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Will Your Preschooler Need a Tutor?

I remember the moment when the cold hand of academic panic first gripped me as a mom. My older daughter, Gabrielle, was 4, and we were on our way up the stairs to a mommy-and-me music class when I nearly tripped over another mom and her child poring over a math workbook on a landing. I stopped. Were those double digits? Then two seconds later we had to skirt another parent-toddler team, this one working its way diligently through a chapter book. Suddenly Gabrielle's sweet afternoon of running in circles, banging sticks, and singing songs didn't seem quite... rigorous enough.

Though I knew in my heart I didn't want my kids doing homework before they'd even started school, after seeing those other kids I can't tell you I wasn't tempted.

The new reality

The earlier-is-better approach is fueling (and is fueled by) a rapidly growing storefront tutoring industry, which is reaching down toward younger and younger kids. Sylvan Learning Centers, which used to focus on helping kids in grade school keep up with schoolwork and catch up when they'd fallen behind, has begun pre-K programs in many of its 1,200 locations that are meant to prepare kids for the rigors of kindergarten. And it's not just a big-city or upper-middle-class phenomenon. "We're all over the place," says Richard Bavaria, Ph.D., Sylvan's vice president of education. "We're in Manhattan, but we're also in Dubuque. We've opened in big cities, rural areas, and suburbia." Its preschool program, Sylvan pledges, teaches 4-year-olds to read.

Sylvan's two main competitors  -- SCORE!, owned by Kaplan Inc., and Kumon North America  -- use the same strategy. At SCORE! Learning Centers, about 20 percent of the more than 75,000 kids enrolled are between the ages of 4 and 6. Parents typically drop off their children twice a week at a local center, usually conveniently located in a strip mall or on a busy downtown street. The Junior Kumon program is designed for children in preschool and kindergarten, and like those of the other two companies, it focuses on early reading and math skills. All three programs suggest that they'll foster an enjoyment of learning that will serve children well when they make it to the big time: kindergarten.

These are just the biggest companies. Smaller providers are also offering academic programs designed for younger kids, and preschools are increasingly including less play dough and blocks and more ABC's and 1,2,3's. But why? Why are parents so anxious about their 3-year-old's school readiness?

Carolyn Hoyt didn't learn to read until first grade but went on to get a graduate degree in English literature anyway.