Kumon Institute of Education Co., Ltd.

Osakaekimaedaini Building 9F
1-2-2, Umeda Kita-Ku
Osaka, 530-0001
Telephone: ( + 81) 6-4797-8787
Fax: ( + 81) 6-4797-8785
Web site: http://www.kumon.ne.jp

Private company
Incorporated: 1958
Employees: 2,400
Sales: ¥63.1 billion (2004)
NAIC: 611691 Exam Preparation and Tutoring

Kumon Institute of Education Co., Ltd. is the largest private educational corporation in Japan and one of the world's leading after-school education programs. It offers a unique curriculum of mathematics instruction primarily aimed at elementary school children. Its learning centers also offer instruction in Japanese language for native speakers and English as a second language. The company operates through some 26,200 learning centers in 44 countries worldwide. Kumon claims an overall enrollment of 3.6 million students. The company originated in Osaka, Japan, and spread through franchises, becoming extremely popular all across Japan. Kumon began extending its reach abroad in the 1970s. Kumon has a strong base in Japan, South Korea, and other Asian countries and has become an increasingly felt presence in the North American market in the 2000s.

A Father's Solution: The 1950s

The Kumon Institute of Education is named for its founder, Osaka high school math teacher Toru Kumon. Kumon began investigating a new way of teaching mathematics in 1954 when his son Takeshi, then in second grade, came home with a low grade on a math test. Kumon was not initially concerned with the boy's poor report. He felt that at the age of eight, his son had plenty of time to take care of other aspects of his growth and education, and his grounding in mathematics could come in middle school. But Takeshi's mother was worried, so Kumon took a look at the boy's math book. At that point, he saw his wife's point of view, and he became worried as well. The textbook Takeshi used seemed disorganized to Kumon, with no clear progression of lessons. To supplement the textbook, he bought his son a drill book. However, nothing he could buy really suited his son's needs. So Kumon began writing his own mathematics drill sheets for Takeshi. He soon devised a system that led to his writing a new drill sheet every day. Kumon's wife supervised her son's work, while Kumon corrected the work sheet every evening and then produced a new sheet with slightly harder problems for the next day's lesson. By the time Takeshi was in sixth grade, he had completed 1,000 of his father's worksheets, and his mathematical skill level had gone from worrisome to exceptional. The 12-year-old had advanced to understanding calculus, and he could tackle math problems from university entrance examinations.

Kumon was surprised and impressed by his son's progress, and he began trying this approach on children outside his family. In 1955, he opened the first Kumon learning center in Osaka, and in 1958 he incorporated the Kumon Institute of Education. The Kumon method revolved around the work sheets, which Kumon revised and improved. The work sheets concentrated strictly on mathematical calculations, as opposed to mathematical concepts that were taught in regular schools. Children were tested to find their level, and then given work sheets set at a much lower level of difficulty. Each work sheet was just a slightly more difficult than the one before it, so progress was slow but steady. Kumon paid careful attention to sequencing, so that children had a thorough understanding of one operation before moving on to a related operation. For example, students might spend months working on addition problems, starting with low numbers such as 5 + 1 and taking it step by step to 99 + 1 before moving on to problems that involved adding 2.

In 1962, Kumon opened his first center in Tokyo, and his method went on to sweep Japan, becoming the most widely used after-school mathematics program in a country where there were many competitors in this sector. Interestingly, the Kumon method was frowned upon by the Japanese Ministry of Education, which supervised the math curriculum in Japanese public schools. The school mathematics curriculum emphasized problem solving and critical thinking skills, while the Kumon method seemed very old fashioned. However, it was perhaps this old-fashioned emphasis on rote learning and memorization that appealed to parents. The Kumon learning centers also found a perfect niche in Japanese society. As Kumon extended his learning centers beyond Osaka, he reproduced his materials and taught his methods to franchisees. These were almost all women with children. It was exceedingly difficult for married women to find employment in Japan, and even those who held advanced degrees dropped out of the workforce to raise children. Women with children could run Kumon centers out of their homes, providing part-time income and a chance to participate in society in a way that was otherwise quite difficult for them. Kumon created a disciplined training program for franchisees that included newsletters, meetings, and workshops.

