Hunched over a small table at a West Los Angeles learning center, Sehajpal Singh is a study in concentration as he figures out that the dots on his worksheet add up to 10.
Sehajpal is 3, but he has a good grasp of counting, simple words and sentences, and taking directions. After a half-hour of work, he stretches and yawns, then seems eager to jump back into his lesson.
Sehajpal represents a growing trend of preschool-age children putting away the toys and picking up a pencil for private tutoring sessions. Driven by increasing competition to keep up with the baby Einsteins, parents are doing whatever it takes to give children an advantage they hope can be parlayed into better grades, better schools and better futures.
"I want my son to get a scholarship," said Monika Singh, Sehajpal's mother. She sat in a waiting room recently, watching through a window as Sehajpal peered at a picture of a fox and then pointed to the name of the animal. "I've called around to some private schools, and they said that he can get in if he's really good. Here, my son is counting from 1 to 20, he's doing the alphabet, vocabulary, small words. The curriculum here is different, and my son likes to come."
Educators and parents alike say there is greater pressure to begin preparing kids at an earlier age to meet academic standards demanded by the federal No Child Left Behind education act and state testing. Many states have adopted benchmarks for every grade level, including pre-kindergarten.
As a result, pre-academic preparation -- including homework -- is being shifted to children as young as 3 and 4, while academic skills once expected of first-graders are being taught to 5-year-olds. A knowledge of phonemic sounds, words, shapes, names of animals and parts of the body are de rigueur these days for incoming kindergartners, who are also expected to know how to write their names and be able to count to at least 30.
More evidence of a changing landscape: A school superintendent in Prince Georges County, Md., sparked heated debate two years ago when he declared naps for preschoolers a waste of time that could be better spent on academics. Many traditional half-day kindergartens are converting to full-day programs. Many parents are holding boys behind a year before kindergarten to give them time to mature and better compete. And a new satellite television network is offering around-the-clock viewing for infants and toddlers.
"There's a competitiveness that's scaring parents into feeling like they not good parents unless they enroll their children in tutoring programs," said Bruce Fuller, a University of California, Berkeley professor who has studied early-childhood learning. "Commercial interests are stirring this sort of fear."
Some early-learning experts say that private prepping of younger children robs them of playtime and the social and emotional development that goes along with it. They say children would do just as well if parents spent more time playing with them. Tutoring, they contend, is needless unless a child has a developmental disability.
"The most important thing we can do to prepare children for elementary education and beyond is to give them the opportunity for problem-solving and thinking skills," said Richard Cohen, vice president of education for the Learning Care Group, which operates traditional child care learning centers. "What gets lost when children are tutored with worksheets and papers is solving meaningful issues or problems."
An emerging concern, too, is that children whose parents cannot afford tutoring may fall further behind their peers as the educational stakes grow higher.
Tutoring is a $2.2-billion industry nationally, with about 1.9 million students participating, according to Eduventures, a Boston-based educational research and consulting firm. Nearly one-third of tutoring is devoted to preparation for college entrance exams. The availability of federal grants to support students in failing school districts is likely also feeding the private tutor industry, said educators.
Private services such as the Sylvan Learning Centers, Score Educational Centers and Junior Kumon, which Sehajpal attends, began offering classes for 3- to 5-year-olds in the past few years and have expanded them recently as demand has grown.
Parents who pay for private tutoring say they want to give their children an edge when competing for spots in elite preschools and kindergartens. Others say their children simply seem ready and eager for academics. Many say they want their children to have an extra layer of individual attention in addition to the traditional preschool classes, which typically range from 20 to 24 students.
Studies show that children, especially those who are poor or minorities, benefit from attending high-quality preschools. The evidence is contradictory as to whether those gains are long-lasting. Virtually no studies have looked at the effects of private tutoring.