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Kumon - a look at the pluses and minuses

I ran a Kumon Center in Dover, Delaware for two years, from April 2004 through March 2006. I'm a firm believer in the teacher doing everything he forces his students to do; I might even call this the Number 1 rule of education. After all, how can a teacher presume to judge a student's performance on anything he hasn't done himself? But based on my own observations - in public education, in higher education, or in supplemental education (such as Kumon) - I'm afraid that when this happens, it's the uncommon exception rather than the rule.

I plugged away at the Kumon worksheets mercilessly throughout my time with Kumon. The point was not merely to "do" them, but to put myself in the position of a student seeing the material for the first time. I continually asked myself what I would say to a student who might ask for help with any particular problem.

I believe that of Kumon's approximately 2000 North American instructors, there are quite possibly none who have looked into Kumon as deeply, critically, and honestly as I have.

I know few people will want to read every word here. If you have to skip around, please don't miss my arguments for a parent doing every Kumon worksheet the child has to do.

If you think this page may be interesting or useful to others, please feel free to link to it. A suggested link may be: Kumon Math and Reading - a Kumon instructor's observations. Thanks.


*** Kumon Pluses ***

The basic idea of Kumon is very sensible. Forget age, forget grade; a "comfortable starting point" is determined and the student works through thousands of incrementally graded worksheets at his own pace, progressing to the next "level" when he has shown good mastery of the material based on his accuracy and completion times. Practice makes perfect; slow and steady wins the race.

The "comfortable starting point" is a mildly euphemistic way of saying a low, low, low starting point. At first glance, many parents would be shocked at how low it is, viewing it as an insult to their child's intelligence. But there are good reasons for it. Review can only be beneficial. Looking back upon more basic material after you've progressed further "up the mountain" allows you to see it in the bigger picture. (I'm thinking mainly of math here.) If you were already "good" at it, you can become even more solid, perhaps superlative. The student gets off on the right foot with Kumon. He'll have fun blasting through the easy material, showing off his brains. The typical tutoring approach, jumping in at the point where he's having problems, would likely have him kicking and screaming at Kumon from the beginning. But also understand that a student's apparent problems are almost always due to weaknesses in more fundamental material. Don't be surprised if the ridiculously simple review material turns up gaps in the student's skills. The review phase goes quickly; the amount of time spent is insignificant in the scheme of things. It is time very well spent.

Schools take note: If you ever have a mind to get back in the educating business, you would do well to implement these ideas - progression based on mastery, and frequent reviews from the beginning. Students would never be "behind", and there'd be no need for supplemental education.


*** Kumon Minuses ***

The words that come to my mind to describe the Kumon math curriculum are "stark" and "barren", possibly even "mind-numbing", for the elementary grade levels, and downright "mean" in the higher levels.

Kumon has six levels nominally covering 1st through 4th grade math. Each level has 200 worksheets. These 1,200 worksheets present 21,318 straight arithmetic problems, starting with "plus 1" and progressing through long division. Most students will be assigned the majority of these worksheets multiple times. This long haul is relieved only by about 40 very basic word problems before the student reaches fractions.

Kumon's method of teaching arithmetic might be called "brute force". All of the basic, single-digit additions and multiplications are presented as elemental facts. The student is expected to memorize them by doing them dozens or hundreds of times. Kumon seems to be unaware of what we call "number sense" - a familiarity with numbers and how they are laid out and how they behave.

For example, Kumon never addresses the fundamental separation of numbers into evens and odds. A student is never told, and there are no exercises that burn in, "an even plus an even gives an even". Armed with that understanding, a student could see 8+6, for example (and one that gives a lot of students trouble), as "an even number not too far up in the teens - what else but 14!" And that may be quicker and surer than a student dredging the answer out of his memory banks. Other troublesome additions can be gotten in two quick steps, using 10 as a stepping stone since 10 makes such a nice, comfortable arrival and departure point in addition.

But Kumon plows through the addition and multiplication tables line by line with no regard for some problems being much more fundamental than others. For a more natural progression from easiest to hardest please visit my pages devoted to single-digit additions and single-digit multiplications, either now or later.

Kumon does not recognize "fact families". Kumon is "old-fashioned", which is good in many ways, but I'd like to think that fact families are not some flaky, modern concept. In the Kumon worksheets there is no connecting of 4+3=7 with 3+4=7 and 7-3=4 and 7-4=3. That's four math facts for the price of one!

I believe that as soon as a student with a developing number sense learns 4+3=7 he's ready for 14+3=17 and 54+3=57 and 40+30=70 and 2004+3=2007 and 942+30=972 and 4,000,000,000,000+3,000,000,000,000=7,000,000,000,000. Four plus three is seven whenever they're in the same place - isn't that neat? But there are no lessons like this in Kumon.

In Kumon, big numbers are rarer than hen's teeth. I've always observed that kids love big numbers. Giving an answer in the trillions, quadrillions and quintillions is great fun and makes a kid feel really smart, and justifiably so. Just playing around with big numbers is a fun and easy way to a solid number sense.

Consider Kumon's Level 2A, the middle of the three 1st-grade levels. It follows 200 worksheets of beginner addition in the previous level, and still no subtractions appear. (One parent almost took my head off for this.) The range of numbers is positively claustrophobic. This level presents 3620 addition problems, and the number "21" appears 13 times; "22" appears 8 times; "23" appears 3 times; "24" appears 2 times; and - watch out for that nosebleed! - "25" appears once.

When we get beyond the arithmetic levels of Kumon math, there's one main word to describe it: hard! Unnecessarily and maliciously hard. For example, in Kumon's 6th-grade level ("F") the student must solve fairly complex equations for an unknown - long before algebra is introduced! This 6th-grade level also has a batch of killer word problems that very few advanced placement high school students could sit down and solve readily. For that matter, very few Kumon instructors could, either.

It's almost as if Kumon throws the incremental progression idea out the window once it gets above the arithmetic levels. It seems to be almost the opposite. You find yourself hanging on for dear life, and Kumon comes slamming back with a problem twice as bad - as if Kumon is trying to push you over as you struggle to your feet, as if Kumon wants to filter out weak students rather than develop them.

It's always a mean thing to put someone on the spot, of course, so do NOT pull a worksheet from Level J (nominally 10th grade) at your orientation meeting and ask the Kumon instructor to work a few randomly selected problems, but take my word for it that only a small fraction of them could handle this, even given unlimited time. And don't misunderstand; this is as much a statement on Kumon's difficulty as it is on the quality of a Kumon instructor's brain. But it does lead to an embarrassing irony: on the one hand, Kumon's insistence on the absolute importance of these high level math skills, and on the other, Kumon instructors whose math skills may not go much beyond basic work with fractions.

Above the arithmetic levels, there is hardly any correspondence between Kumon levels and school grades. For example, Kumon puts calculus before trigonometry. But that's not the reason your child will never reach trigonometry; Kumon is almost certain to weed him out long before calculus. It does this with ridiculously complicated work in polynomial factorization; in maxima and minima of every sort of function to come down the pike; and wrestling with inequalities of those functions. I won't glaze your eyes over with examples of what I'm talking about here. Nor will I ask you to trust me. See my advice to parents at the end of this section. But, speaking from the point of view of someone who loved math and was a physics and math major in college, I found much of it very painful and of very questionable value. It's no mystery that there are long- and well-established Kumon centers that have never had a math program completer.

A Kumon student does all of his work under the gun of a timer. For every assignment there's a maximum acceptable time limit. Once we get beyond the first few elementary Kumon levels, these time limits are often very unrealistic. If applied rigorously, only a tiny percentage of the population would ever make it past Kumon's long division section, for example. Fortunately, Kumon instructors realize they must relent here, but most students can expect to get keel-hauled through these 70 long division worksheets several times over before the instructor realizes enough is enough. I think the unreasonableness of the Kumon completion times fosters in most centers a "Don't ask; don't tell" policy regarding the honesty of the time entered on a student's homework.

Parents first meet Kumon's strange standards at placement test time. The Kumon placement tests are themselves associated with specific school grades. So the P4 placement test is nominally associated with 4th grade. But if a "good" 4th grader were to take the P4 placement test, he would crash and burn. Kumon instructors are actually instructed to subtract 2 years from the student's grade to select the placement test. So this 4th-grader would get the P2 test (nominally 2nd grade). The Kumon instructor takes pains to reassure the parent that this is not a reflection on her child, but how can a parent not wonder?

Let's pursue this scenario. The 4th-grader takes the 2nd-grade placement test and starts Kumon at a kindergarten level. There is nothing wrong with that; we've seen a lot of good reasons for Kumon's low starting point. We've said the child is a good student, and he plugs away at Kumon for a year and a half and reaches Kumon's Advanced Student Honor Roll - about a half year above grade level (however one is supposed to detect something that subtle.) In this case, the student has met all of Kumon's own rigid requirements for a 6th-grader. So he should be able to nail Kumon's P6 placement test, right? No, he'd bomb out on that. If, hypothetically speaking, he were to start fresh with Kumon, he would need to take the P4 test and probably place at one of the 1st-grade levels this time. Seems a bit strange, although there's no real scam here. Kumon's placement tests are supposed to start everyone on very basic material. If there's anything sneaky going on, intentional or not, it would be that all this backing off from the student's actual school grade is likely to worry a suggestible parent into thinking her child is far below some sort of "norm", or national or international standard.

I spent more of my worksheet time on math than reading since significantly more students still come to Kumon for math. I got up to Kumon's reading levels EI and EII (nominally 5th grade.) There are two Kumon reading levels for each elementary school grade - thus the I and II - so this still represents a sizable mountain of work.

In comparison to the math program, the reading program at the lower levels is much "richer". Many of the reading passages are educational, dealing with science and history, etc. Many of the fiction passages are "classic" - stories from Aesop, Greek mythology, Grimm and Andersen fairy tales, and excerpts from well-known books. Unfortunately, many other reading passages are, in my opinion, valueless. These are stories for molding the behavior of the kiddies; sermons on safety, diet, exercise, etc.; and useless, unresolved, and unsatisfying extracts from books which are not and never will be considered classic. I realize that I'm a lone voice here, and that parents, students, and educators are all thoroughly acclimated to any sort of word conglomeration serving as material for teaching "reading", but, as long as I don't know everything, I want to be gaining something from everything I read.

Another problem with the reading program is the spilling over of the completion time mindset from the math program. This encourages the exact opposite of what a good reader should be doing. Kumon students blast through the assignments reading just enough to pick out answers to the questions. Phooey on that. The timer also teaches them to be sloppy.

Kumon's unreasonableness pops up much less frequently in the reading program. The main instances that come to mind involve passages that dump the poor reader right into the middle of some story in progress. If I found myself pulling my hair out struggling to match pronouns way up here with various character names way down there, imagine the poor 3rd grade student. And keep in mind all of this is with the clock ticking.

I'm not so sure how effective Kumon's, or any, reading program is at making a person a significantly better reader. I think that comes with maturing and reading, reading, reading - subject to limitations we're born with. (My brain can only absorb so much so fast!) I view Kumon's reading program as more of a "power student" or "academic excellence" program. The student gets tons of practice in giving "good" answers, and that is a valuable skill not only for making teachers and testers happy, but in many real life areas.

The caveat here, a serious one, is that the student's worksheets must be checked with a fine-toothed comb. Every mistake, no matter how insignificant, must be flagged and then corrected by the student. This may sound nit-picky, but what hope for excelling is there if mistakes are allowed to slide; if parents and teachers and everyone surrounding the student always figure, "Oh, it's good enough"?

But the problem is that home-grading parents let many errors slip through (I know from experience) and it's impossibly labor intensive for the Kumon instructor to go over every page of every reading worksheet of every student. You can safely bet the farm that I was the only Kumon instructor in the world doing that. It's also not reasonable to expect Kumon assistants to be thoroughly familiar with all the reading passages at all times. And Kumon's answer books don't begin to show all the possibilities for correct written answers after about the 2nd- or 3rd-grade level. I suspect that the grading of written answers in most Kumon centers is much like that for the SAT and those lunatic state testing programs born of No Child Left Behind; the grader glances at it for length and maybe a keyword or two. As the Kumon reading levels get higher, these problems become greater and greater, while the reading assignments come closer and closer to pure "busy work".

So if the reading program is of little or no value without rigorous checking, is there any hope for it? See my advice to parents which follows immediately.