The Kumon method produced some startlingly skilled children. While most parents enrolled their children in Kumon as a supplement to the regular math curriculum or to help their children catch up, some children, such as Takeshi Kumon, were able to use the worksheets to learn mathematical operations far beyond their years. Children as young as three were doing algebra, having learned the calculations step-by-step through the work sheets. In this way, the Kumon method resembled the famous Suzuki method of violin training, developed around the same time by Shinichi Suzuki. Kumon was friends with Shinichi Suzuki, and both Suzuki violin and Kumon mathematics emphasized repetition, memorization, and step-by-step learning which could be used by any child but also produced extremely precocious performers.

Growth in the 1970s and 1980s

Kumon flourished in Japan as Toru Kumon promulgated the method through a widening network of teacher-franchisees. Despite opposition from some in the educational establishment, Kumon seemed to fill a gap, and so it opened more and more franchised learning centers. Nancy Ukai Russell, in her study "The Kumon Approach to Teaching and Learning" (in Teaching and Learning in Japan ) claims that Kumon did well because of many interlocking cultural factors. She writes, "Indeed, Kumon's commercial and educational achievements can be attributed in large measure to the company's canny exploitation of many complex elements that characterize the culture of modern Japanese education. Of particular relevance are the nation's competitive exam-driven system, the social aspirations of Japanese parents, and the availability of a large pool of educated women who supervise and carry out the Kumon method." These conditions were found more or less throughout Japan.

By the mid-1980s, Kumon learning centers had become highly visible. According to Russell's study, the Kumon method was familiar to two-thirds of surveyed housewives in Tokyo and Osaka. About half those surveyed whose children attended Kumon learning centers said they chose the program for the good study habits it instilled. A large percentage of those surveyed also said that their children enjoyed the program and that it had a good reputation among their friends and neighbors.

By this time, the company had made some changes, adding a study system for reading the Japanese language. Then, in 1980, it began teaching English as well. The Kumon Institute also began exporting the method. As early as 1974, a Kumon center opened in New York City in the United States, and in 1977 the company had an outpost in Brazil. Kumon first hit Canada in 1980 with a learning center in Toronto. The company's early foreign franchises were primarily aimed at Japanese living abroad. Kumon was also popular in other Asian countries, particularly South Korea, which became the company's second-biggest market after Japan. By the end of the 1980s, there were 41,000 Kumon learning centers in Japan and franchises in 16 foreign markets. At this time, the Kumon Institute claimed about 1.5 million students total. According to 1992 figures, some 8 percent of all Japanese second-graders were enrolled in Kumon. Though Kumon was considered moderately priced in Japan compared to many other after-school programs, the number of students added up to a multi-million dollar enterprise.

Penetrating World Markets in the 1990s

Kumon had enormous success in its domestic market, where social conditions fostered its approach to learning and teaching. Kumon also did well in South Korea, which has an educational system similar to Japan's. Kumon's initial penetration into the North American market was in communities of Japanese and Koreans living abroad. The company began franchising on the East Coast of the United States in the mid-1970s and made a concerted move into California and the western United States in the early 1980s. By the late 1980s, Kumon had broadened its appeal in the United States, but it was still most popular among Asian immigrants. In the Los Angeles area, for example, about two-thirds of Kumon enrollees were children of first-generation Japanese or Korean immigrants, and in New Jersey, Kumon classrooms were filled with a similar percentage of Korean-American and Chinese-American children.

Interest in Kumon began to grow rapidly in the United States after 1988. That year, the vice-principal of an elementary school in Sumiton, Alabama, persuaded the Kumon Institute to let her adopt the method for her school. Kumon had always been an extra after-school program, not a regular part of the math curriculum. However, the company agreed to let the Alabama school try using the Kumon method as an experiment. The students at Sumiton Elementary consistently scored very low on standardized math achievement tests, and it was hoped that Kumon would raise the children's scores. The Sumiton students not only enjoyed the Kumon work sheets, but the school raised its overall test scores, bringing it from one of the lowest-scoring schools in its county to near the middle in only one year.

Company Perspectives:

By discovering the potential of each individual and developing his or her ability to the maximum, we aim to foster sound, capable people and thus contribute to the global community.

Sumiton Elementary became a model for Kumon in the schools, and by 1992 some 50,000 American school children in 36 states were using the Kumon method in their regular school classrooms. The Kumon Institute charged a low rate per pupil for the in-school program and operated it at a loss. Initially, the company saw this as a ripe new market and hoped to enroll two million U.S. students by the end of the decade. Kumon later scaled back its expectations for the U.S. market. In 1993, the company restructured its North American market division and stopped encouraging the Kumon method's use in schools. Schools that had already started with Kumon were allowed to continue, but the number of school-based enrollees dropped by more than half by 1994. Nevertheless, North America remained a major emerging market for the Kumon Institute.

