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.
"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.
"Tutors work with the intent of helping students become better learners," Mr. Redicks says. Even when tutoring comes from fellow students, he says, "it can provide a lot of assistance to a lot of kids."
Customizing education is hardly new. Its roots run at least as far back as the Greek philosopher Socrates, who let each student's answers influence the direction of the next question. Yet interest in the endeavor has grown recently as concerns for efficiency and test results have taken center stage in public schools.
In New Hampshire, for example, third-graders must perform well on statewide tests in order for a school to maximize funding under current formulas. This leads schools to introduce complex tasks as early as first grade and to push students along before they have mastered the basics, according to Shashank Dubey, who with his wife, Archana, owns the Nashua Kumon franchise.
"The emphasis on basic skills in schools is not enough," Mr. Dubey explains, as a kindergartner and a sixth-grader take quizzes side-by-side at a table. "We're jumping to application and problem-solving too quickly." Concerned parents pay $85 per month for either a reading or mathematics curriculum that involves diagnostic testing, biweekly quizzes, and daily assignments for the student to complete independently.
Parents, however, aren't the only ones seeking out the services of private learning centers to fill what they perceive to be gaps. Title I school districts, where income levels are low, may use a portion of their federal funding to help children get extra help when a troubled district's test scores fail to rise over two consecutive years. As a result, in April, public schools in Chicago and Los Angeles began sending students to private learning centers for extra help.
Public school contracts promise a further boon for the private learning industry. Kumon expects that factor alone to account for 10 percent increase in business over the next three years.
"Eventually, it's making available [in inner cities] tutoring that was formerly available only in the suburbs," says Matthew Lupsha, vice president of education services for Kumon. "There are a lot of demands on teachers. They don't have the time to address the needs of every student within their care.... But, ultimately, this combination will raise test scores and improve satisfaction with the public school systems."
"Schools are being expected to play a bigger role" in accomplishing test results, says Wendy Odell Magus, spokeswoman for Sylvan Learning Centers. "We have higher and higher expectations of what students should achieve and what schools should do to prepare them." Yet because parents bring a wider range of expectations than any school could meet, she says, the private learning industry will continue to have a niche to fill.
Even as schools strive to meet mounting expectations, private learning programs tout an efficiency that schools may never match. That's largely what parents of private and parochial students pay for when they shell out $325 per hour for Jonathan Arak's skills as a "premier tutor" in Manhattan.
"I get an opportunity to spot something that's a more glaring weakness and work on it," Mr. Arak says. He sees "more anxiety, more competition, and a more intense environment" than when he started tutoring 14 years ago. To ease the stress without further stretching a student's busy schedule is apparently worth the money to his 15 clients, who keep him busy as many as 22 hours per week.
Back in Nashua, students work for 20 or 30 minutes at a time as their mothers chat quietly nearby. As they turn in the quizzes that monitor progress, some admire their own names posted on a board for those who score 100. When they get a good report card, Dubey says, "It makes my day." And what's more, it justifies for him the energy and expense required for individualized learning.
"If I start tutoring, I put my way of learning on top of them," Dubey says. "We help students learn their own way of learning. That's really what it's all about."