Math wars

Plano parents lay siege to enthusiasts of the "New New Math" in a fight over how to fix the sorry state of math instruction in the public schools

Expectations are kept high. A child who starts Kumon as a pre-schooler is supposed to begin algebra by the fifth grade and calculus by the eighth grade. "That's our goal," Tung says. Although the teacher doesn't stand at the front of the room and instruct, Tung does offer guidance. Typically, she lets her students attempt to figure out from examples in their workbooks how to perform a new operation. If they get it wrong two or three times, Tung shows them how to do it.

Many of the children she gets these days--especially those who've come for remedial help--aren't able to zoom through at the scheduled Kumon pace. "What the U.S. schools teach is a mile wide and one inch deep," Tung says. "I get kids who come in to me and say, 'I know fractions.' I test them. They don't know fractions."

Generally, Tung says, she gets children seeking remedial help when they've started getting tested at school on algebraic concepts. "I have to go back and see what is wrong," she says. "Usually we go back several grades."

Jordan, the Kumon regional director, who taught math for 16 years in public schools, offers her own diagnosis. Public-school kids in the sixth grade haven't even mastered whole-number addition and subtraction, much less multiplication or division, she says. "I've seen seventh-graders coming in and counting on their fingers," she says. "How can they handle algebra?" With the push to get more Texas kids into algebra before the ninth grade, Jordan claims districts are watering down their math instruction. Kumon, however, is not a replacement for school math, she cautions. "It is a supplement," she says. "We do no measurement, no time, and only a little geometry."

As a business opportunity, a Kumon franchise is no overnight bonanza. Kumon requires that prospective tutors possess college degrees, pay $500 in initial fees, and receive four weeks of training. For every $80 a month tutors charge the students, $30 of that goes back to the Kumon family. The company also makes a good chunk of money from sales of its materials and workbooks.

For Kumon parents, the costs are substantial. "It's so expensive," says Dennis' mom, Doris Shung. She occasionally entertains thoughts of taking her sons out of Kumon now that they've become solid math citizens. "But they love it," she says. "They want to stay in, and what can you say?"

Without a doubt, Kumon is set up strictly as a money-making enterprise--locating its franchises according to market demands, not need. There are no Kumon centers in southern Dallas, for example, where TAAS scores show a grave need for remedial math education.

The Shungs have a high threshold when it comes to footing the bill for their children's educational opportunities. They send their sons to Kumon classes, private school, and on Sundays, a program to learn Mandarin Chinese.

At The Sunray Chinese Schools, many children also study math for an hour--as well as SAT courses and English. Younger children wrestle with math basics, memorizing multiplication tables and mastering long division. The 25-year-old schools have some 600 students at four locations in North Dallas and the suburbs.

For many, attending the Sunday program means an all-day family event. The parents and children travel long distances--some come to the school in Carrollton from as far away as Keller--and camp out while their kids get tutored. In the cafeteria, parents can buy rice noodle soup or hear guest speakers, such as a recent visitor who discussed breast cancer.

In the classrooms, five or six students are paired with a teacher. First-graders learn how to convert pints into gallons; the kindergarteners make calendars. The Chinese school's math program costs $385 plus a $25 materials fee for a 14-week semester. It's a lot of money for parents of more than one child, yet some of them pay for Kumon as well as the Chinese program.

For many Asian-American families, paying extra for education is a given. Some native-born Americans are beginning to catch on to that example.

Jaleah Montgomery, a nurse who recently moved back to this area after living in North Carolina, sends her five-year-old son Benjamin to the same Kumon center as the Shungs. She got interested when she met a Kumon kid doing quadratic equations in the fifth grade. "I saw it, and I was impressed," she says. "I wish someone had gotten me into it when I was young."

Kumon promoters provide much anecdotal evidence of their successes. One Richardson student who received a near-perfect math score (above 700) on the SAT last year was a Kumon product. But the program doesn't provide a statistical analysis of its results or records of its students' scores on standardized tests.

Word-of-mouth draws the crowds.

A New New Math researcher scoffs at the Kumon program. "They will make a lot of money," says Elizabeth Phillips, a Michigan State researcher who compiles statistics on how students being taught the New New Math curriculum fare on standardized tests. So far, she says, the program has brought good results. In Plano, children who've participated in the pilot program at five middle schools have raised their TAAS scores an average 9 percent, compared to the rest of the children in the district, who've raised their scores 5 percent.

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