Posts Tagged ‘Kumon Math’

The most recent April 2021 Fraser Institute report on Mathematics performance of students across Canada contained very few surprises. Students from Quebec continue to be at the head of the class. On the benchmark Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) from 2003 to 2018, they scored the highest (532 in 2018), 20 points above the Canadian average, and continued to outpace those of any other province. Steep declines have been registered by students from Alberta (- 38 points), British Columbia (-34 points), and Saskatchewan (- 31 points). Students from two Maritime provinces, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, have steadily declined and now hover around the OECD mean score of 494. 


Most interesting to analyze is New Brunswick because it exemplifies why Canadian students produce such mediocre results. With PISA scores dropping from 511 (2003) to 491 (2018),  New Brunswick 15-year-old students perform well below the national mean scores on a “steadily negative ” trajectory over the past fifteen years. On the past three PISA tests, 2012 to 2018, their scores have declined by 2.2 per cent, third worst among the provinces. The national Grade 8 PCAP results for 2010 to 2016 while below the national mean do show slight improvement, albeit on assessments keyed to provincial curriculum standards.  What jumps out at you in the report, however, is the row of blanks for provincial math assessments in New Brunswick and the statement “insufficient data to estimate trends.”

Assessing student capabilities in mathematics should, one would think, be a provincial priority when there’s plenty of evidence that students are still struggling in math. The clearest example of this, confirmed in interviews with math tutors over the past two weeks, is that most N.B. students today are so lacking in basic computational skills that they cannot complete secondary school math placement tests without a calculator.

Calculator dependence is now widespread in New Brunswick schools and its most telling impact is in the lagging Mathematics achievement of students.  The use of calculators in North American math classrooms has been common since the 1980s, but top performing nations, such as Singapore, China and Korea, put far more emphasis on integrating mental computation with conceptual understanding before progressing to higher-level math and problem solving. That approach is also reflected in the most successful after-school math tutoring programs such as Kumon Math and the Toronto-based alternative, the Spirit of Math, widely used in Ontario independent schools.

Provincial school officials do not generally react to periodic reports that students are struggling in mathematics, pointing to rising teacher-assigned student grades and healthy graduation rates. Those in the ‘shadow school system’ of private tutoring and the math assessment offices of universities and colleges have no such inhibitions. Most are alarmed at what they see and learn while conducting intake assessments of prospective students. Most perform one or two grades below expected levels and, moving upwards through the grades, wide variations appear in students’ skill levels and competencies.

‘Discovery Math’ is the prevailing teaching approach in the vast majority of N.B. elementary schools and the tutors insist it’s not working for far too many students. “Most students have gaps in their skills,” says Rhonda Connell, manager of Fredericton’s Kumon Math and Reading operation with 28-years of tutoring experience. “The N.B. curriculum is not skills-based, but rather more exploratory of different methods.”

What’s wrong with that approach?  “Students in public schools without basic skills get taught long and complicated operations and the kids get lost,” Connell tells me. “They don’t know their mental math and that’s why high school students simply cannot do the Kumon placement test without a calculator.”

The mathematics deficits grow as students progress from elementary grades into high school. “There’s a widening gap,” says Connell. She finds that students do not know their fractions, cannot do long division or basic subtraction and borrowing operations. The bottom line: “Students don’t have the skills at hand to engage in problem-solving and higher-level math.”

The founder of Mathnasium in Moncton, Jocelyn Chan, saw through the eyes of her son, now 7-years-of age, that mathematics education was sadly lacking. As a CPA with plenty of corporate finance experience, she decided to do something about it by opening the first Mathnasium franchise operation in Atlantic Canada. Since opening in October 2020, it’s grown from 4 or 5 students to 70 enrolments today with a majority of students in Grades 5 and 6 where the math deficits become more pronounced and visible to parents.

The pandemic shutdowns and default to hybrid learning have set students back, particularly in a more teacher-dependent subject like mathematics. “A lot of Moncton area students were already behind to begin with,” Chan says, ‘so the learning loss is more acute.” “Lots of Grade 9s this year are struggling,” she notes, “because of COVID-19 causing them to lose half of their grade 8 year, leaving them unprepared for the next grade.”

Private tutoring after-school programs such as Kumon and Mathnasium both cater to upwardly, mobile, affluent families with the financial resources to afford such programs. Out of 331 Kumon operations in Canada, there’s only one in New Brunswick.  While the Fredericton Kumon centre run by Connell has grown steadily from some 30 to 40 students in 1993 to 141 students today, that’s still a small fraction of the total student population.

Many of the new clients also turn out to be newcomers, recently arrived in the province. Most local parents, according to Connell and Chan, only become concerned when they see their children falling behind or getting lower grades. “People moving here from elsewhere,” Connell notes, “expect more” and “come to Kumon saying that there’s nothing going on in the schools.”

Unaddressed math problems surface again when students proceed on to university and find themselves in popular programs like management, marketing, or economics where some math skills are required to master the core content.  Many turn to mathematics and language remediation programs.

Senior Math instructor C. Hope Alderson is on the front-lines as coordinator of the UNB- SJ Flora Beckett Mathematics and Science Help Centre. As a mathematics tutor, she spends most of her time building the skills and confidence of students struggling in their university courses. Choosing her words carefully, Dr. Hope Alderson confirms what private after-school tutors say about today’s students. “Student have quite an attachment to the calculator,” is how she puts it. “There’s certainly less emphasis on mental computations in today’s schools. They grab the calculator to do simple calculations.”

