Four-year-old Akash Raju doesn't go to preschool because his mother says that's for socializing, not learning. Instead, he's enrolled at a tutoring center in Fairfax. Two hours a week he reads, writes and does three-digit number problems, followed by five hours of homework.

Too much too soon? Not according to his parents, who want Akash to be a step ahead of the other kindergartners when he starts Fairhill Elementary School next year.

"We want our child to do well, and it's good for him," said his mother, Shailaja Raju. He started banging on computer keys when he was just a year old, she said, and was reading at 3. "It's not like I put stress on him. He wants to study."

Tutoring once was the last resort for students who were struggling. Now it's also a sign of academic ambition. Many students still seek help to catch up to the rest of the class, but a fast-growing group views tutoring more like music lessons or Saturday morning soccer -- another extracurricular activity in the life of the average, above-average child.

These students and their parents are already out of the starting gate in the competition to get into classes for the gifted and talented, advanced math courses and college, with an eye on scholarships and jobs. Get-ahead tutoring has become so widespread in the past five years that an entire for-profit industry has moved in on the legions of teenagers and teachers who have tutored for generations.

The four major companies have a total of 152 offices in the region, and countless smaller tutoring firms are popping up. Nationwide, commercial tutoring is a $3 billion concern.

But teachers aren't as uniformly enthusiastic about the tutoring trend as their most eager students might assume. Although many welcome it, others are concerned that student performance is no longer an accurate measure of how schools are doing. They fear that some of the brightest -- or just the most privileged -- kids will get ahead of themselves before they're really ready and that struggling students will be left further behind.

"The pressure comes in these kinds of communities where the parents know the children will go to college and they already know what the colleges want," said Michael Doran, principal of T.W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda. "We've got to push kids, push kids, push kids, earlier and earlier and earlier."

This is especially true in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, where highly educated parents have equally high expectations and so many students apply to the nation's top colleges and universities. Fairfax even has a practice run in the form of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, whose selection process is as competitive as the Ivy League. Some students start building their applications in fifth grade, and tutoring to prepare for the admissions test is routine.

These communities -- as well as affluent suburbs in the Northeast, Chicago, Texas and California -- are growth centers for chain tutoring companies looking to make math and phonics drills as readily available as Starbucks coffee.

Such centers are not about providing extra help with school assignments. Each has its own curriculum, which focuses on reading and math fundamentals. The philosophy is that a student who excels in the basics can ace assigned schoolwork and move on to the next level.

Kumon Math & Reading Center, which has about 90 centers in the Washington suburbs, markets itself to students eager to read, spell and compute better and more quickly than their peers. The company's Achieve by Five program teaches algebra, normally a high school course, to fifth-graders. One Fairfax center has a four-month waiting list.

Students at Huntington Learning Center and Sylvan Learning Systems, with about 25 centers each in the area, work independently or with a tutor in groups of three on math and verbal drills.

At SCORE!, owned by The Washington Post Co., the drills are done on a computer in a decidedly upbeat atmosphere. When one student at the Silver Spring center looked up from her computer recently to report acing an exercise, a tutor -- called a "coach" -- high-fived her and exclaimed: "Are you serious? That's awesome!" Students who score a 90 or better on a test get to shoot baskets at an indoor hoop for prizes. Officials of the company, which has 13 centers locally, say they can't find enough commercial space in Fairfax and Montgomery counties to meet their rapid expansion plans.

Sarah Harris, a sixth-grader at Herbert Hoover Middle School in Montgomery County, is already taking algebra at SCORE! in Potomac. Although most students take it in ninth grade, many bright eighth-graders also enroll, but Sarah, 11, plans to take it next year, in seventh grade. In preparation, she spends two hours a week in tutoring.

"I knew that I could learn algebra and be ahead of the class," she said. Math is the hardest subject for her, but it's also her favorite. "I like challenges," she said.

Tutoring of all kinds has proliferated in the last decade, in part because the stigma has disappeared. Much like having a therapist, having a tutor is nothing to hide. The difference is in the caliber of the students who get help -- very often the students who are doing fine.

Scott Luxenberg, a Fairfax eighth-grader, usually makes "Bs or better" in school, according to his father, Mitch. Nonetheless, he has been tutored in writing for more than a year because his parents think he can do better.

"We know, just from knowing him, what he is capable of," Luxenberg said. "There are a lot of kids like Scott. I call them the RKs -- regular kids -- and sometimes they need a little attention that they can't get in a classroom with 28 or 29 kids."

Beth Reisig, PTSA president at Langley High School in McLean, said it's hard to find students who don't have a tutor, often for the extra attention that makes them feel good about their abilities in a difficult subject. "Sometimes you just need someone to interpret it in a different way," Reisig said.

Likewise, Craig Katz, a private tutor in Bethesda who specializes in algebra through calculus, has clients whom he described as students who are good overall but less gifted in math. They come to him because they want to be high achievers across the board.

The next step is using tutoring to accelerate a child's education -- much the way some Fairfax parents buy next year's math textbooks to study with their children during summer vacation. Jerry Gambino, the district's math coordinator, said that's not always a good idea.

Sometimes, students are prodded into higher-level classes before they have really understood the basics. For these students, confidence can be undermined instead of bolstered, and ambition can lead to burnout.

"Teachers are stuck with the consequences of those patterns -- students who become demoralized and act out, students who expect too much," said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County teachers union. Long range, some educators see other possibilities: self-absorbed, me-first kids or overworked students who wind up bored, burned out and turned off by school.

"There's a values issue in all this," said Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center for the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut. "We're placing value on accumulating points, worshiping 'what I have going for me' and not appreciating 'what you have going for you.' "

Schools face consequences, too. One of the most striking contrasts on standardized test scores is the gap between affluent and poor students, and between white and minority students. Minority students' scores on Virginia's Standards of Learning tests rose this year but continued to lag behind those of white students.

Simon believes that schools should step in and provide more extracurricular tutoring so no one has an edge. One example is Fairfax's new after-school test-preparation course -- far cheaper than private tutors -- for entrance into Thomas Jefferson. Another is Loudoun County's "Early Back" program, which has used local and state funds to provide after-school and Saturday tutoring to students having trouble with SOL tests.

"People say we need to have the same expectations of all students," Simon said. "But how can we expect equal outcomes when some students get much more outside nurturing than others? You're not able as a teacher to produce the same results for every child."

Academic coach Kelly Savercool helps student Matthew Dang, 6, with his lesson at the SCORE! educational center in Silver Spring.Students work on computers at SCORE! in Silver Spring. The tutoring company, which is geared toward students who want to get ahead, has 13 centers locally.Brenda Flores, 10, attempts a basket after taking a test. SCORE! students who make a 90 or better on a test get to shoot hoops for prizes.