Professionals urge neo-natal testing… in algebra

No, I jest.  Not really.  Or at least not yet.

It starts out like the prologue to a movie about a sociopathic math teacher who will by film’s end slaughter dozens of students and fellow faculty (and the nice lady who volunteers in the lunch room).

ON command, Eze Schupfer reads aloud the numbers on a worksheet in front of her: “42, 43, 12, 13.” Then she begins to trace them.

* * * *

“This is a sloppy 12, Eze,” she says. “Go ahead: a one and a two. Smaller. Much better.”

Eze moves to 13.

“Neater,” Ms. Rivas insists. “Come on, you can do it.” Finally, she resorts to the kind of incentive that Eze, her pink glitter sneaker barely grazing the ground, can appreciate: “You’ll get an extra sticker if you can do a perfect 13.”

And wire hangers if you don’t….

Of course, I’m not being fair.  There’s no wire hangers, no being locked in closets.  What we’ve got here is good old fashioned edjumikation, starting early.  Really early. No, not like five-in-the-morning kind of early.  Earlier.

Eze is 3.

The article is actually surprisingly positive.  ( Of course, it’s the New York Times, and what are they going to tell their readers?  Would you pay a buck twenty-five to be told you’re evil by a stack of pressed pulp?  I wouldn’t.)  What we’re given is a picture of kids “being all they can be” but without guns and camouflage.   The methods are what some educators would consider uninspiring and dry, but a certain amount of “drill-and-kill” repetition is probably a good thing for an education.  This is my favorite part of the article:

Ms. Goldman, who works at an agency representing artists, took her son, Huxton, to Kumon last September, shortly after he turned 5, in an effort to make sure, she said, “that he wouldn’t be behind the curve” when he started kindergarten the next year.

If she was hesitant, her children’s preschool was “disgusted,” she said. But she saw immediate results — Huxton began reading, adding and subtracting — and Eze, newly 3, started soon after. “These results translated into a self-esteem boost that I didn’t anticipate,” Ms. Goldman said. “They’ve gotten that there’s a thrill in achieving something. I care more about that than I care about them reading.”

I confess: I believe it.  Competence is the wellspring of self-esteem and self-confidence.  And kids should learn as much as they can, no?  Where’s the harm?  But there’s still something a little “off” about this, something that makes my curl my lip in vague disapproval.  I guess I’m of several different minds.

Mind 1: This sort of thing isn’t going to do the “achievement gap” any good whatsoever, is it?   (Related thought: if Kumon works, why aren’t we doing more of this in schools?)

Mind 2: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.  If kids can learn this stuff this early, it just gives them more time to learn other stuff.  Kids should learn everything they can, and if they can do calculus in junior high, well… awesome.  What?  You’re worrying about the achievement gap?  Let me tell you about an achievement gap: Neanderthals vs. Cro-Magnons.  There’s an achievement gap for you, buddy, and guess which side your kid is going to be on?

Mind 3: Three’s really too early.  Kids should be developing their physical and perceptual faculties at that age, not prepping their brains for life in an office cubicle.  Walking, lifting, throwing, catching, building… I don’t actually have a problem with the instruction itself, but I do worry at the loss of what it’s replacing.  This sort of drill is probably wonderful for six-year olds.

Mind 4: It’s only a small portion of the day, and that leaves plenty of time for other things, doesn’t it?  What else is the kid going to be doing?  Watching TV?  Is that really better?

Mind 5: Fine, it’s good for the kid.  But it’s the practice and instruction that’s good for the kid.  That’s not what this is all about.  This is about our youth turning into a competitive bloodsport, and that’s not healthy.

Of course, it all comes down to the big H:  Harvard.

Parents and policy makers may be ambivalent, Professor Gopnik said, but the popularity of programs like Kumon is “pushing very young children’s lives and curriculum in preschool programs more and more in this direction.”

“Part of them are saying, ‘This isn’t right, 3-year-olds should be playing in the sandbox and putting together mixing bowls,’ but then they’re thinking that maybe if the kid next door is doing it, it’ll be time to go to Harvard and my child won’t have the same advantage,” she said. “We are in a culture where education is the path to success, and it’s hard for people to recognize how deep and profound learning is when children are just playing.”

