Tots on the Fast Track?

Prepping young kids in academics has become a thriving business, but some childhood experts find the very concept insidious.

Laura Boderck was sitting at her kitchen table recently when her son Michael, not yet one year old, made a hand gesture indicating that an airplane was flying overhead. In October, Boderck had enrolled her son in Baby Sign Language classes at FasTracKids International, a Colorado-based company with franchises around the globe offering “early childhood enrichment education.” Now, she says, Michael signs to communicate words such as “light,” “tree,” “bird,” “music,” “more,” and “milk.”

By enrolling her son, Boderck is practicing what she preaches. The mother, whose background is in banking and high-tech, previously owned a FasTracKids franchise in Los Altos. Now, as one of the company’s Bay Area developers, she is overseeing the opening of a new Fremont location this month. Another opened in San Ramon last week, adding to existing Bay Area franchises in Cupertino and Los Altos.

FasTracKids is just one of many businesses cashing in on the multibillion- dollar supplemental education market, but its growth has been explosive. It opened its first academy in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1998, and now operates more than 200 franchises in 30 countries and 32 US states. In 2004, Entrepreneur magazine named FasTracKids one of the nation’s fastest-growing franchise operations.

Its computer-based curriculum was developed by Johann DeBeer, a South African author with a background in linguistics, philosophy, and clinical psychology. The standard curriculum for kids aged three to eight uses CD-ROMs and a so-called interactive whiteboard (a special computer screen) to deliver lessons in twelve subject areas, including technology, literature, economics, and mathematics. Parents pay $200 a month for the weekly two-hour sessions. There’s also FasTrack Signing (Baby Sign Language) for kids aged six months to two years, FasTrack Music for two- to four-year-olds, and FasTrack Tots for children aged two and a half to three and a half. Preparing kids “for school and life” and building communication skills are among the company’s stated goals. “This is an environment where it is highly engaging, interactive, hands-on, and fun,” Boderck enthuses. “They don’t even realize they’re learning.”

The franchises have made an impression on some Bay Area parents, especially Chinese and South Asian immigrants. In November, readers of the Chinese-language paper World Journal voted FasTracKids the Bay Area’s top educational program. “The need is great,” says Fremont franchise owner Ruth Yong, who is Chinese American. She began enrolling in December, starting with her own nieces and nephews.

Asian-American families aren’t the sole target of her marketing efforts, Yong says, but they are a key demographic. “Those are the groups that will want to do everything so that their kids are at an advantage,” she says. “It does attract parents that want their kids to have the best advantage.”

Boderck notes that increased competition at top universities has prompted many Asian-American parents to seek a leg up for their kids. “You can have a 3.5 GPA and still not get accepted,” she says. “It’s gotten out of control. I would say certain ethnic groups value education and really want to start their kids early in education. I would say the Chinese, and then the Indian groups, are very much pro-education.” Boderck aims to extend the franchise into poorer areas, such as Richmond, but for that the private company will first have to establish a nonprofit organization.

Some childhood experts, such as UC Berkeley sociologist Barrie Thorne, think this emphasis on early training is unhealthy. If intense competition is the problem, she says, enrolling toddlers in academic programs only exacerbates it. “It’s feeding into this anxiety that you have to give your child an extra edge so they can beat out everyone else,” she says. “To bring it so low in age is so sad, especially when it’s only available for people who have money.

“So families scramble to buy magical solutions when what [children] really need is reassurance, and playing in the park may be far better for them,” Thorne continues. “I think it’s really disgusting.”

Yet the very perception of increased academic competition is what makes FasTracKids and similar businesses so appealing to entrepreneurs. Franchisees pay $29,500 for rights to use the company’s curriculum software and also must cover the costs of computers, facility rental, hiring, furniture, and the interactive whiteboard, which costs $1,200 to $1,500. They must also pay monthly royalties to the company based on revenue. Depending on the location, total startup costs can range from $38,000 to $185,000, Boderck says.

It’s also an attractive investment for people who feel that schools aren’t properly preparing kids. Raj Deol, a Milpitas speech pathologist who started the San Ramon FasTracKids franchise and is overseeing that area for the company, has noticed that the kids she works with have a hard time solving problems. “The way our school system is, with the focus on reading and math, this program fills in that gap,” Deol says.

But just how much do such programs really improve a child’s chances? And how necessary is it for a three-year-old to understand economics? Corporate officials did not respond to a reporter’s inquiries, but the company’s Web site offers parent and teacher testimonials claiming that kids who go through the program are much happier and smarter. It also touts a twelve-year-old study of nearly 3,000 FasTracKids students in southeast Asia, and claims that 89 percent showed increased academic performance at the end of a one-year course.

Boderck says the company is now conducting a similar study in the United States. Many parents, she says, tell of the surprising things their young children learn, such as where toys are manufactured, or that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. The company’s method is based on the belief that a child’s brain is completely developed by age ten. “This age from one to eight is the window of opportunity,” Yong says. More recent research, however, indicates that brain maturity may continue into a person’s twenties.

In the actual lessons, kids use the whiteboard as an electronic chalkboard, and progress is measured by a computer program called Creative Potential Indicator. When told of the company’s teaching methods, Cliff Stoll was skeptical at best. The Oakland astrophysicist and father is the author of High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian. “What does this so-called enrichment program do? It takes them away from parents,” he says, “and plunks them in front a computer screen.”

Stoll, who made his name tracking down an East German spy who was attempting to breach US government computers during the 1980s, recently taught eighth-grade physics in El Cerrito without using the machines at all. Yet his views on computers in education would appear to be in the minority. Dozens of private, early-childhood educational franchises, including the Goddard School, Children’s Technology Workshop, Kiddie Academy, the Mad Science Group, and Whole Child Learning Company, have popped up in recent years to fulfill demand.

“I think that a lot of what the programs probably offer are things that middle-class parents could do with children quite easily,” says Margaret Bridges, research director of child development at UC Berkeley’s Policy Analysis for California Education. “Maybe they’re done in really fun ways that are engaging to kids, but I think it’s important to remember that what is developmentally appropriate for a three-year-old might be different for a six-year-old or ten-year-old.”

Stoll adds that teaching kids to always think of learning as fun may have negative consequences later — such as when they have to learn calculus. He believes parents, teachers, and books — not computers — should teach children. “This is a fraud that’s being pushed out, and it’s one of hundreds,” he says. “Who has my children’s best interests at heart? Elementary school teachers? Or some businessmen out to sell franchises?”

Franchisee Deol counters that the computer allows more interaction between teacher and student. “All the curriculum is held on CD-ROM, so the teacher doesn’t need to hold the curriculum in their head,” she says. “The teacher’s job is to facilitate more than teach. … You can more easily interact with the children because you’re not so busy teaching, you’re facilitating.” The student-teacher ratio, she notes, is eight to one.

Whether FasTracKids takes off in the Bay Area remains to be seen. Boderck, certainly, aspires to get more franchises on the local map. “In the Bay Area, a lot of people don’t know what FasTracKids is,” she says. “But as you build that brand equity, it becomes more name-brand. That’s what we would like to become as well.”

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