In the recent years, there has been a lot written about U.S. standards in math education.
According to the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) — a study which measures proficiency in math, reading, and science for around 500,000 15-year-old students in 65 countries, the United States performed “below average" in mathematics and ranked 27th among 34 Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
The country’s performance in reading and science was closer to the OECD average. Much of the rhetoric has been around whether math is taught with the same rigor in U.S. schools compared to other countries. This perception that students need more focus on math could be partly responsible for the growing popularity of private, after-school math enrichment programs.
Most of the math programs have originated from countries known for their stringent math education such as Japan, Korea, and Russia. I myself have sent my children to a couple of such programs and have found them to have their pros and cons. Here is a look at some of the popular math enrichment programs and what they offer.
Probably one of the most well-known after-school programs, Kumon, which originated in Japan, has spread over 48 countries, training millions of students worldwide.
There are over 2,000 centers all in the U.S. today. Kumon caters to kids from preschool through 12th grade. The central theme of Kumon is self-directed learning. Students do not have instruction time in the Kumon center but learn independently from worksheets through examples.
The Kumon approach emphasizes regular work, and students have to complete a worksheet every day. It also focuses on achieving both speed and accuracy since students need to get a stipulated number of questions right within a certain time period in order to move to the next level. Both my kids attended Kumon and it greatly helped them develop the regular discipline of sitting down to do some math on a daily basis.
Among one of the other fast growing programs today is South Korea’s Eye Level (or E.Nopi as it was formerly known). It emphasizes critical thinking in addition to regular math.
The critical thinking problems require students to develop their thinking in areas such spatial reasoning, logic, and pattern recognition. It also does not have a designated instruction time, and students are for the most part encouraged to learn from examples in the worksheets but can ask their instructor for help if they need explanation.
Singapore has consistently performed well in international assessments, and its math curriculum and teaching approach known as Singapore math has become increasingly popular. Several private schools and homeschoolers have it in their mainstream curricula.
As an enrichment program, it is taught in weekend enrichment programs such as SchoolPlus. The approach uses a combination of numerical and pictorial techniques to teach concepts. Emphasis is on laying a sound foundation and mastery of topics before moving the student to the next level.
With its roots in Malaysia, ALOHA or Abacus Learning of Higher Arithmetic, builds speed and expertise in mental math. Kids can start from the age of five and are first taught with an abacus, which is an ancient tool used for math. Later, they graduate to performing calculations by visualizing an abacus without actually using one.
Students have designated instruction time in their weekly sessions and also have some homework in between sessions. With its focus on speed and mental arithmetic, ALOHA has gained popularity and has centers in 14 countries worldwide.
These are just a few enrichment programs among the many available for students. Others such as JEI, Russian math, and Vedic math classes are also gaining momentum in the U.S.
My personal experience with some of these programs has been positive overall and I credit them for getting my kids to enjoy math. However, there are factors to consider before enrolling a child into a math enrichment program:
Cost: A regular structured program is not cheap. On average, it will cost around $100-$150 per month.
Time commitment: Most programs will require the student to visit the center at least once a week. Many will also have homework which the student needs to do on a regular basis in addition to schoolwork. So parents need to be motivated to ensure that homework is completed every week.
Different approach: In certain cases the approach to teaching a concept may be different from how it is taught in school. For instance, some programs may emphasize multiplication via the memorization of tables whereas the school may have a different method of teaching the concept. Students are usually able to keep school and after-school enrichment separate, but there may be some who get confused if the same topic is taught in different ways. On the plus side, one can demonstrate to kids that there is more than one way to solve math problems.
Differences in quality: Since many of the enrichment programs are based on a franchise model, the quality of the staff and the approach of the center director can vary. It’s important to verify the quality of the specific center you are interested in, rather than basing it on experience at a different center.
If you're not sure whether you want to commit to a full program but still would like your child to gain exposure to some math rigor, there are math contests and tests that you could enroll your child into, such as Math Kangaroo or the School and College Ability Test (SCAT) used to test kids in grades two and six for admission to gifted programs.
Ultimately, it is a very personal decision whether to put your child through one of these programs. If a parent’s focus on providing a strong base in math, then after school math enrichment is definitely an option as long as one takes into account the personality of the student, as well as time and effort involved.
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) USA Results From PISA 2012. (2012, January 1). Retrieved August 7, 2014, from OECD
Own a Franchise |Kumon North America. (n.d.). Retrieved August 7, 2014, from Kumon
Company Profile in US. (n.d.). Retrieved August 7, 2014, from Aloha Mind Math
What's the Right Formula? A look at Kumon, Aloha, Singapore Math and Vedic Math. (2012, December 8). Retrieved August 7, 2014, from Schools ‘N More