Are after-school math centers really worth the money?: Parents and education experts do the math. (From The Boston Globe Magazine)

A feature story I wrote on afterschool math enrichment centers appeared in today's The Boston Globe Magazine. You can read it online (and see additional links below) by clicking here! I researched and wrote this in the last month or so of my pregnancy, so joke that now I know which math programs my son should try in a few years... A LITTLE BOY, NO OLDER THAN 8, almost leaps out of his chair, screaming, “It’s so easy! It’s so easy!”

Standing at the front of his classroom, Robert Kaplan, a teacher and cofounder of the Math Circle, one of many after-school math enrichment programs in the Boston area, gently chides him. “No, I don’t think it’s easy,” he says. “And it’s not nice to say it is when we’re struggling with the problem.”

It’s not easy for the parents, either, sitting in the back of classrooms during lessons like this and trying to puzzle out a problem themselves. These are folks who have been through the boom and bust of Baby Einstein and Baby Mozart, and who of course want the best for their children’s developing minds. Now they’re trying to decide whether extracurricular math centers, which are spreading through the city and suburbs like a cold in a kindergarten, are worth the investment of time and money.

You can’t drive very far in Greater Boston without coming across one of these schools. Within five minutes of my Framingham home there are four different centers: an ALOHA (an acronym for Abacus Learning of Higher Arithmetic), a Chyten, a Kumon, and the MetroWest School of Mathematics (co-owned by the Russian School of Mathematics). Latha Narayanan, manager of the Framingham and Franklin Kumon centers, calls this small area a “math mall,” and she’s right: Companies with centers in just this corner of the suburbs serve about 1,130 students.

There are at least 14 different programs, with 87 total locations in and around Boston, teaching math enrichment classes to kids (not to mention private tutors, school math clubs, and online instruction). Some of these programs are small – like the Kohlberg Math Learning Center in Harvard Square, which has 12 students, and Girls’ Angle, a Cambridge center with anywhere from 10 to 20 at any time, or Kaplan’s Math Circle, which operates in classrooms on Harvard’s and Northeastern’s campuses and has 156 students and a handful of teachers, including Kaplan and his wife, Ellen. Other programs, like the Newton-based Russian School of Mathematics, which has almost 6,000 students, and the New Jersey-based Kumon, which has 6,192 students in the area, are huge. And they have different teaching approaches: Kohlberg uses a physical learning innovation – blocks made to fit together in groups of 10, 100, and 1,000 – to teach kids in a one-on-one setting; Girls’ Angle offers individualized teaching without a set curriculum; the Russian School offers classroom-based instruction using a set curriculum; and Kumon has a curriculum but offers one-on-one instruction.

With so many programs, parents may wonder if their children shouldn’t be enrolled just to keep pace with their classmates, to say nothing of getting ahead. How can parents know that these programs work and then choose among them?


You can see the print version (as a PDF), with some beautiful pictures, by clicking HERE.

[Note that the answers to the puzzle on page 24 got cut off. The solution is: Next triangle blue (rightside up); 15th is blue (upside down); 44th is white triangle (top facing left). You can also see this online HERE.]

You can also see a PDF version of the web version by clicking HERE.

Pageant Princesses and Math Whizzes

Two of the activities I spent a lot of time studying have been receiving a lot of attention of late-- child beauty pageants and Kumon afterschool learning centers.  Last week The New York Times ran an article on Junior Kumon, a program designed to teach preschool-aged kids how to read and do math. "Fast-tracking to Kindergarten?" has generated a lot of discussion in parenting circles. And, between Botox beauty pageant mom and the Australian child beauty pageant kerfuffle, child beauty pageants are as in the news as they were in the days after JonBenét's death.

