Hooked on tutoring

After-school programs bleed Mom and Dad while dissing Junior's teachers.

Published February 29, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Not too long ago, I taught fifth grade in an exclusive Northern California
suburb where even the second graders can tell you where they want to go to

The school where I worked is just over the hill from the University of
California at Berkeley. By fifth grade, my students already knew not only
the words to the Berkeley fight song but also where Berkeley fit in on
their lists of preferred universities -- below Harvard, below Brown, below
M.I.T., but definitely above any public state college. On Career Day, when
my students were asked to invite someone who worked in a field that
interested them, they brought in the president of Bechtel, a neurosurgeon
and an astrophysicist, among others.

The students in this community are aiming high and their parents are right
behind them, propelling them in any way they are able. For franchised
tutoring programs like Kumon, Sylvan Learning Center and Score! and
supplemental programs like Hooked on Phonics and Lindamood-Bell, this mix
of wealth and ambition represents a gold mine. The parents in communities
like this are ready -- even anxious -- to pay top dollar to make sure their
child has an edge in competition that is furtive, furious and
fueled by the purveyors of academic weapons designed especially for the

Hooked on Phonics is currently running flashing banner advertisements on
women.com that command: "Get your kid an unfair advantage. Teach him to read early." A click-through takes you to the Hooked on Phonics site, which promises "simple systems" to help your child improve in both reading and math. "There is nothing more anxiety producing to parents than thinking their child is falling behind in school and not knowing what to do about
it," intones the copy, which incites parental terror and then makes big
money off of it.

While programs like Hooked on Phonics and Kumon Math and Reading centers
claim improved skills for your child at school, they also slyly
suggest their programs will offer your child a chance at a better life. The
Kumon program helps students "master the skills necessary to succeed in an
increasingly competitive world." Hooked on Phonics assures the reader that
"a whole lot of people in the new economy owe their success to superior
math skills" and offers, "Here are some rich and famous people who have a
math/engineering background: Bill Gates -- Chairman of Microsoft
Corporation, John Glenn -- Astronaut and Senator, and Andy Grove -- Chairman
of Intel Corporation."

Read between the lines, folks. Your child could someday make billions like
Bill Gates or travel into outer space like John Glenn, but he's got to be quick
with his times tables in grammar school. What parent wouldn't want to see
their child succeed on the level of these "rich and famous" men?
(Curiously, there were no rich and famous women mentioned.)

In order to survive, supplemental tutoring programs must undermine a
teacher's authority and expertise. They must convince parents that their
children either aren't being taught with the appropriate techniques or that
their children aren't being challenged. Otherwise, the after-school desks
at these centers will be empty and the money will stop rolling in.

In upscale communities like the one in which I taught, the most convincing
sales pitch revolves around the idea that a gifted child's needs aren't
being met in the classroom. This is a hit with educated parents and their
kids, for whom the suggestion of mediocrity is unfathomable. For these
parents, the Score Web site explains, "Excellent students like your child
often suffer from our school systems' inability to offer appropriately
challenging course work for those who need it."

These kinds of statements are an insult to dedicated teachers. It was rare
that I felt that a student in my classroom wasn't being challenged
academically. In fact, I made it a top priority to meet the needs of every
child in my classroom and instituted a computerized independent math
program out of Stanford University for a child in my class who was
phenomenally gifted. Still I heard in parent conferences, "My child is
bored!" Most often, these were parents of children enrolled in outside
tutorial programs.

When I was in the classroom, I put countless hours into making sure my
lessons were engaging, motivating and challenging for each of my students.
I made myself available for students who needed extra help. I treated each
child with respect and I truly believed that every child could learn. My
kids made me laugh. I thought they were clever and funny and mostly, very

I worked tirelessly in my classroom, pushing to the back of my mind the
fact that I had made more money waiting tables in college than as a full-time
teacher. I got to work early and stayed late. I served on
committees and took courses to stay current on the latest educational
research. I took pride in my classroom, and as sappy as it sounds, my
greatest reward was seeing a child's eyes light up with understanding.

Unfortunately, for some parents, my combination of hard work and a teaching credential
specifically designed for elementary-aged students wasn't enough. Parents who enrolled their children in after-school tutoring
programs often questioned my teaching practices and bombarded me with
questions about the methodology I employed in the classroom. They called me
at home at night for clarification on why an assignment had been structured
in a particular way. Instead of trusting me as a professional, they
questioned my expertise every step of the way, in part because of the hard-sell techniques the "learning specialists" at after-school programs were
feeding them.

Ironically, parents with students in after-school tutoring programs also
complained about the amount of homework assigned. For a child enrolled in
several hours of after-school tutoring, the one hour (sometimes an hour and
a half) I assigned (per my district's guidelines) seemed burdensome.
Unfortunately, when kids were forced to choose between classroom
assignments and assignments from tutoring programs, it was often the
classroom assignments that were rushed through or not completed. After all,
their parents were spending a lot of money for those supplemental assignments.

Without exception, the programs are outrageously expensive. The Score
program advertises programs on its Web site for "as little as $30 a week."
However, when I phoned the location nearest to the elementary school I
previously taught in, I was told that in addition to the $100 registration
fee, two unscheduled visits a week typically cost $129 a month with a
12-month minimum. That's a total of $1,648 a year.

The Sylvan Learning Center quoted me $150 for the first battery of
diagnostic tests and $75 for each additional test by subject. The
representative explained to me that parents often prioritized their
student's needs in terms of the subject area that needed the most immediate
attention and spread the rest of the tests out over a period of several
months. Additionally, she explained, there is a onetime $50 registration
fee and then tutoring costs of $44 an hour with a two hour per week
minimum. She also explained to me that many parents chose to enroll their
child for year-round tutoring and that most major credit cards are
accepted. A year's worth of tutoring for a child in one subject area at
Sylvan Learning Center runs a whopping $4,424.

Obviously, programs like these are available only to a fraction of the
population because of the high costs. But the franchised tutoring programs
would like parents to believe that almost every child, and certainly your
child, needs these programs. The Score Web site, for instance, offers
programs for "excellent students who need an extra challenge," for
"students who are doing fine in school but have room for improvement in one
or more subject areas" and for "students who need immediate assistance in
one or more subject areas."

There is no question that some children benefit from after-school tutoring
programs. The Web sites for each of these programs are filled with
testimonials from satisfied parents, children with boosted confidence and
teachers filled with wonder at vast improvements in students' skills in
short periods of time.

But in my experience in the classroom, I didn't see any dramatic
improvement in the students enrolled in after-school tutoring programs. In
fact, one student's progress halted once he enrolled in a tutoring program.
He was exhausted and quit working in the classroom as a means of survival.

There are ineffective teachers out there. But for the most part, it's
safe to say that your child's teacher has your child's best interests at
heart. He or she wants your child to succeed. If your child's teacher is
anything like me, he or she probably stays up at night and wakes up first
thing in the morning thinking about how to reach your child, how to help
your child and how to challenge your child. But your child's teacher is
also a professional and wants to be treated like one. And of course, your
child's teacher isn't bringing in nearly $44 an hour.

By Catherine Davis

Catherine Davis is a freelance writer.

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