STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Tutoring is a $4 billion business, and it's growing. It was once an upper-class phenomenon, but tutoring is becoming a staple of the middle class. Millions of students are using private tutors or they study for SATs at supplementary education centers, like Kaplan and Princeton Review. NPR's Margot Adler reports on how more and more students are being educated, at least partly, with private funds.
MARGOT ADLER reporting:
In some communities, like here in New York City, it almost feels like every child is getting some kind of outside academic help, and you may not have heard of some of the places they're going to, like Kumon.
(Soundbite of class noise)
Unidentified Woman: Do you have your Kumon box with you, Michael?
Unidentified Woman: Oh, you can't forget this. Otherwise you go home with no work to do, right?
ADLER: The Kumon Center on the East Side of Manhattan is teeming with kids at four in the afternoon. It's a small, narrow space filled with tables and chairs. In back, children in the junior Kumon program are tracing letters and working on numbers. In front, children are working quietly on math and reading packets and adults are checking their work. Ariel Levy, who is in kindergarten, reads out loud to me.
ARIEL LEVY (Student): Noreen wears many layers to keep her warm. She wears a down jacket, a wool hat, scarf and mittens.
ADLER: Now I confess I had never heard of Kumon until a month ago. It may not be a household name, like Kaplan, but there are more than 1,200 Kumon Centers across the United States, and 3.7 million students are being tutored by Kumon around the world, making it one of the largest providers of supplemental education.
Kumon started in Japan and it focuses on math and reading. Children get very specific tasks, sequential lessons, that they complete in timed segments. They have short daily homework assignments which also must be dated and timed. Shirley Dong is the director of this center, which serves about 400 children.
Ms. SHIRLEY DONG (Kumon Center): First, we start--I would say four years old and about five years old before they can work independently. They--all put them in junior Kumon. Now for the sta--special this East Side area, take children just two years old.
ADLER: You take two-year-olds?
Ms. DONG: Yes.
ADLER: And why do parents want to put their children into Kumon at two?
Ms. DONG: I think they just give the children a little more challenge and, actually, junior Kumon we don't push them and they have fun.
ADLER: And Ariel Levy, the kindergartner, does seem very proud of herself.
LEVY: I do one math and one reading every single day and then, after I read this, I just write two sentences and then I write the date and the title and then I write the author.
ADLER: Most of the children here today are between seven and 10. Parents often drop off their kids, do errands and pick them up. Sean Latchman Singh(ph) is with his eight-year-old son, Austin.
Mr. SEAN LATCHMAN SINGH (Parent): He likes coming to Kumon and whenever we gets his report cards back at home we see the result of the Kumon work and what he has put in so far.
AUSTIN SINGH: It's more challenging than the school work and it makes the work from my school way easier.
ADLER: Eduventures, a marketing research firm that looks at the business aspects of education, says parents are spending about $3.1 billion a year on supplemental education services, and it's going up about 10 percent a year. And that doesn't include about a billion for such things as college test prep. Henry Levin is the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization and Education at Columbia University's Teachers College. He says there's very little data about the general quality of tutoring around the country.
Mr. HENRY LEVIN (Director, National Center for the Study of Privatization and Education, Columbia University's Teachers College): It's kind of a Wild West out there.
ADLER: But when tutoring is good, says Levin, it works. The tutor can get to know the child and can tailor instruction accordingly.
Mr. LEVIN: And the results in studies of tutoring, where the tutoring is of very high quality, are quite extraordinary. Children, for example, who are in the 15th or 16th percentile are easily brought up to the 50th percentile.
ADLER: But one-on-one tutoring is expensive. Here in Manhattan it's not out of the question to pay $150 or more an hour, so many companies have tried to find cheaper methods that get close to the same results. For example, Kaplan has SCORE, a computer-based system where children can be dropped off for half an hour at the mall to do educational work. You can take math twice a week at Kumon and pay $80 to $100 a month.
There have always been enrichment programs for the affluent: ballet, chess, sports programs after school. What's different about enrichment programs today, says Levin...
Mr. LEVIN: It's moving more towards an academic type of direction, and a lot of that for middle-class, upper middle-class, professional families is this nervousness about what the future holds for their children.
ADLER: Parents want their children to have an edge. Their nervousness is driven partly by the increased competition to get into college. But Mark Jackson, a senior analyst at Eduventures, says it may also be fueled by constant news reports on education, failing schools, No Child Left Behind, and the sense that schools are not providing everything that's needed.
Now most of the parents whose children go to Kumon don't talk about competition. Jody Yellin(ph) says her eight-year-old, a good math student, was getting into sloppy habits and making careless mistakes.
Ms. JODY YELLIN (Student's Mother): He wasn't getting exactly what he needed, and he won't take it from me or his father. He will take it from a third party.
ADLER: When Carol Ling(ph) took her eight-year-old to Kumon, her four-year-old wanted to come along.
Ms. CAROL LING (Student's Mother): My husband and I was firs--was very hesitate to start him at a young age. We thought it would be more fun for him to play outside. He want to come over and study...
ADLER: He wanted to be like his brother.
Ms. LING: Like his brother. And he wanted to have homework every day, and he's very happy with his progress.
ADLER: Ling talks about her children's self-esteem and the good habits they're getting. But if you probe a little deeper, she adds...
Ms. LING: I really like American education system. It's focused on the independent thinking, creativity. But what is missing is the solid basic training which is really the Asian country heart. So I think with the Kumon and American regular education is the best combination.
ADLER: Harold Levy, the former chancellor of the New York City school system, quotes a College Board study that says that 97 percent of college applicants do some form of test preparation. Levy is now executive vice president at Kaplan, an education company best known for its test preparation courses. Levy says it's not only increased competition that's driving the upsurge in tutoring. The costs of tutoring are going down.
Mr. HAROLD LEVY (Executive Vice President, Kaplan): It's no longer the upper class that can afford, you know, Mary Poppins to come tutor their kids. Now you've got after-school computer classes, after-school individualized programs, government-sponsored programs, programs that the parents can afford, even the middle class. We are not going into a different world. We're there.
ADLER: And Levy says parents in America are changing the way they understand their role in education. In most public schools, parents still surrender their child at the beginning of the day, but they're no longer willing to be pushed out of the picture.
Mr. LEVY: Those days are over and it--we return almost to the biblical injunction that parent is first teacher of the child. And as long as parent takes responsibility, then the teacher is held to account.
ADLER: But a side effect of all this use of supplementary services is that our education system is becoming increasingly privatized. Henry Levin of Columbia Teachers College says more and more parents are using private funds to improve their children's education, and it's a worldwide phenomenon. Levin says it used to be pretty easy to compare how much money was being spent on educating a child. From country to country, it's no longer so simple. Children may be in public schools, but parents may be spending huge amounts of money on the side. Many middle school and high school children in Asia, for example, study four evenings a week after school in what is clearly a privatized system added on to the public school system. Again, Henry Levin.
Mr. LEVIN: In Korea, they found that if you add in what parents are spending on education, it more than doubles what--the official statistics on expenditures per student.
ADLER: And what's happening in Asia, and increasingly in Europe, is also happening in the United States: parents spending enormous amounts of money in addition to their children's public or private education.
Mr. LEVIN: Now whether that's good or bad is an issue that people can debate, but it is a fact.
ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
INSKEEP: You can find links to parents' education resources and tutoring facts and figures at npr.org. We have another report tomorrow. Tutoring at struggling schools under the No Child Left Behind law.
This is NPR News.
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