Too young for tests - but not for tutors
Ohanian Comment: Here you see the undocumented effects of NCLB: With all the talk of children left behind, the affluent hire tutors--to make sure they keep their edge. Way ahead of the state requirements is Mom's mantra. Then she can hire a psychiatrist when the family encounters third grade burnout.
Don't let the honey curls and butterfly-bedecked T-shirt fool you. Angeline Kahoun means business.
Just a few months at the Score! Learning Center in Cherry Hill, and the Browns Mills girl is gobbling up books, zipping through lessons.
"Can I do another?" she eagerly asks an instructor as she speeds through computer reading lessons.
"I'm really interested in what's going to happen next year," says her mom, Darlene Bakhoum, watching from the waiting area. "She's going to be way above the state requirements."
She's talking about the fall. That's when 5-year-old Angeline starts kindergarten.
In this age of anxiety over tougher college admissions and schools labeled as failing under No Child Left Behind, more parents are seeking to raise the bar for children at ever-younger ages. Enrichment, jump-starting, giving kids an edge - choose your buzz phrase - has taken hold among the preschool set.
For a generation that got its first taste of Mozart in utero, perhaps the biggest sign of the times - one troubling many child-development experts - is an increased parental call for tutoring for preschoolers.
Even the toys that sell are smart. Infant and preschool toys and learning and exploration toys were the only two categories that grew last year, said David Riley, senior manager of the NPD Group, a research firm that tracks the toy market.
"We're seeing a large jump in those sales," he said. Infant and preschool sales rose nearly 10 percent in 2004 to $2.8 billion, while learning toys jumped 19 percent to more than $501 million, he said.
The tutoring industry, already a $4 billion-a-year business, is expected to grow by 12 to 15 percent a year in the next three years, compared with 10 to 12 percent in previous years, said J. Mark Jackson, senior analyst for Eduventures, an education market research firm.
The federal No Child Left Behind act has been a big factor, he said, not only because of the public funding available for tutoring children in struggling public schools but also because it has fed a perception that schools are not adequately educating students - a perception apparently shared by parents whose children have yet to start school.
"You've got this message that parents who can afford to need to do more to educate their kids," Jackson said.
Needless to say, most preschoolers do not spend their afternoons at commercial learning centers. But those who run those centers say they are seeing more demand for their services.
Two years ago, Kumon, an international tutoring company founded in Japan in 1958, launched Junior Kumon for children from age 2 through kindergarten. According to Kumon's figures, nearly 20 percent of its U.S. reading students and 10 percent of its U.S. math students are in Junior Kumon.
Kaplan Inc.'s Score! program has more than doubled its student count in five years to about 82,000 annually, said Paige Hunting, a spokeswoman for the educational-services firm.
Children ages 4 to 7 account for 15 to 20 percent of that total, and in April, Score! bolstered its early-reading curriculum with Headsprout, a computer-assisted learning program.
In January, Sylvan Learning Centers, another major player in tutoring, introduced Beginning Reading nationwide, expanding into the preschool market. The program is expected to come to the Philadelphia area this year.
Their leaders say these programs are fun, foster a love of learning, and build skills and confidence so kids can succeed once they get to school.
"Children know when the other kids in their class are picking it up and they're not," said Dean Bradley, Kumon vice president for instruction. "Their self-esteem plummets, and it happens very rapidly. We can help a child before that happens."
But many experts in early-childhood education adamantly oppose these programs. They say the push for precociousness, even by parents with the best intentions, can put too much pressure on little ones and lead to burnout. Moreover, they argue that these kinds of programs are not suitable for children so young.
"It's that notion of education as a race, and it flies in the face of what we know about early-childhood education," said David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and professor of child development at Tufts University. "All the evidence we have is it doesn't work, and it can do harm."
"I'd say we are creating robots for the next generation," said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a developmental psychologist at Temple University and coauthor of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. Like many education experts, she said young children learned best through exploration and play.
"If parents are demanding this service, it is because the education system has scared them to death," said Mariaemma Willis, coauthor of Midlife Crisis Begins in Kindergarten. "Parents are afraid their children won't be tops academically, they won't go to the best college, they won't get the best jobs. The system has convinced them to push the 'determining' age lower and lower - that is, the age at which their child's success or failure in life is determined."
Indeed, many parents who send their children to tutoring are not content to leave education to their schools alone.
"If the kid is interested, there's nothing wrong in challenging him," said Monisha Vaid, a stay-at-home mom who quit her job as a human-resources executive to focus on her children. Son Tejas, 5, started at Kumon in Levittown last year while in preschool.
One recent afternoon, Tejas aced his math work sheet and threw up his arms in a victory V. A few seats away at the Junior Kumon U-shaped table, Jessica Sozio, 5 and in prekindergarten, beamed as instructor Elizabeth Richardson said, "Jessica, do you see your letters are getting better and better every time?"
"She would be here five days a week if we let her," said dad Matt Sozio, a school maintenance supervisor who also sends son Matthew, a first grader, to Junior Kumon.
Sozio said that he had struggled through school, and that his parents, like many of their generation, had relied on his teachers. He didn't go to college and regrets it. He said he and his wife wanted more for their children.
"We don't want them to struggle."
Back in Cherry Hill, the headphones look almost too big for her little head, and her white-and-pink-sneakered feet dangle a good distance from the floor. But since starting at the Score! center in February, preschooler Angeline Kahoun has become a mouse master, clicking her way through word families, stories. Center staff say she is doing first-grade math. And she is raking in the Score! cards, given out for jobs well done, which kids can trade for prizes. Angeline is saving up for the Big One - a trip to Disney World.
Education experts would argue all this doesn't mean Angeline will always continue at this rate, or that her classmates won't catch up.
But to Darlene Bakhoum, a nursing student and journalist troubled by kids "slipping through the educational cracks," it is worth the 45-minute ride each way, and the wait while Angeline puts in a double session.
"She wanted to stay as long as she can," Bakhoum says.
"I like reading," Angeline explains.
And there's Disney World. Who knows? By the time she gets there, her feet may even touch the floor.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES