The Kumon Condition: Preschool Math and Reading Prep

Fostering a love of learning?  Photo from The New York Times.
Math and reading tutors for two year-olds.

It's called Kumon and is coming to a strip mall near you. 

Some see this academic prep program as scholastic progress.  The three year-old girl in the photo at right may be learning her letters but I suspect she's also learning that learning can be a real bore.    

So who reaps the benefits of these for-profit educational centers?

Clearly this kind of extracirriculur enrichment isn't geared to kids with poor small-motor control, speech delays, learning disabilities or other diagnosable deficits meriting occupational or other therapeutic intervention.  Nor is it directed towards the Head Start crowd who might benefit from an extra dose of the ABCs.  Nor is this the tutoring of yore for students struggling in their classes - as if it were possible for preschoolers to "struggle" with the academic cirriculum, like letter formation and number identification.  Not that writing letters isn't hard for the under-five set, of course it's hard, they're barely out of diapers.

This is, however, the program for kids who request pesto on their pizza (read the article below).     

So yesterday's Fast-Tracking to Kindergarten in the New York Times about Kumon fascinated me.  Here's the deal.  After shelling out several hundred dollars a month and somehow schlepping their preschoolers to twice weekly one-hour sessions these supposedly savvy parents then must bribe the kids to sit down for homework each day:
 Children are then expected to do 20 minutes of homework on each subject (math and reading) every day, with their parents guiding and grading them.   
As for any free-time in between the study sessions, there's the recommended "reading lists that start in preschool with Goodnight Moon and Each Peach Pear Plum."

Two hundred dollars!

Speaking of money, take the tutoring company's CFO, a man apparently gifted with numbers (profit margins?) who might need some tutoring in child psychology:
“Age 3 is the sweet spot,” said Joseph Nativo, chief financial officer for Kumon North America. “But if they’re out of a diaper and can sit still with a Kumon instructor for 15 minutes, we will take them.”  
We will take them.  If we must.  We'd rather not but if you insist...  

Anyhow, at least one psychologist, a well-respected researcher and author of The Scientist in the Crib, doesn't think this early-academics approach is so sweet:
“The best you can say is that they’re useless,” said Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.  
“Yes, your child might know more of his letters than the child who spent Saturday in the sandbox,” she said. “But the people who are team players, who are creative innovators, they are the ones who are going to invent the next iPad. The kids who are just memorizing are going to be outsourced to the kids in India who have memorized the same stuff.”   
So at the worst an early focus on academics can undermine the development of valuable life skills like sharing and creativity.  For individual children it might not seem to matter whether they do math worksheets but when parents demand more academic preschool curriculums, there consequences do add up.  Like less time for social interaction and free play. 

Ah parents.  We're a tortured bunch.  I'm as conflicted about "The Race to Nowhere" as anyone else.  My kids do a lot of homework. I get that Kumon might be useful for older students.  Some schools (like my kids') prefer to teach fifty ways to solve equations rather than relying on memorization.  My daughter could spew out 10 ways to compute 10 plus 10 but had to take a minute to answer 5 + 8.  After all that creative problem-solving I had to convince her she simply had to memorize the multiplication table. 

But I think there's cause for concern when some parents are so focused on early academics (i.e. memorizing) and their childrens' futures in the global marketplace that they can't help but sign toddlers up then sit and watch them (doing worksheets) through a window in the waiting room - an arrangement designed by Kumon to limit any separation anxiety because who on earth would want to mess with the emotional health of young children.


Anonymous said...

Polly - there are many stereotypes of all different cultures. You see it a lot more in the US then ever before. I definitely know, because I'm Indian, and have been living in the US for more than 40+ years and have seen the fusion of east meets west. I am a true believer in Kumon, because it teaches kids the basics that they can bridge in school with the practicals and still be a 'team' player. Taking the best of everything and incorporating it into lifestyles is key!!!!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Anony! Yes, I agree that Kumon can benefit some kids, like I wrote earlier, "my school" doesn't really have kids memorize math facts until the end of 3rd grade when it comes as a surprise to some of the kids that they actually have to. Just saw Amy Chua on cable talking about taking the best from each culture, acknowledging the benefits of both worlds.

Kipod said...

Just found your blog, and it's quite interesting. Just a note on the ability of 3 years olds to learn - it's there. My own is there, yet, but for generation jews in eastern europe started learning how to read in age 3. Yes, probably despite the stories, not everyone succeeded. And of course I'm not saying anything about what *should* be done. But the option is out there.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Kipod, welcome! Thanks for the link. Absolutely, some 3 year olds can and do read (like Oprah and Jodie Foster?) but it's not uncommon for 6 and 7 year olds to not quite be there. Thanks for reminding us of the cultural differences. Isn't it Finland where "reading" isn't taught until 7? Anyone? Of course there are the 18 month olds who "read" too.

Kipod said...

Hello Polly,

I'm not sure about "cultural differences". Usually these turns out to be the opposite of what I mean. I belive most Homo Sapience younglings are capable of learning to read. Of course, I'm sure it sucks being the one boy in the village that can't read until much later. And not only in the village. Even today, ultra-ortodox jews in Israel (and maybe elsewhere in the world) starts early - but with much less awareness to learning disabilities.

But if you do want something about cultural differences, listen to this song:
Translation of the lyrics -
It's about the customs of the Moroccan jews, they started learning to read at 5. By licking letters of honey.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Wow, licking honey! That's a far cry from phonics workbooks, maybe the schools need to mix it up a bit.

Kipod said...

If you want to bring this ceremony to the modern world, maybe it can be upgraded. for example, add some addictive substances to the honey. Make the child want to lick the letters again and again and again...