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Japanese Drills, Not U.S. Reforms,Make Math a Hit at Alabama School

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Sumiton, Ala--At a time when U.S. educators are searching for ways to engender the kind of mathematics proficiency demonstrated routinely by Japanese students, Ilene B. Black, vice principal of the Sumiton Elementary School here, has gone to the source.

For the past six months, her 750-pupil school has been the only public school in the country to incorporate into its curriculum the Kumon Method, a Japanese instructional system that lets children progress at their own pace through repeated drill and practice.

The method runs counter to the recommendations of a host of U.S. mathematics groups studying curricular revisions. But Ms. Black is not deterred.

Since the program began here, she says, her students' achievement in math--and their attitudes toward it--have shown substantial improvement. The program, she says, has also boosted the children's self-esteem and sharpened their work habits--two byproducts that have paid dividends in other coursework as well.

So successful has Sumiton's Kumon experiment been that this rural school in a coal-mining hamlet 30 miles north of Birmingham is fast becoming a national showcase. Hundreds of teachers and administrators have flocked here to see if they, too, could implement the program in their schools.

"The Kumon people tell me I have to tell the good points and bad points about the program," the vice principal says. "If I ever see any bad points, I will tell them. I haven't seen any."

Ms. Black is unabashed in her enthusiasm for Kumon, but other math educators remain skeptical. Leaders of national math organizations question its emphasis on computational drills, a practice they have insisted should give way in American schools to a greater stress on methods that enable students to solve more complex problems.

Ms. Black, however, counters4that the program has been a boon to her students, who fared poorly before on tests of basic skills. The national groups, she contends, "think students are better at computation than they are."

"They don't know what's going on in the real world," she says of skeptical reformers. "We wouldn't be getting hundreds of inquiries if we were not having a problem."

'We Had To Do Something'

Founded by Toru Kumon in Japan in 1958 to help his son prepare for college-entrance examinations, the Kumon Institute of Education has provided instruction in after-school centers to more than 1.5 million children in eight countries.

The firm opened offices in the United States in 1983 to serve the children of Japanese businessmen in the New York and Los Angeles areas.

"They wanted their children to keep up with their counterparts back home and to prepare them for their eventual return to Japan," explains Takayoshi Sogo, president of Kumon Mathematex, the institute's branch in Houston.

The program caught Ms. Black's eye when she saw a feature story on it on a local television station. After several telephone calls, she tracked down the Houston firm and asked if she could implement its program in her school.

"We had to do something," she says. "Our achievement-test scores in math were next to the bottom in the county. Students did not know their basic facts well enough to complete problems correctly. Even the smarter students, who know how to work problems, didn't finish them on time."

Kumon would help, she thought, because it demands that students master each topic before proceeding to the next step, and that they solve problems within an allotted time.

The fact that the program was from Japan, Ms. Black claims, was irrelevant.

"I realize Japanese students are far advanced over our students," she says. "But I was looking for a program that would help our students."

A Test Case

Despite her urging, Kumon officials were at first, Mr. Sogo says, "a little cautious" about implementing the program in the Sumiton school. The method had hitherto been used only in optional, after-school centers.

"It is strictly supplemental," Mr. Sogo explains. "It is in addition to what is in the classroom."

But Ms. Black's persistence convinced him that she and others at the school would work hard to make the program a success there. And last October, officials agreed to make Sumiton the unlikely test site for an in-school Kumon program.

Officials at the Alabama school first placed the program in grades K-4. Last month, they introduced it as part of the curriculum for 4-year-olds in the school's Head Start program.

According to Ms. Black, Sumiton's teachers now spend about half of the time allotted for math instruction on Kumon.

But June Williams, a 4th-grade teacher, says she has little time for anything else. "This is my math program," the teacher says, adding that she will teach measurement and geometry, two areas not covered by Kumon materials, from the textbook.

'It Will Blow Your Mind'

Under the Kumon Method, students take a diagnostic test to determine their level of ability. Then, beginning at that level, they work each day at their desks solving problems on worksheets that get progressively more difficult.

The instruction is self-paced. The children only tackle the more difficult problems when they have mastered the prerequisite problems in the time allotted. Unlike the American curricular model, which introduces concepts and then illustrates them with problems, the Kumon Method aims at doing the reverse: building a conceptual understanding through the successful completion of problems.

The element of the program that most reduces students' math anxiety, however, may be its elimination of "failure" as a grade. All incorrect problems are reworked until each worksheet has a perfect score.

When her school's 4th graders took the diagnostic test, Ms. Black recalls, "not one placed above the 1st-grade level."

"Today," she notes, "you see 4th graders dividing and multiplying three-digit numbers. It will blow your mind. It's amazing."

The project's effect on attitudes, however, is even more striking.

"Our kids did not like math," Ms. Black recounts. "It was not their favorite subject. Now, they enjoy it. They ask to do it. They want it instead of physical education. They want to come in on Saturdays."

The vice principal offers as possible reasons for this transformation the method's ability to provide successes that raise students' self-esteem. This, and its ability to instill disciplined work habits, she adds, are benefits that have spilled over into other subject areas.

Observers in a Sumiton classroom, in fact, are struck by the lack of noise or commotion during a typical math period. Even the most restless pupils, teachers insist, remain at their desks and work diligently on their worksheets, able to ignore the steady stream of inquisitive visitors the school has attracted.

Ms. Black views the unusual atmosphere as a consequence of a program that allows students to begin at a level they feel comfortable at and "see success from the very beginning."

"Maybe they are seeing success for the first time in their lives," she says.

Betty Whitten, a 3rd-grade teacher, adds that "with a textbook, some kids get it, and some kids don't."

Some national experts, howev4er, contend that the program represents a step backward in an age when calculators and computers can perform the kind of "shopkeeper" tasks the Kumon Method stresses. The emphasis, they say, should be on the development of logic and problem-solving skills.

The National Academy of Sciences, in its recent report on mathematics education, notes, for example, that students "need to learn not only how to estimate and calculate, but also how to decide whether to estimate or calculate."

'I'd Sell Donuts'

But Benny Rowe, Sumiton's principal, argues that Kumon's emphasis on computational drill forms the "building blocks" that will help students gain more complex skills.

"They need to know how to use calculators," he says. "But they don't need to depend on them until they know the answers."

Ms. Black adds that the "hundreds and hundreds" of inquiries she has received demonstrate many teachers' agreement that students lack necessary computational skills. And she has worked with Kumon officials to help spread the program throughout the state. In March, an Alabama private school joined Sumiton as a pilot, and several others are expected to incorporate the program next year.

"I want to see this in every school system in Alabama," Ms. Black says.

Mr. Rowe adds that the only drawback to such a plan is money. For its pilot program, the Sumiton school has paid $18 per pupil for the Kumon worksheets and tests this year; when it becomes a regular instructional program, the cost will rise to $45 per pupil.

But Ms. Williams, the 4th-grade teacher, insists that the community would rally to support Kumon.

"I'd sell some donuts if that's what it took to use it again," she says.

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