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There’s Nothing Wrong With Seeking Supplemental Learning For Your Kids

If we want parenting to not be driven by fear, we cannot caricature those who go about it in ways that some disagree with, especially at a time like this.

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A few years ago, Rachel, a principal of a well-resourced elementary school in a Boston suburb, shared with me her concerns about parents who insist on enrolling their children in after-school learning centers like Kumon, Mathnasium, and Sylvan, when they already receive a fine school education.

“I can’t believe you’re going to find kids who are passionate about long division [after school]. I just don’t believe it. … I think that exposing your child [after school] to a wide variety of areas to find that passion or talent, and then promoting it, is, in my mind, the job of a caring and more-grounded parent.”

Such parents are misguided, uncaring, and ungrounded? Little did she know, I was one of them.

My wife and I had enrolled our two elementary-aged children in an after-school math class even though we were happy with their schools and they were doing just fine in school. Even before COVID and remote learning, school districts saw a growing tension between families who want more education for their children and those who want less. In the Boston suburb in which we had lived, we sensed a pressure to supplement schoolwork in order to have children be above and beyond their grade level. There were three after-school math enrichment centers in the area. This was another after-school activity for kids to try and see if they liked, and the marketing materials show kids’ smiling faces and academic achievement.

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I wasn’t vocal about our parenting choice. Many of those involved were Asian Americans, like myself, but other types of families also supplemented their children’s learning. We supposed “Tiger parents” were not following their children’s expressed passions but deciding that they needed to study more. I thought of what Rachel said. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was right.

In multiple conversations I had with parents who pursued extracurricular learning for their kids for my book, Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough, I learned that they, like us, had caring reasons for what we did. Yet, it’s not as if most kids asked for after-school math, spelling, and other lessons. We pulled our children out after a short while, for they protested their involvement and we knew they were getting a fine education in school. We then felt proud of ourselves as parents.

But with remote learning on the horizon again this Fall, families are increasingly worried anew about whether schools are providing enough content. During remote learning this past Spring, one of our kids was in school just a few hours a day and the other received a week’s worth of assignments that he finished by Wednesday. Nor were we alone. Since schools shut in-person learning, parents have been seeking extra educational options for their children, and we receive ad after ad on Facebook of companies’ tutoring offers. Mathnasium was already one of the fastest growing companies in the nation, as is Kumon. In our current moment of online learning, they are prone to grow as they increase their online options and parents are increasingly concerned that their children are not getting enough from their schools.

So far, my wife and I have resisted the urge to change our kids’ academic commitments. We believe in supplementing their education. There are ways of doing so that we, as parents, can offer in a more personal way than worksheets. We can draw from what our kids talk about when eating at the dinner table, while getting their shoes on, or when we are tucking them into bed.

For my fifth-grade son, the topic normally is sports. So, we had him come up with predictions of which players in the NFL draft would be taken by which teams. He had to research different websites and explain his choices based on what he found most convincing. He was to utilize words he was learning that week in school in his write-up.

My eighth-grade son likes to debate politics. I challenged him to explain why a position I took was wrong, knowing that he disagreed with my stance. Whoever won the challenge would have to admit the other person was right. It might have felt like “work” to them when they started, but their interest in the topics made it more enjoyable. Kids can even gain more if that is how they learn.

I do not begrudge other families who are now turning to standardized supplemental options, which we will consider if our kids appear interested enough. I can resist a fear in this moment but not endorse the criticisms of Rachel. And therein lies the problem. If we want parenting to not be driven by fear, we cannot caricature those who go about it in ways that some disagree with, especially at a time like this.

The best way to start is to encourage more conversations between parents and teachers. If parents share with teachers their concerns and motivations for tutoring, teachers can possibly respond with alternative options. Teachers are doing an amazing job. They can share what they see in our children and the pros and cons of extra tutoring. But if we assume these parents are uncaring and ungrounded, we either won’t bother to have those conversations or will have unproductive ones. The result will be a widening educational divide between those who engage in more academics and those who experience the COVID slide. I know that for myself, Rachel, and the parents engaged in supplemental education, that’s not a dynamic we want.

Pawan Dhingra is a professor at Amherst College and author of Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough