We're off to see the tutor

PROFESSIONAL TUTORING FIRMS BOOM AS PARENTS WORRY ABOUT `FUZZY' MATH.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Move over ballet, soccer practice, and little-league baseball. One of America's fastest-growing after-school rituals is piling kids into the car to go get tutored in math.

Amid rising parent concern that students just aren't "getting it" at school, for-profit "math remediation" companies with names like Kumon, Sylvan, Score, and others are stepping in to fill the math gap.

Five years ago, Sylvan Learning Centers had 400 outlets nationwide catering to math and reading remediation. Today, the company has 800 centers serving 150,000 students - just under half in math.

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"We are seeing a national surge of interest in math," says Richard Bavaria, Sylvan's vice president for education. "Reading has been the most up-front, but it's very clear that math is the next big focus."

Likewise, the Score Learning program is growing fast. A subsidiary of Kaplan, the New York-based test-preparation company, it expects to grow to 60,000 students by year's end from about 40,000 students last year. The 12 centers it sported in 1996 now total 100 - and the company is adding a new one every 10 days. Score provides help in reading, but its bread and butter is math.

"Parents are aware that math is the language of the information society," says Steven Johnson, vice president of education at Score. "But many of them are encountering children bringing home textbooks that look different ... and are having difficulty interpreting them."

A problem with the problems

Mari Campbell knows the feeling. A registered nurse, she lives in Silicon Valley with her twin daughters, who attend fourth-grade at a Palo Alto, Calif., public school. Last year, when they were finishing third grade, she found they tested at a second-grade level in math.

"It was the soft curriculum," Ms. Campbell says. "They're expected to give an answer, but they don't start by explaining how to do the problem. When I grew up, we had textbooks that gave an example. We did exercises to get practice. If we had a problem, we could always go back and look. They don't get that. They get copies of random problems."

So Ms. Campbell did what thousands of other parents are doing - an expensive end-run around the school system. She enrolled both girls in Score a year ago, at a cost of $530 a month for a proprietary computer software and human one-on-one tutor-based program. Now they test at a sixth-grade level - and they like math for the first time.

"It's a sacrifice," she says. "We could be using that money elsewhere. But look at what they've gained. When my girls started they had the attitude that 'I hate math.' Now they say, 'I love it,' and they hop out of the car to go in there and learn."

Not all parents are trying to fix kids' math problems. Some are just trying to prevent them. Thomas Lincoln, a Hingham, Mass., father of four, is pro-actively supplementing and "filling gaps."

"My wife and I believe in public education," he says. "The problem is they don't have time or resources to concentrate on the individual child.... They fall just a little short of our academic requirements."

So the Lincolns have invested about $100 per child per month to put their children through the Kumon Math and Reading Center program. Each child has attended twice a week year round in first through seventh grade.

"It's a little expensive," Dr. Lincoln says. "Sometimes I think maybe they would have learned this stuff anyway, but I'm not so sure. I've found the school skips small segments, like the relationship between fractions, decimals, and percentages - and showing how to get from one to the other. Kumon covers this."

Kumon, based in Japan, is the world's largest math remediation company, with 2.6 million students worldwide (about 81,000 US students). About three-quarters of those are involved in math.

Critics of Kumon and the other tutoring services often say such programs employ rote, mindless "drill and kill" exercises that turn students off and give them a simplistic understanding of math concepts.

But Jenny Chung, director of the Kumon Center in East Lansing, Mich., disagrees. She says the program builds habits of discipline and responsibility. There is repetition and drilling, she says - but denies it has to be boring or mindless.

"Everybody needs to work hard, and more parents are aware their schools aren't making their students work hard enough," she says. Besides, she adds, it's not Kumon's curriculum that worries parents. Her parking lot is jammed with parents concerned about their children's new math programs.

Parents turned tutors

Not everyone is going the commercial route. Many, like Michael Nevells, an Okemos, Mich., parent, are tutoring their children themselves at home. It all started when his eighth-grade son began struggling in math. So he plunked down $1,500 for a math-tutoring system.

"I have an electrical-engineering degree, so I thought I could help," Mr. Nevells says. "But the textbook materials confuse me."

Mr. Nevells says there was "never a red flag" that his son did not understand math. Then he discovered the depth of his son's problem.

"It was tough to sit down with him and do eighth-grade math because he had no foundation," Nevells says. "I would say, 'do you remember how you do this, or that,' and get a blank look. I just decided to go back to the beginning."

Now, after a year of intensive work at home, his son is nearly back up to speed, he says.

"What's amazing to me is how easy it is to miss this," he says. "As a parent, you can blink, and the next thing you know you have an eighth-grader who doesn't know math."

*E-mail claytonm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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