By the way… anyone else notice that in the picture at the article, the little girl has put the “W” on the “M” box?  Total rookie mistake… she’s soooo clearly not Harvard material.


  1. This is not news- it’s been going on for at least a decade. In my social circle, it’s the norm to start Jr. Kumon before the kid is even out of Pull-Ups.

    The ironic thing is that my 8 y.o. is way ahead academically of her little friends who did Jr. Kumon. “Drill-and-kill” practice may get a child a bit ahead of the curve, but it’s not going to put him/her into Ivy League competitive territory any more than practicing sports for hours per day will get the typical child onto a Division I varsity college sports team.

  2. Sean Mays says:

    Well, if she put the W in the M box, she’s clearly NOT Harvard material. Brown to the rescue!

    @Mind1: Kumon probably works because the parents have an environment that fosters education and the like; oh yeah, and they can AFFORD it. I’m leary of many modern math programs, sometimes I think they’re designed to prevent parents from being able to help with their “old school” ways.

    @Mind5: Youth competitive bloodsport. Yeah, I’m into that, with the rise of traveling teams and the like, we’re seeing more and more injuries in youth from over training. It might be informative, and frightening, if we could see what we’re doing to their minds and dare I say, souls?

  3. The funny thing is, if you wait until a kid is ACTUALLY ready to learn this stuff, it takes about 5 minutes to teach. And legos will ALSO teach fine motor skills and concentration— but cheaper, and recourse to sticker bribes.

  4. Cranberry says:

    I used to worry my children would be left behind, because we didn’t do Kumon. As they’ve grown older, I haven’t noticed any correlation between Kumon and academic competence. The kids I know who did do Kumon aren’t more advanced than their peers. They have done more worksheets.

    At such young ages, children should be playing. When they are old enough to read, they’ll read much more if they enjoy reading. Reading (to me) seems to correlate much better with a child’s oral vocabulary. You develop a vocabulary through conversation with other children and adults and through experience, not through worksheets.

  5. It’s simply stunning to me that a reporter could research and write a piece like this and not even mention in passing what (imo) is the major cause of this surge in coaching/tutoring young preschoolers, at least in New York City–it’s nothing more than prep for the entry exams for the public schools’ gifted-and-talented programs and the elite private schools, both of which are administered to four-year-olds.

  6. I did math with my preschooler, too – we called it ‘clean-up time’. We started off putting away 2, or 5, or counting as we put away blocks. We progressed to each putting away half, and at 5 my kid still can’t write well but he can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and do some fractions in his head. His math abilities are a little unusual, but it shows that expensive programs or worksheets aren’t necessary to teach little kids how to do arithmetic.

    I will admit, though, that we got ‘hooked on phonics’ when he was 4 and frustrated because he couldn’t read like Mommy. We did a few lessons each week, whenever he was interested and took breaks when he wasn’t. He was able to read enough to make him happy in a few months.

    I’m a big fan of introducing kids to all sorts of things early, but we tie it to the kids’ interests and abilities. My son likes math so we teach him math. My toddler daughter likes music, so she bangs away on a xylophone and other noisemakers. She’ll probably take music or dance lessons early.

  7. my wife and i have looked at kumon for our 5 y.o. Kumon is more popular among “oriental” asians and Aloha is big among Indians; Aloha uses the abacus to teach math. Both are franchises, i think, and the teacher at our local Aloha was great at showing kids how math could be fun. Not rote or drill ‘n kill.

    But maybe i’m not the best person to comment on this. I feel guilty we haven’t enrolled him in a pre-k math program yet.

  8. What’s especially troubling is that the research doesn’t support this. Do a little search and you’ll find several studies (one came out a year or two ago and was very large) that support play-based preschool programs for lifelong academic success. Like many things in education, common sense doesn’t translate into reality. This one’s a little counter-intuitive, unfortunately. Knowing how your body works, knowing how your world works, and being able to work with others is what grants you success in life, not studying numbers when you too young to know what they mean.

    I am reminded of a local gentleman here who decided to raise his kids in tepees in the woods. They were tepee-schooled. Both went to Ivy League schools and both make buckets of money running businesses. They are just one example of how learning to live life gives you great advantages over only learning to do worksheets.