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Extracurricular curriculum

National | EDUCATION: Public-school deficiencies and the rise of school choice push millions of parents to the multibillion-dollar tutoring industry to help their children learn

Issue: "California's new governor," Oct. 4, 2003

BROW FURROWED IN CONCENTRAtion, Christian Quintana whips a sparkling gold pencil through page after page of math problems. At intervals, he glances up at a large digital clock, then dives back into his work: 40 ... 60 ... 100 problems complete. He pauses to nudge his glasses higher on his nose, then scribbles down answers to 30 more questions. Two minutes pass: 160 problems ... 180 ... done! He notes the time: 3:41 p.m. Sixteen minutes to solve 200 problems.

A high-schooler racing the clock for SATs? No, the boy with the crewcut and yellow Pokemon T-shirt is only 7 years old. But Christian wasn't always a math whiz. That happened over the summer at a Kumon Learning Center in San Diego, Calif.

Kumon is both a Japanese learning method and a franchised tutoring program -just one kind of tutoring in a multibillion-dollar industry that has sprung up over the past decade in response to parental demand for improved K-12 education.

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Fueling the demand for tutoring is a new emphasis on high-stakes assessment tests, dissatisfaction with public schools, and, in some cases, working parents who have more money than time. The school-choice movement also factors in, as education alternatives have emerged as a constant thread in the national dialogue. Finally, some parents who seek tutoring are rebelling against an entertainment-centric culture, and engaging their kids instead in activities that deliver an academic edge.

That's the case with Adam Quintana, who enrolled his son Christian in Kumon earlier this year. During first grade, Christian earned excellent marks at Good Shepherd Catholic School in northern San Diego. But Mr. Quintana didn't want him lounging in front of the TV all summer. So in addition to swimming lessons, he signed Christian up for Kumon, a learning method Mr. Quintana's nieces and nephews had practiced for years.

"I wanted to give him a chance to be more advanced in school.... I want my son to focus on his studies," said Mr. Quintana, who works in manufacturing.

That's fine with Christian, who comes to Kumon on Tuesday and Friday afternoons and says it's "kind of fun." He especially likes the prizes he earns: "Stickers, you know, gumballs, you know, and stamps ... you know, with aliens and meteors on them." Christian figures Kumon will help him be one of the best students in his second-grade class this year-except maybe for his academic arch rival Tina, 7, who "can read fast, write fast, and knows all the hard words."

Christian sighs and rolls his eyes toward heaven: "I would dream of being like her."

His dream may come true: Studying under 16-year Kumon instructor and franchise owner Kayoko Barr, who formerly taught public school in Japan, Christian has already increased both his computing speed and accuracy.

Kumon is part of the "learning center" segment of the tutoring industry. While learning centers such as Kaplan, Huntington, and Sylvan are the fastest-growing segment of the business, they teach only 3 percent to 6 percent of all students who receive tutoring, according to EduVentures, a Wisconsin research and publishing firm serving the for-profit education industry. About a third of all tutoring is conducted by individual teachers, or by small tutoring practices composed of groups of teachers. Volunteer and nonprofit tutors provide another 30 percent of tutoring, with the balance provided by peers.

Today, Americans spend between $5 billion and $8 billion on tutoring, according to TutorQuest, a guide to tutor selection. "There is a growing public recognition among parents of the efficacy of tutoring," said Rick Bavaria, vice president for education at Sylvan Learning Centers. "The U.S. is catching up with Asian countries, where tutoring has been a regular fact of academic life for generations."

Tutoring itself has been around for centuries. Plato tutored Aristotle. During the European Renaissance, the tutoring profession blossomed amid the general movement toward fulfilling "human potential." In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, peer tutoring emerged as a way for institutions to provide quality education to poorer children whose parents couldn't afford paid instruction. In Europe, some families still hire governesses to tutor their children.

Today, the bulk of tutoring in the United States is remedial, according to TutorQuest author Edward E. Gordon. Sometimes a child suffers from a clinical learning disability, he said. But more often the child is loosely called an 'underachiever' or a 'slow learner,' or has simply fallen behind in a large-group classroom setting. One-to-one tutoring, said Mr. Gordon, is often the best way to help diagnose and correct such problems.

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