Glenn Hogen and his colleagues bristle when for-profit learning centers are compared to McDonald's, although both are franchised businesses popping up in shopping centers across the country.
"The value of the (learning center) service is so different than that of a commodity," said an irritated Hogen, vice president of education with the Sylvan Learning Corp. "When you offer something as personal and as important as education, there's no way to compare that to a commodity."
Carole Nicholes, a Sylvan regional director, quickly adds: "At first you think, 'Oh Gee.' Do we want to be compared with a fast-food restaurant?
"But if you take a look at the reason for the comparison and the comparison is that there are over 450 Sylvan Learning Centers. . . . There's a standard of quality about Sylvan Learning Centers that you also find at McDonald's," said Nicholes.
The Sylvan Corp., based in Bellevue, Wash., is the largest of a few firms that have entered the supplementary instruction business to fill learning gaps for children whose parents are willing to pay for the services--mainly the high-achieving, middle-class Americans.
Sylvan also is one of the newest, founded in 1979 in Sylvan, Ore., by former teacher W. Berry Fowler. The firm was acquired in 1985 by Kinder-Care Learning Centers Inc., based in Montgomery, Ala., and it quickly grew, passing the American Learning Corp. and the Huntington Learning Centers--two other major commercial chains.
Need Called Urgent
Hogen, who began with Sylvan in 1983 as a franchise owner, insisted the need for supplemental education is urgent.
With a total school-age population of more than 40 million, studies show about 24 million children need some kind of supplementary education. About 40% of 13-year-olds and 16% of 17-year-olds attending high school have not acquired intermediate reading skills and strategies.
Last year, the Education Department said students' scores improved little on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, and actually declined on American College Testing, or ACT.
Hogen said 16% of young adults have trouble with such simple tasks as completing an address on an order form. He said eight out of every 10 17-year-olds in the U.S. and Canada cannot successfully write a coherent letter to persuade a potential employer to hire them.
"Many parents understand the limitations that public schools have in terms of reaching their child and (not being able to) deliver everything their child needs so we try to foster a team approach between the parent, school, child and Sylvan," said Nicholes, who worked in public education in three different states for 18 years before joining Sylvan.
Dorothy Rich of the Home and School Institute Inc. insisted that "not even the best school is able to do the job alone, and kids today do need extra help from a variety of sources."
"So if parents send kids to Sylvan or Huntington, it doesn't necessarily mean that the school the kid attends is any worse, but there is so much more that kids have to learn today," said Rich, explaining the centers are comparable to the Japanese private schools, where parents pay for children to learn after school hours ways to pass certain achievement tests.
"But what disturbs me about sending kids off for one more class, be it gymnastics or other kinds of activities, is that (parents) are not spending time with the child. That's a negative," Rich said.
Most of Sylvan's 420 franchised locations and 30 corporately owned facilities in 44 states and four Canadian provinces offer programs in basic reading and math, as well as "enrichment programs" in the two subjects. Selected centers also offer a "reading readiness" program for children ages 4 to 7 and programs for college entrance preparation, algebra, study skills and clear writing.
The center directors are all certified teachers and the ratio of teacher to pupil is never more than 3 to 1.
Most of Sylvan's clientele are elementary and secondary school students, but adults are also encouraged to enroll for basic literacy or brush-up courses.
New students are given diagnostic tests to pinpoint learning deficiencies and gaps, or exceptional talents. Based on the results, an individualized program is developed. Students attend 2 hours a week at the center after regular school hours.