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Asian-style cram schools captivate American parents

Japan's Kumon and South Korea's Eye Level seen as path to coveted US schools

Kumon students complete worksheets at their own speed, regardless of their grade level.

NEW YORK -- When IBM client executive Rachel Calhoun negotiates multimillion-dollar contracts with clients, she needs to compute figures swiftly in her head because face-to-face meetings rarely allow time to whip out a calculator.

"I have never been fearful of math, and am able to do fairly complex problems in my head," she said. The 32-year-old manager attributes this ability to her years attending Kumon, a Japan-born school for supplementary education that has grown to dominate the U.S. market.

The thousands of math worksheets Calhoun tackled at Kumon during her childhood benefited her undergraduate studies and pursuit of a Master of Business Administration degree. When she faced Ivy League elites in skills tests at IBM, Calhoun found she often had an edge.

"Kumon provides a confidence that is unmatched," she said. "The two key aspects are speed and repetition. Students are so practiced at performing in a timed environment that it's not scary when you face real-time challenges."

Non-Asian parents in the U.S. increasingly tap Asian-style cram schools such as Kumon or South Korea's Eye Level Learning as they seek to send their children to coveted middle and high schools. Kumon's American enrollment topped 280,000 in March, as measured by subjects taken rather than number of students.

The school, which offers math and reading, reached a record subject enrollment of 411,447 that month covering the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Kumon has served three generations of Calhoun's family. One sunny afternoon in late April, Calhoun's 3-year-old daughter came to a Kumon center in lower Manhattan with her grandmother, picked out her folder from a box and went to a seat to study by herself. Grandmother Patricia Carson said other nieces and nephews were also Kumon students, some with PhDs. 

Kumon North America President Minoru Tanabe stands in front of a replica of a study that belonged to founder Toru Kumon.

Kumon pupils typically study alone, finishing one sheet after another and advancing through the curriculum regardless of their grade level. The company's origin traces back 60 years, when founder Toru Kumon -- a high school math teacher -- began making math worksheets for his son Takeshi.

Kumon has spread to 50 countries and regions, and its 1,520 American centers make the U.S. the school's second-largest market after Japan.

"It is rare for a Japanese company to export software and not cars or electronic appliances," Kumon North America President Minoru Tanabe said in an interview. "We don't have any inventory. All you need is a pencil and paper."

Kumon North America has ranked No. 1 for the past 17 years among tutoring institutions in Entrepreneur magazine's Franchise 500 ranking. 

But rival schools are in pursuit. Eye Level Learning, based nearby in New Jersey, showed its growth by acquiring Samsung America's headquarters building in 2011 to run its operations.

Founded by Kang Youngjoong of South Korea in 1976, Eye Level emphasizes critical thinking. Though carrying similar foundations as Kumon with worksheets and repetition, Eye Level incorporates puzzles and quizzes similar to an IQ test to enhance a child's thinking.

Eye Level Learning has moved into Samsung America's former headquarters in New Jersey.

New York regional director Franco Verdino thinks his school's system better fits the needs of U.S. parents. "New York schools are so heavy in IQ tests. Kumon does not address these needs," he said. "We gain students from Kumon but we never lose them to Kumon."

But with 197 centers in the U.S., Eye Level still trails far behind the education king. Both Kumon and Eye Level are franchises, where the potential center owners -- and not the parent company -- prepare the initial investment of opening a center. The parent company carries a relatively small risk and burden, a benefit that has driven Kumon's heavy expansion.

Kumon now plans a Mexican expansion, hoping to reach 600 schools in the country, up from 385. Kumon's addition of Spanish-language courses helped make Mexico one of its fastest-growing markets.

Ironically, while American parents rush to send their children to Asian-style cram schools, Asian students flock to U.S. universities for higher education. China, India and South Korea accounted for 55% of international students at American universities, according to the 2017 Open Doors Report released by the U.S. State Department and the Institute of International Education. Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan also ranked among the top 10 places of origin.

"They come to American universities for the innovation and creativity, which they think Asian schools lack," Verdino said. "But if you study early at Asian-style supplementary schools, you get to experience the best of both worlds."

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