An academic article I wrote, "Pageant Princesses and Math Whizzes: Understanding children's activities as a form of children's work," which appeared in arguably the top childhood studies journal, Childhood, actually compares child beauty pageant moms and Kumon parents.  These two groups of parents may seem to have little in common. On a basic level, many assume that parents who value beauty are somehow different from parents who value academic achievement. But I show that despite considerable differences in their backgrounds, these parents converge in the reasons they give for enrolling their young children in these activities, and in their focus on their children’s careers and future achievements.

I want to tell you a bit more about Kumon, as it is less well-known, and there are some misconceptions about how it works. Kumon was founded in 1954 in Japan by a high school mathematics teacher to help prepare children for state examinations. The company expanded to North America in 1974, opening a center in New York City. The method began to spread, especially along the East and West Coasts, where there were East Asian immigrants. By 2005, Kumon's enrollment was about 4 million, and remarkably it was the fourth-fastest-growing franchise (behind Subway, for example) in the US.  In 2009 there were over 1300 centers in North America.

Kumon actually demands a fairly high level of parental involvement. Kumon requires parents to make sure that children complete their homework and then the parents must check the homework in a master book they received after paying tuition. It is only after seeing what a child is doing wrong on the worksheets that a paid instructor becomes involved. Essentially, as one mother said to me, Kumon is providing books and worksheets, but not much instruction. On some level, as with pageants, when the child walks into a ‘lesson’ to be evaluated or take a test, it is as much about how the parent has prepared the child to succeed as it is about the child’s own abilities.

It is true that Kumon relies on repetition and rote memorization. The Kumon method is fairly simple. It is based on the premise that by breaking things into manageable units and drilling those units every day through practice, a child will progress. There are two set curricula, one devoted to mathematics and one devoted to reading, and students can choose to do only one or to do both. The other major pedagogical touchstone is that children should start slightly below their level to build their confidence.

But it is the rote memorization and repetition, which may build confidence, that was the attraction for the Kumon parents I met.  I spent one summer hanging out at night at a Kumon center.  At the location where I was I met almost exclusively immigrant parents-- both East Asian and South Asian. Of the thirty parents who I formally interviewed, 93% were born outside of the US (contrast that to the 95% of the 41 pageant moms I met).  They felt that particularly when it comes to mathematics, the US educational system lags behind the way they were taught in their home countries.  Most of these parents are professionals who use mathematics in creative ways in their jobs.  So they do want their children to learn to be creative and innovative. However, they felt this occurs best after a child has mastered the fundamentals so soundly in childhood that they do not need to think about, say, multiplication tables. Only after the foundation is well established can creativity be attained.  This is true not only for many Asian parents, but also reportedly for Russian parents (this was told to me by Kumon instructors).

Here then we can see two important strands then that have come together in modern American life and parenting-- immigrant striving and middle- and upper-middle class insecurity.  Kumon has been transformed from a site almost exclusively of immigrants to white, affluent parents, who are enrolling their kids, at least according to the Times, to help them get ahead in the education arms race that has begun earlier than ever.  Why? In a time of economic and educational uncertainty, many parents (not just those who are innately competitive and perhaps driven by other varied psychological motives) don't want to risk not giving their child every chance to "get ahead."

But what does it say that we criticize what is presented as "extreme" parenting both when it comes to education and when it comes to beauty? Do these criticisms arise from the same source, or are they something else? I think they spring from the same source, and choices of parents are largely dictated by their own social backgrounds. What do you think?

Final note: I'm calling it now. Five-year-old Mabou Loiseau will become the next big parenting story.  Prodded by her immigrant parents (her family is not affluent, as her father works 16 hours a day as a parking attendant to help pay for all of Mabou's private lessons), Mabou is homeschooled and she can now "speak" seven languages and play six instruments. Favorite line in the article from the Daily News? "Her mom recently got rid of the kitchen table to make room for a full-size drum set...'Furniture is not important. Education is.'"

This reminded me of "I Speak Six Languages" from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A wonderful musical-- I actually got to see it on Broadway when Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell on Modern Family) originated Leaf Coneybear.  Never seen it? Here's a taste.