The lessons of Kumon

Kumon is booming in New York City and its affluent suburbs, writes  Paulette Miniter in City Journal. Parents who pay high taxes for public schools and/or private school tuition are paying even more — $85 to $150 a month — for Kumon classes.

. . . John LaMagna of Cortlandt explained why he had brought his son to Kumon. “It helps with the basic fundamentals of reading and math, which kids just don’t learn today,” he said. “Multiplication tables up to 12—like I did as a kid.”

Toru Kumon, a Japanese high school math teacher, “believed that kids needed to have a strong foundation in the basics — phonetic awareness and those memorized multiplication tables, for starters — before they could excel at a more advanced level.”

The curriculum consists of more than 20 defined skill levels for math and reading. New students take a free placement test, get started at a skill level below their current abilities, and move up in small increments. In order for students to advance, they must achieve a perfect score on a test within a set amount of time. The idea is that a child who demonstrates both speed and accuracy shows full mastery of the material.

Students complete worksheets at home and visit a Kumon center once or twice a week. U.S. enrollment has doubled since 2001.

About Joanne


  1. Student of History says:

    So this is the end result of the inquiry math textbooks like Everyday Math and Investigations and whole language approaches like Guided Reading or Balanced Literacy that are now popular in both public and private schools at least with the decisionmakers if not the parents.

    Are we going to a system of education in this country where only those whose parents can remediate personally or pay for tutoring like Kumon will have solid academic skills?

    Let me guess. Kumon can hire whomever it wishes and thus hires on the basis of content knowledge and ability to teach. What a novel idea!

  2. I’ve seen several parents at my school take their kids to Kumon classes. Although I’m always open to new ideas — we could use some! — from what I was told by one (enthusiastic) parent, I’ve seen nothing unusual with Kumon. Yes, it uses back-to-basics lessons, something the parent and child can easily understand. And work seems to be given in small doses, so no one complains. I’d love to hear if parents/teachers who study such methods find that Kumon is that much different from what is already in the schools and/or general market. There have been so many “new” programs come, then go…

  3. “Are we going to a system of education in this country where only those whose parents can remediate personally or pay for tutoring like Kumon will have solid academic skills?”

    Perhaps, because those parenst are smart enough to know that government schools have little or no interest in educating their children well enough to learn basic skills.

  4. I am totally in agreement with the need for content knowledge and teaching ability, as opposed to the usual k-12 credentialism. Where I do have concern is the situation where public school teachers tutor kids from their own school (or neighboring school of similar demos), for pay.

    The website where I read that it was a common practice in some of the affluent NYC suburbs didn’t specify private tutoring vs. Kumon, but either would be a HUGE conflict of interest; not only are teachers being paid twice for teaching the same kids, but there is a vested interest in making sure the kids need the tutoring to learn the fundamentals. A relative from one of those towns said she was just told that over 50% of the first-graders were being tutored. It is one thing to permit public school teachers to tutor “their own” kids during/after a significant absence due to illness or injury, or perhaps on a limited, short-term basis (with special permission)but I don’t believe it should be permitted on an ongoing, large-scale basis.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    Seeing how we already have at a minimum a two tiered if not a three tiered school system (quality private, public academic magnets and then all the rest including lower tiered private schools and government schools) this is not surprising. What caught my eye was the part about the multiplication table drills through the 12s.

    My kids did the timed drills in the 3rd grade which was ten or so years ago. Are government skills no longer doing these drills?

  6. I teach third grade in a school that uses Saxon. The students have daily timed drills of 25 to 100 basic facts (0-9) plus homework sheets. I teach the advanced math class, and I still have two students (in a class of 29) who struggle with their math facts. They have an excellent grasp of higher math concepts. They score well above grade level on computerized math tests, but memorizing math facts for timed tests seems to be a real problem for them. I’ve tried supplementing Saxon with flash cards, songs, chants, manipulatives, extra worksheets, computer games, anything I can think of.

    I know this sounds like heresy, but I’m beginning to wonder if timed fact tests are all that important. Why not simply give the students more time? Why should these students be held back in math if they are performing above grade level just because they cannot remember their basic facts quite as rapidly as most other students?