The pandemic is not helping the situation. Faced with stay-at-home orders, students and families were left with online remedial programs or strictly-limited in-person, socially-distanced tutoring. Enrollment in Kumon Fredericton peaked in 2019, just before the school shutdown.  Since then, home learning and family stresses have kept families away from Kumon.  “Family stresses ran high,” says Connell, “and it had an effect on students’ abilities to focus on their math.” Separation from their social group was especially hard on teenage students.

Mastery of basic math skills is being sadly neglected in our K-12 schools. Conceptual understanding should not be emphasized to the virtual exclusion of mental computation skills. Getting a calculator to do the mathematics for you contributed to the entrenched problem.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Telegraph-Journal, provincial edition, In New Brunswick.

Why are Canadian students losing ground in Mathematics on the benchmark PISA tests administered every three years?  What can we learn from a case study looking at the state of math competencies in New Brunswick? Is it a combination of factors?  If so, what needs to be done to address the underperformance of our students on international assessments?  

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The McTutor World is still expanding across the globe and now has a significant foothold in Canada, particularly in the metropolitan areas and fast-growing suburbs. Private tutoring is the “new normal” for urban families, continues to grow by leaps and bounds, and remains the fastest growing segment of Canadian K-12 education.

The tutoring business has bounced back from the blip of the 2008 economic meltdown and is stronger than ever, generating more than $1 billion in revenues a year. From 2010 to 2013, Kumon Math centre enrollment in Canada rose by 23% and is now averaging 5 % growth a year. One in three city parents in Toronto now hire private tutors for their kids and current estimates approach that proportion in Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal.

My September 4-5, 2014 CBC Radio Drive Home Show interviews focused on the trend and tackled the bigger question of why today’s parents were turning increasingly to after-school tutors to supplement the regular school program. A recent inquiry from Peter Stockland at Cardus Foundation prompted me to take another look to see what has changed over the past three years. That’s why I decided to revisit the whole question and update my research findings.

Over the past three years, the private tutoring explosion has continued, unabated, and the global market forecast to reach $102.8 billion by 2018 is now projected to be $227 billion by 2022.  A September 2016 world trends study by Global Industry Analysts attributed the current boom to three main factors: 1) growing pressure of students to achieve higher grades; 2) the rise of individualized, self-paced academic tutoring plans; and 3) the need to acquire competencies and new knowledge to compete in the global job market. E-learning and online programs are assuming a bigger and bigger share of the private tutoring business.

Six global trends in tutoring are now more visible right across Canada:

  • the rise of 24 x 7 private online tutoring;
  • increased focus on skill-based learning (reading, mathematics, and coding);
  • growing desire for academic excellence;
  • increase in education expenditures ( per pupil and as per cent of GDP);
  • the emergence of Age Inappropriate Learning (AIL), code for ‘reach ahead’ programs;
  • shortage of teachers for tutoring centres and colleges.

Private tutoring is now a global business. Eighty-five companies are active globally and five are dominant: JEI, Kaplan, Educomp Solutions, Kumon/Tutor Vista, and Daekyo Company.  The Asia Pacific countries, as might be expected, account for a 58.7 per cent share of the business.

We now inhabit an increasingly competitive global world. International student testing is one symptom and so are provincial testing programs — and parents are better informed than ever before on where students and schools rank in terms of student achievement.  While high school graduation rates are rising, student performance indicators are either flat-lined or declining, especially in Atlantic Canada. In most Canadian provinces, university educated parents also have higher expectations for their children and the entire public education system is geared more to university preparation than to employability skills.

System issues continue to influence parents who turn to tutors to address learning deficits in their children.   A “Success for All” philosophy and the new focus on “student wellbeing” rather than student achievement provide further inducements to enroll children and teens in foundational and accelerated tutorial programs after school and on weekends. A 2015 Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) survey showed more Ontario parents opting for private tutoring and, for the first time, that parents who identified as middle or upper class more likely to be using private tutors, giving their children a further advantage.

New elementary school curricula in Literacy and Mathematics compound the problem —and both “Discovery Math” and “Whole Language” reading approaches now face a groundswell of parental dissent, especially in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.  It’s no accident that the private tutors provide early reading instruction utilizing systematic phonics and most teach Math using traditional numbers based methods.

Canadian academic researchers Scott Davies and Janice Aurini identified the dramatic shift, starting in the mid-1990s, toward the franchising of private tutoring. Up until then, tutoring was mostly a “cottage industry” run in homes and local libraries, mainly serving high schoolers, and focusing on homework completion and test/exam preparation. With the entry of franchises like Sylvan Learning, Oxford Learning, and Kumon, tutoring evolved into private “learning centres” in cities and the affluent suburbs.  The new tutoring centres, typically compact 1,200 sq. ft spaces in shopping plazas, offered initial learning level assessments, study skills programs, Math skills instruction, career planning, and even high school and university admissions testing preparation.

The tutoring explosion is putting real pressure on today’s public schools. Operating from 8:30 am until 3:00 pm, with “bankers’ hours,” regular schools are doing their best to cope with the new demands and competition, in the form of virtual learning and after-hours tutoring programs.  Parents are expecting more and, like Netflicks, on demand!  A much broader public conversation about the future of traditional, bricks and mortar, limited hours schooling is now underway and will force school systems to look at more flexibility in defining and limiting school hours.

What explains the increasing growth of private tutoring?  Will the latest trend toward e-learning with online tutoring programs last? How will we insure that access to private tutors does not further deepen the educational inequities already present in Canada and the United States? Will the “Shadow Education” system expand to the point that public schools are eventually forced to respond to the competition?  

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