Sylvan and Kumon – a Learning Center Comparison

As a teacher, I see many students every day who just are not “getting it”. Education policy today, due largely in part to No Child Left Behind, demands that all children learn the same things, and that they demonstrate the same levels of learning. With the move towards the standardization of education, many students are in fact left behind. Any sensible human being can see that this is really not a very realistic goal. Sure we would love for all of the nation’s students to be successful, but to ask them to all demonstrate the same level of success? Not likely. However, like it or not, that’s the direction that our country is headed.
The thing to remember is that students are people, not numbers as the government would like to suggest. They are human beings each possessing their own schema set of likes, dislikes, and capabilities. What works best for one student in a learning environment may be detrimental to another. Unfortunately, the regular public education system does not have the time or resources to address all learners individually – sad but true – and this prompts many parents to seek outside help.
There are several after school learning centers that provide customized one on one assistance for students in academic need. Many programs are costly, but for some students, the need for assistance outweighs the cost.
I conducted some research on the two available learning centers in my area and came up with some surprising information.

Sylvan Kumon Cost ~ $200 for initial assessment~ $40-$50 per session~ $50 for work books ~ $40 registration fee~ $30 per lessonNo materials fee Subjects Offered Reading, writing, math, study skills, test prep (SAT, ACT) Reading, math, basic skills Initial Assessment – Pre assessment is important because it lets the instructor know what the areas of weakness or difficulty are. It gives direction to the lessons so that time is not wasted addressing areas that the student has already mastered. Customized individual approach – lessons are crafted around the scores from a battery (several nationwide assessments) initial assessments, and are tailored to specifically fit that student’s needs. There is a basic skill deficit test (developed by Kumon) that the student takes upon beginning tutoring. This means that they take one test in reading that covers a range of skills, and one test in math that covers a range of skills, This one test is used to determine areas of deficit, and grade appropriate lessons are chosen for the student. Methods – This is the way that the lessons are taught. Approach is everything, and without the correct approach, the student will either be bored or intimidated, and they will not learn. A VERY customized approach. Lessons created are very specific, and often sample from several workbooks and material choices.Sylvan tackles everything that the average student may have “missed” along the way. The writing, reading, and math programs teach everything from the basics (spelling, grammar, punctuation, phonics, basic computation) to the more difficult concepts of the subjects (paragraphing, writing development, comprehension, problem solving). They also teach different types of writing – expository (research based and academic) and creative (short stories, etc.) Sylvan also offers online tutoring for when students get stuck at home. The lessons used during the tutoring sessions are not much different from those used in the public schools – grade appropriate, generic lessons and materials. There are 20 different skill levels. The student begins where the pre-assessment shows they rank, and work their way up. Workbooks are used, and the student is given a small, compact folder to hold their materials. Homework is given. This is not to say that a student cannot learn this way, but the lessons are not really tailored to meet the struggling student’s needs. Essentially, Kumon is the basic, run of the mill tutoring that can be obtained from most public after school programs that are run by public schools except you pay for Kumon. Pacing Student works one on one with tutor to practice lessons. The next time they meet together, a student will take a mini assessment. If they pass, they move on to the next concept. If they do not, they continue with one on one practice until they are ready for the assessment again. If a student does not do their part to practice at home, time with the tutor will be wasted, so this program does require the student to be proactive in their own learning. Timed curriculum is used at Kumon. Students must be able to show fluency and mastery of concepts in a timed 20-minute period. Of course this is only after they have spent instructional time with the tutor, but once the allotted teaching time has been used (the student may take as long as necessary to learn the concepts), the student must take and pass the 20-minute assessment.

Overall, there are pros and cons to both programs. As a parent, you must ask yourself, how will these programs help my student in the real world? The real world meaning their every day classroom.
Sylvan takes a more hand-holding approach to learning, which is much different from the methods that most public schools employ. This is not to say that this isn’t an approach that works, but you have to consider the possibility that your child may not perform the same way in their regular classroom that they do at Sylvan. Learning is much easier when someone is right there to walk you through it, a luxury the student has in tutoring but not in school. Therefore, it’s difficult to gauge whether or not Sylvan prepares students to learn on their own as well. Kumon guides the students along, but is also very adamant that they demonstrate their own learning, and are able to master the concepts on their own with minimal interference. Kumon’s philosophy is to give the students the tools they need to learn, and allow them to work it out on their own. This does NOT mean that they will be left to sit and struggle it out alone. Kumon will show them what to do and guide them in a way that does not allow the student to become dependant when learning. The result is an independent learner who is more likely to succeed in a regular education classroom.
Pacing is also something to consider. Kumon’s program deals quite a bit with time restrictions. To the average person, this seems frightening, but from an educational perspective this is a very good thing. It would be wonderful if we could all work at our own pace all the time. The harsh reality of the world is that we are not afforded this luxury. Whether it’s an adult in the workplace or a student at school, we really don’t have all the time we want to get things done. Especially as our country is utilizing standardized tests more every year, showing students that time management is crucial is a very important facet of the Kumon learning plan. Sylvan does not stress this aspect, and this can be detrimental to the child’s learning. Teaching students to learn with accuracy under time constraints is a very valuable lesson that can be applied elsewhere in their lives.
Surprisingly, I feel that the costlier of the two programs doesn’t actually come out to be the best choice. While Sylvan’s plan looks good in theory and on paper, the harsh reality of it is that it is quite simply so different from the classroom learning experience that I don’t see how an average or struggling student who learns the Sylvan way can succeed at school. I feel that Kumon’s “tough love” approach is a more realistic learning experience that will not only better prepare students to succeed in school, but in life as well.

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