it makes no sense physiologically.”

Opponents of early academia also suggest that commercial interests are responsible for stoking the sense of panic among parents that their children might be left behind. They think it’s too much academics too soon.

There might be no hard evidence that suggests early academics can help children, but there is none showing that they do any harm either. “It comes to just two hours of lessons per week. Is that asking too much? Does that take time away from play?” asks Kapoor. “My students consider them an extension of their play. These sessions will in fact only diversify their life.”

And in some cases the need for learning centers is compelling because of unique family circumstances. Parents who are not fluent or even conversational in English don’t want their deficiencies spilling onto their youngsters. For them language and reading tutorials seems like a no-brainer.

“Parents are in the best position to judge what their youngsters want,” notes Elizabeth Webb. “Tutoring is not bad; however, the key is to establish a positive relationship between the child and the tutor. It is not what they teach, but the way (they teach it).”

Even if our problems, plans and approaches are different, all of us like to help our children along on their journey with safeguards and chaperones that will get them to success and happiness. Tutoring is just one of the several complementary tools that many parents find useful. Be it Naushad, Harish or Kiran, eventually every parent only hopes that when she is sitting moist-eyed in that room filled with an applauding audience, it is her child who is on stage.

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