  7. Ray — that’s my kid. Three years of constant drilling for the multiplication tables — nada. But she’s a genius in algebra and anything logic based. I suspect there are always exceptions. Most kids probably need to have the facts nailed, but there will always be some who are great at memorization and never get past algebra and some who just don’t spit out memorized bits very quickly but are ready for advanced math. A good teacher can recognize these exceptions to the rule, even when adhering to the rule for the most part.

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    Ray and Lightly Seasoned — I have no problem with more time just DON’T give them a calculator…ever!


  9. Ray — timed tests do not make sense for everyone. My oldest son (who has ADHD plus oddities that don’t seem to fall under a standard diagnosis) can do math well. But he can not do timed tests for things that he is learning. Now that he is 12 and has decent ADHD medication he can take a timed test on 3rd grade math facts. But when he was a 3rd grader, timed tests did not help him learn these facts. It is not that he does not know the basic facts. He seems to have a stutter as far as recalling things are concerned. So to have him take a written timed test would make about as much sense as having someone with an actual speaking stutter take a timed oral test.

    Nonetheless, “fact sheets” like those used in Saxon have been very helpful to him. But timing them leads to failure.

  10. Independent George says:

    Timing becomes very important later on in Algebra, when they need to identify GCF/LCD. Even if they understand the rest of the material, not having instant recall can become a major obstacle.

  11. “I’d love to hear if parents/teachers who study such methods find that Kumon is that much different from what is already in the schools and/or general market. There have been so many “new” programs come, then go…”

    It’s not a terribly new program, at least among Asian families. I remember taking Kumon as a child. I **hated** it back then – what child enjoys doing repetitive drills? – but in hindsight I think it at least helped to sharpen my arithmetic skills. Something about doing those drills over and over again, lol… the numbers just get pounded into you. I think a lot of schools don’t emphasize math drills nearly as much as they should, or they promote an unhealthy dependence on calculators doing all the work for you. Some of my friends could barely do basic arithmetic without a calculator.

  12. bky,

    I have a very severe ADHD child and I usually just extended his time a few minutes. It was fast for him and that made the more difficult things to come a lot easier. I think working on it is a good thing unless your child gets too stressed out. Mine did, at times but we plugged along.

    Saxon worked for us, also. Surprisingly, the mental stuff at the begninning of each chapter really helped “clear the cobwebs.” I wasn’t expecting that to be of so much help.

  13. I am totally in agreement with the need for content knowledge and teaching ability, as opposed to the usual k-12 credentialism.

  14. CharterMom says:

    I’ll throw in another vote for Saxon and the worksheets — timed or untimed. They really helped my kids learn their math facts. And calculators were not used in their elementary schools — except when they were required for the state-mandated end-of-grade tests for Grade 3 and up. (Why any test for math in the elementary years should require a calculator is beyond me. But then again don’t get me started on NC’s EOGs — talk about useless, worthless tests. And this from me — generally a test supporter.)

  15. Kumon is not new: It was developed by a high school calculus teacher in Japan over fifty years ago to help his second grade son with math. By sixth grade, the son, Takeshi Kumon, had mastered calculus.

    Kumon is not emphasizing speed for the sake of speed. It is emphasizing mastery. Mastery is measured by accuracy, independence and speed. Speed is not therefore a goal, but rather a way to determine whether a child has mastered certain material before moving on.

    Kumon is extremely successful in Japan, where most students do the Math Program, as well as throughout Asia. Currently there are 4.2 million students enrolled worldwide, with about a quarter of a million of them in North America. It is also the second largest franchise in the world, smaller than Subway but larger than McDonald’s.

    As a Kumon Instructor of nine years, I have personally witnessed the strengths of the program: it fosters the development of many character traits such as perseverance, determination, focus, and goal setting. The training is individualized to each child. The youngest child I personally have mentored in calculus started her study of that subject at the end of fifth grade. She is now completing sixth grade and will soon complete differential equations. Why? Because she has a gift for it and enjoys pursuing it.