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Big market for tutoring

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2003


Ranjana Sundaram was doing fine in kindergarten when her mother starting bringing her to a retail space in downtown Nashua twice a week for extra work in reading and math.

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"In kindergarten they don't do much, but in first grade, there's a huge expectation of the child," says her mother, Dr. Sudha Parasuraman. "I know for sure she would have had a hard time coping with it if she didn't have her basics down."

Across a narrow, bare-bones waiting room at this Kumon Math & Reading Center, mothers of Indian, Chinese, and Anglo backgrounds sit in metal-backed chairs, waiting as their children complete assignments designed especially for them. Between calls on their cellular phones, each mother offers a distinct reason for being there.

One child is falling behind in sixth-grade reading. Another is striving to stay No. 1 in math in his second grade class. Whatever the problem or whatever the goal, the answer for these moms seems to be individualized education - even sometimes before their children have moved beyond nap times.

Business is booming at private, for-profit learning centers, especially in urban and suburban areas, where parents regularly spend thousands per year for a tailor-made, supplemental-learning program. Numbers tell the story:

• Sylvan Learning Centers has added more than 500 centers in the past 10 years, growing from 449 in 1993 to 960 this year.

• Princeton Review, known for standardized test preparation classes, attracted fewer than 39,000 students to its company-owned sites in 2000. By 2002, more than 81,000 had come for extra help. Over the same period, revenues for the test-preparation division soared from $34 million to $66 million.

• Kumon Math & Reading Centers helped 33,000 students in the United States to master their basics in 1992. This year, that figure exceeds 120,000.

• The number of individuals nationwide offering private tutoring for a fee has increased from 250,000 five years ago to more than 1 million today, according to the National Tutoring Association in Indianapolis.

Pressure from parents and increasingly competitive colleges may explain why demand for test-score-boosting services continues to grow, even in a sluggish economy. But both buyers and sellers in this blossoming marketplace cite an additional, less noticed reason: Customized training seems to achieve results in an age when parents, teachers, and students have less and less time to do it themselves.

Consider, for instance, how services have changed at the Princeton Review. Private tutoring, which made up just 5 percent of the business in 1998, now accounts for 10 percent. One primary reason, according to executive director Jed Smith of the company's 1-2-1 Private Tutoring division in New York, was rising dissatisfaction with a classroom approach in which the group's needs seemed to come before the individual's.

The classroom prep class was "no longer the cool, neat, elite thing," Mr. Smith says. Students began saying, 'I don't want to sit in a class with 10 other kids. I want them to come to my home and work with me on a one-to-one basis.' "

Today, Smith oversees between 150 and 200 New York tutors - up from 30 in 1998 - who are available "24-7-365." If someone wants to be tutored in history at 6 a.m. on Tuesdays, Smith says, a tutor will be there. For such specialized service, parents pay between $125 and $325 per hour. But those tutors whose clients get consistent results in the form of rising scores and better grades in challenging subjects are constantly in demand, he says, from "overbooked" parents and students.

New York isn't the only place where families seek an extra edge in customized training. The company now sends summer tutors to Nantucket in Massachusetts, the Hamptons, and vacation spots along the Eastern seaboard, as well as smaller cities such as Burlington, Vt., and Portland, Maine. Even where families don't have extra money for tutoring, creative alternatives are sprouting up with the same goal in mind: education tailored to each student's needs and learning style.

Example: Free tutoring from peers in junior high and high school marks the hottest area of the "tutoring explosion," says Thomas Redicks, president of the National Tutoring Association. Such arrangements aren't ideal because peer tutors are seldom trained, he says, but students still benefit from such coaching.