Fourth-grader Katherine Tontillo quickly solved the division and fraction problems as her mother smiled.
When Katherine was in first grade, her parents became concerned that her math skills were languishing, says her mother, Maria Voe. So she enrolled her at the Kumon Math & Reading Center in Arlington Heights, Ill. Within two months, Katherine could whip through 125 problems in eight minutes.
"The kids in her class now call her 'calculator,' " Ms. Voe says. "We can definitely see the results."
When it comes to the ABCs of learning, more parents are turning to for-profit tutors. And they're not just enrolling weaker students. Frustrated by what they say is inadequate attention to basics - and with an eye to standardized tests - many are turning to tutoring centers to fill the gaps for even academically gifted children. They're also hoping that students will benefit from the extra attention that regular teachers may not have time to give.
"The demand is huge and growing," says Vickie Glazar, spokeswoman for Sylvan Learning Centers based in Baltimore. And, she says, noting that about half the students at Sylvan in the past five years were already doing well in school, "I think the No. 1 motivation is parents' anxiety that their children aren't getting ahead."
Sylvan has grown from 455 centers in 1992 to 640 this year, a 41 percent jump. Kumon North America is expanding 15 percent a year and now has 1,300 centers in the United States and Canada. And Kaplan Educational Centers' latest venture, Score@Kaplan, has spread from one center in 1992 to 30 this year and plans to reach as many as 100 by the end of 1998.
The centers often focus on core subjects - reading, writing, and math. They provide needed competition for public schools, says Herbert Walberg, professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Many Americans are realizing that our kids are way behind those in other countries," Dr. Walberg asserts. "If the schools were good, we wouldn't have to have all this tutoring."
But Score@Kaplan founder Alan Tripp argues that Score centers, which engage children with their heavy reliance on computers, would have been just as popular 30 years ago if the technology had been available. "It doesn't mean schools are falling apart and parents are turning in frustration to Score," Mr. Tripp says.
Many students need a more specialized approach than public schools can offer, says Matthew Lupsha, assistant vice president of Kumon North America.
"Schools are doing an adequate job with what they have, but parents are realizing the schools can't do everything the children need," Mr. Lupsha says. "Parents realize that to get into the good universities and on the right career paths, they need to give their children a foundation even in the elementary years."
Do your research
Beatrice Patt, who counsels high school students in Chicago's western suburbs, advises parents to be careful before investing a lot of money in a private tutoring program, because the results can vary.
"You need to really make sure you know what you're going to get for your money," Ms. Patt says. Using local college students as tutors can often be a cheaper alternative, she says.
Shopping around is also a good idea since approaches differ among the centers. Sylvan students meet with instructors twice a week for an hour and follow a curriculum tailored to their needs. No more than three students meet with an instructor at a time, Glazar says. In some communities, students can get also school credit for their Sylvan work.
The Kumon centers use a method started in Japan, which has an extensive system of after-school learning programs. Students visit the centers for 30 minutes twice a week to review work with instructors and to pick up assignments, which they do nightly at home.
Score offers coaching by recent college graduates in addition to computer stations where students work at their own pace. When students reach their goals, they get to shoot baskets and get scorecards they can trade in for prizes.
This high-energy approach builds confidence, says Roslyn McKinley, whose 11-year-old son, Ruckins, goes to a Score center in Irvine, Calif. Ruckins sometimes missed as many as half the problems on his math tests last year, Ms. McKinley says.
But after starting Score, his results improved dramatically. "By the end of school, he was bringing home his math papers and saying, 'Look Mom, 100 percent!' " Ms. McKinley says.
Keep parents in the loop
Despite the advantages of tutoring, parental involvement is still what makes the biggest difference in how students perform, says Ms. Patt. But as more families rely on two incomes, parents often don't have as much time to spend helping children with school assignments, she observes.
Families with enough money will keep turning to private companies to gain an edge, says Vito Perrone, director of the teacher-education program at the Harvard University School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. Other students, he says, may be at a competitive disadvantage and fall behind. He adds that the renewed push for testing will fuel the boom.
"In a society where test scores are talked about as much as they are here, there's a sale to be made," he says. "We live in a very competitive environment."
RESOURCES FOR PRIVATE TUTORING
Tutors can be found through local universities. After-school tutoring companies are also growing rapidly. Here is information about three of the largest:
Kumon Math & Reading Centers
Where: 26,000 locations around the world, including 1,300 in the US and Canada
Students: Usually ages 4 to 16
Cost: $70 a month
Where: 30 centers in California and the Northeast
Students: Kindergarten through 12th grade
Cost: $75 registration and $94 monthly fee for the Advantage computer curriculum; $95 registration and $336 monthly fee for personal training. Discounts available for annual membership.
Sylvan Learning Centers
Where: 650 around the world, mostly in the US and Canada
Students: Pre-kindergarten through college
Cost: Varies between centers. Typically $25-$45 an hour plus a $75-$125 testing fee.