*** Advice To Kumon Parents ***

Finally, here is my sincere advice to every living Kumon parent, and every potential Kumon parent.

Do NOT reject Kumon based on anything I've said here. Nothing is perfect; everything has shortcomings. It may be that Kumon is "just the thing" for your child. But go into it with your eyes wide open, and not a blind acceptance of, "This must be good; it was created by real smart people."

More than anything, I implore you to go into it with this resolution: to do every Kumon assignment your child does. You do it first, on blank paper. I reject your knee-jerk excuse of "I don't have the time!"; surely, there's something less important in your life you can jettison. (How about ten minutes of that tv over there?)

Here are the reasons.

First of all, this is what you should be doing with all of your child's homework. It keeps you in touch with what he's doing. It shows him he's not alone and that you care. If you already know the material, it will take hardly any time at all and may actually be enjoyable, like doing puzzles in the newspaper. If you don't know the material, you will learn. This is good; if you're young enough to have a child in Kumon, you're young enough for career changes and advancements.

If you argue the point, you are saying that what children are taught is unimportant, the corollary to which is that schools are for day-care, not education. (Let's hope that's not completely true yet.) What better way to keep in touch with what's going on in education than by doing everything your child is assigned? If parents generally started to do this, you can be sure there'd be a lot less wacko educational experimentation going on out there.

But bringing the argument more down to earth, you and your child will be learning from each other. When either of you encounter a problem spot you can bat it out together - and you will see how "two heads are better than one" beats out "independent learning" any day. Whether he's pulling you up, or whether you're taking him somewhat beyond the bare requirements, that's where the education magic starts to happens. There's no way it can't make a definite improvement in his school performance (whether or not "grades" are meaningful and sensitive enough to detect the improvement.)

In the case of Kumon's math program, you will know what your child is going through. When he starts beating you black and blue, figuratively or not, trying to get out of Kumon's "math jail", you will know how reasonable or unreasonable he's being. You will be able to make an informed judgment of how important Kumon's math material is. Does it seem to be of value for future math study, or does it seem more like mathematical gymnastics? Do the perceived benefits justify the 4 or 5 or more hours per week (counting travel time to the center)? That's a big chunk out of a person's life.

The same arguments apply as well to the Kumon reading program, but the greatest payoff there is that you will then be in position to grade your child's reading assignments completely and accurately. I argued above that the reading program absolutely needs this to be of value, and that the Kumon instructors and assistants do not have the resources, and a dry reading of the answer book is not enough.

If you did the Kumon assignments, just think, you'd be getting twice your money's worth!

If you follow this advice, I think you might begin to understand why dumping a poor kid in both Kumon math and reading programs simultaneously is grounds for justifiable parricide in 48 states. Have a heart.

If, in spite of my pleas, you refuse to do Kumon along with your child, at least consider this advice. When your child starts Kumon, you set a very reasonable goal for him. I don't mean Kumon's on-going and ever-receding goals, but a definite stopping point which earns the child a year off, say, from Kumon. The goal might be a Kumon level about one year above the child's current grade level. That should take a year or so to reach, bringing the student up to about grade level at his stopping point. Of course, if he's enthusiastic about continuing, that's fine. But the point is, there is a world of difference between having to do something somewhat distasteful, and having to do something somewhat distasteful with no end in sight.

Again, have a heart.


*** Wrap-up ***

For some questions and answers generated by this page, please visit my Kumon Questions and Answers page.

If you skipped over it the first time, here's another invitation to my pages on basic addition and multiplication. Think of it as all of math in just two little pages.

For an example of what a student could learn very quickly alongside a "math pro", and may never discover in a lifetime of stumbling around in a self-study program, please visit my Adding and Subtracting Mixed Numbers page.

One of the reasons my Kumon center didn't last long was because of Kumon's objection to me giving individual attention to every student on every visit. That wasn't the "Kumon Way". Because of this page I've received communication from a number of Kumon instructors and students and parents, and I've heard of center operations that incorporate tutors or a "help desk". Whether or not Kumon has opened up to this, or is turning a blind eye, I don't know, but it makes a lot of sense to me. When considering Kumon for your child, you might want to ask about what sort of experienced math assistance is available at the center.


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