OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- While Jacob Hall intently pronounces the words on his flashcards, Neha Gulrajani sits nearby working with a numbers board and Jillian Sommerauer talks to her teacher about the picture book she wants to take home.
It sounds like kindergarten, but these kids gathered recently at a suburban Kansas City strip mall to get extra help for an academic that some say is placing increasing pressure on youngsters.
The children at the Kumon learning center are part of a national growth in such preschool programs _ and a debate over whether they help children.
While some educators say no evidence exists to show preschool tutoring has long-term benefits for children without learning disabilities, other educators, and parents, say the programs give children confidence and important building blocks for school.
Kumon, which has existed for 50 years for older students, began opening Junior Kumon classes in North America in May 2003 and had 304 of the centers by February. Sylvan Learning Centers started offering reading programs for 4 1/2-year-olds in April. Kaplan Inc. has offered its SCORE! program for youngsters since 1992 and says the percentage of 4- to 6-year-olds has stayed near 15 to 20 percent.
All three organizations say the major change has been in the parents.
"They are much more educated about the specific skills their children will need in kindergarten and first grade, and they want us to help with that," said Beth Hollenberg, executive vice president of Kaplan's SCORE! programs.
Others suggest that the federal No Child Left Behind initiative and changes in the public education system have created an environment where parents feel pressured to push their children into learning at earlier ages.
"That has created an atmosphere where it is better to do it sooner, because they are going to be tested on it sooner," said Sara Wilford, director of the Art of Teaching graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
Wilford said she fears some early tutoring programs may actually turn off youngsters to education, if they are too regimented.
"Children learn in a very hands-on, very active way," she said. "I do think 'sooner means better' completely loses everything we know about how children learn."
Except for children with learning disabilities or other factors that make learning difficult, tutoring has not been shown to have any long-term benefits, said Gedeon Deak, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California-San Diego.