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The Three Rs for Profit

January 04, 1987

I count myself among those who are disturbed by the growing popularity of the learning centers that teach the three Rs for profit ("Centers Offer 'a Supplement' to Public Schools" by Keith Henderson of the Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 26). It might be hypocritical, however, to bring down my grinding ax too hard when criticizing this trend. Given my spouse's modest income and the cost of raising three small children, I may someday find myself, resume in hand, knocking on the door of one of these business concerns that sell a product that is irresistibly attractive to me.

So attractive, in fact, that I seem to have been suckered into giving the commodity away for a couple of hours a week at the local middle school. But that's not quite true. I do not tutor students in reading and writing for free--to be exact, it costs me about $3.75 an hour in baby-sitting fees each week.

Now I certainly see the logic (aside from making big bucks out of the mayhem of the modern home) of charging a considerable sum for more intensive teaching in a hi-tech setting with a teacher-student ratio that allows for closer interaction between mentor and student.

A young person is bound to be impressed, particularly if he is constantly informed by his hard-working folks that they are shelling out $25 or more an hour to upgrade his academic performance. The tutor's importance may be enhanced in the child's eyes, too, since the youngster is unlikely to be knowledgeable enough about the corporate world to realize that only a small percentage of the tuition is actually going to pay the teacher, who is probably moonlighting to supplement his/her modest income from the public schools.

I once read that the high fee charged by psychiatrists had something to do with making sessions hold more significance to the patient. Very well then, putting a high price on a closer encounter with a certified teacher may well be a way of getting a surly student's attention, especially if this teacher is dangling out coveted robotic toys and other goodies as incentives to master the material.

I began tutoring recently after responding to a call for volunteers in the Navy community to work with academically disadvantaged students in the public schools. The program, called "Sharing" (Community Education Volunteer Service), is designed to provide these students with role models from the working world who will give these youngsters some one-on-one quality time while helping them with their studies.

In volunteer tutoring, one must work with what one is given--alas, textbooks that leave much to be desired. A far cry from the sophisticated setting of learning center tutorials is the milieu of my sessions, conducted in the lackluster school library or at an outdoor picnic table.

In the article, one of the learning centers' promoters says that the prizes parceled out for performance enhance young learners' self-esteem. That may well be true. My problem, and the problem of fuddie-duddies like me, is that I strongly feel we should be teaching youngsters to esteem something higher than themselves. Civilization, for one thing, with all the wit and wisdom of its ages written for us to read and heed--and a country that affords all an opportunity to freely receive this legacy.

Contrary to Paul Simon's lyrical logic, the words of the prophets are not written on subway walls and tenement halls. They are housed in books. Those who cherish their words must be willing to work very hard for very little just to get a foot in the door of young minds. They must firmly believe their product is so good that it sells itself. Charisma certainly helps, and, in the purest sense of the words, they are peddling a free gift.

Can such a thing compete with the corporate learning centers, or will it compromise in desperation and be absorbed by them? The future of this nation's public education rides on questions like these.


San Ysidro

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