Call it kindercramming. These days one of the fastest-growing markets for after-school tutors is preschoolers and kindergartners, whose parents are hoping that if their kids learn to read before first grade, it will ultimately help them get into college and get good jobs. Anxious moms and dads are no longer satisfied with traditional nursery school, which many see as a glorified romper room that focuses too much on learning through play. And of course, after years of Baby Einstein marketing, some parents have become convinced that the more math and reading skills their tots master, the better. Srinivas Rao, a veterinarian in Columbia, Md., began sending his daughter Sanjana to after-school tutoring last summer, shortly before her third birthday. To his delight, he soon found she could not only count the 14 dots on her homework work sheet but also write 14 beside them. "I didn't think kids could just learn that overnight," he marvels.
The tutoring industry is marveling too. Franchises geared toward giving toddlers an academic edge are popping up across the country. A few years ago, Sylvan Learning Centers, which operates 1,100 tutoring sites in the U.S., started a pre-K reading program. Around the same time, Kumon, a Japanese company with nearly 1,300 centers in the U.S., launched Junior Kumon to teach kids as young as 3 how to add and read the alphabet. The latest glommer-on: KnowledgePoints, a 60-center franchise based in Lake Oswego, Ore., which last summer began a program for 3- and 4-year-olds.
The toddler-tutoring frenzy may be intensified by a study in the latest issue of Developmental Psychology. Researchers who examined longitudinal data on nearly 36,000 preschoolers in the U.S., Canada and Britain found that the best predictor of success in later school years wasn't the ability to pay attention or behave in class but was in entering kindergarten with elementary math and reading skills. Experts caution, however, that these findings should not be taken as an endorsement of academic drills for preschoolers. Says the study's lead author, Greg Duncan, a social-policy expert at Northwestern University: "The kind of skills that matter in affecting later learning are things parents can pretty easily convey to their children in the home." These include such basics as the knowledge of letters and the order of numbers.
Yet such straightforward reassurance may not be enough to counteract the tutoring industry's bells and whistles, such as Sylvan's trained instructors and Score! Educational Centers' fancy computer-based curriculum. Kumon encourages the pre-K crowd to come in twice a week for about 30 minutes--at a cost of about $125 a month--to memorize letter charts and study flash cards. "I didn't feel like my son was where he could be," says Gina Monteiro, 38, a quality-assurance worker in Indianapolis who in June started taking her 4-year-old to lengthy sessions at a place called ABC's of Phonics three times a week because he had yet to learn the alphabet.
Child-development experts warn that parents are expecting too much too soon. Maryanne Wolf, head of Tufts University's Center for Reading and Language Research, describes how recent brain-imaging data show that children aren't ready to read until around age 5 at the earliest. "To hasten that process not only makes no sense socially or emotionally, it makes no sense physiologically," she says. Identifying a flash card at an early age isn't reading, Wolf notes. It's what researchers call paired-associate learning. That may sound impressive, but, she says, "a pigeon can do it."
Child psychologist Roberta Michnick Golinkoff thinks early tutoring could hurt kids' ability to become lifelong learners. After citing a study that shows graduates of academically intensive preschools are more anxious and less creative than regular nursery-school alums, the University of Delaware professor asks, "Do you want your child to be the boss or a worker bee?"
She and other child-development researchers are worried that companies will keep hyping a perceived need for math and reading drills for toddlers. "I hope people don't take away from this new study the notion that formal education needs to be pushed down to the preschool level," says David Elkind, author of the landmark 1981 book The Hurried Child. "Kids already learn what they need to know in a traditional learning-through-play program."
Even some parents who started drinking the tutoring Kool-Aid are becoming disillusioned. "We've come to terms with the fact that our son will learn to read when he's ready," says Monteiro, who stopped sending him to tutors in August. "To push for more to keep up with the Joneses was not appropriate for him." Now if only the Joneses could learn to ease up as well.