Kumon made other overseas moves as well. In 1981, the learning centers came to Germany, and a decade later the company established a presence in the United Kingdom. By the early 1990s, Kumon learning centers were thriving in 27 countries, including Australia, Indonesia, and Brazil. The overall number of students enrolled and the number of learning centers overall increased during the 1990s. The Kumon Institute grew financially as well. Its revenue climbed to approximately $300 million by 1991, and the company seemed to prosper despite increasing competition from other after-school programs and from computer software, as well as in the face of a declining birth rate in Japan.

Competitive Landscape in North America
in the 2000s

The Kumon Institute changed its strategy for the U.S. market in the mid-1990s, pulling back its innovative in-school programs to concentrate on its traditional method of supplemental after-school learning. Around the mid-1990s, several factors converged to make after-school tutoring a growth industry. In the United States, several for-profit after-school tutoring chains had been around since at least the 1980s, and these started to expand. Sylvan Learning Systems, Huntington Learning Corporation, and Britannica Learning Centers were the major U.S. tutoring chains. In 1993, Sylvan bought out Britannica and so increased the number of franchises it controlled to close to 500 in the United States and Canada. Huntington ran about 90 learning centers in 20 states in the mid-1990s. Kumon was actually the biggest of the three, with 850 learning centers in North America, plus some 500 schools using the method in 1993. Kumon stood apart from its competitors both because of its Japanese origin and because it was more of a comprehensive method rather than an individualized program of remedial work.

Toru Kumon died in 1995 at the age of 81. By that time, his method had spread to some two million children around the world. The company's overseas growth continued. By 1999, it was considered one of the top five franchise businesses in the world, according to Entrepreneur International (March 1999), in terms of its financial strength and stability, growth rate and size. By the year 2000, Kumon had more than a thousand learning centers in the United States, and enrollment was increasing annually at a rate higher than 10 percent. Though the in-school program had slowed, the Kumon method was still used in several schools, reaching approximately 8,000 students. One factor that presumably influenced the growth of Kumon in the United States in the 2000s was the passage of the so-called No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, an educational initiative of the George W. Bush administration that specifically authorized the use of federal tax money for supplemental tutoring programs for children in schools deemed "failing." A profile of Kumon in the United States published in Education (Fall 2002) noted that a "senior Bush administration official" specifically singled out the Kumon method as an option for children with poor academic skills. Along with pressure on underperforming schools to improve their students' scores on standardized tests, high-achieving students were also getting more attention in the 2000s. An article in the New York Times (October 31, 1999) about suburban New Jersey children tallied the increasing popularity of Kumon with parents' concerns about giving their kids a head start academically. The Times article noted the rapidly growing popularity of Kumon classes, along with other supplemental and preparatory programs like "Baby Einstein" videos and the Goddard Schools for Early Childhood Development.

For a mix of reasons, the tutoring industry in the United States saw growth of over 10 percent in the early 2000s. A particular growth segment was the preschool end of the market. Of the biggest tutoring companies in the U.S. market, only Kumon offered academic classes for students from two to six years old. By 2005, Kumon had some 1,210 learning centers in the United States, with over 130,000 students enrolled. The Kumon Institute launched its first advertising campaign in the United States in 2004, spending approximately $10 million on television spots. The company claimed some 3.6 million students worldwide by the mid-2000s. The United Kingdom was another growth area, with 550 centers and an enrollment of 48,000. The company had successfully blanketed a global market by the 2000s, showing that a peculiarly Japanese institution could achieve worldwide popularity.

Principal Subsidiaries

Kumon Service Co., Ltd.; Kumon Publishing Co., Ltd.; Kumon L.I.L. Co., Ltd.; Kumon Learning Therapy Co., Ltd.; Kumon Speech Reading Center Co., Ltd.

Key Dates:

Toru Kumon devises a method for tutoring his son in mathematics.
Kumon Institute of Education incorporates.
The first Kumon learning center opens in Tokyo.
Kumon comes to New York.
The company pushes into the South American market, with its first learning center located in Brazil.
Kumon centers in Japan begin teaching English.
In-school program begins in the United States.
Toru Kumon dies.
The company begins television advertising in the United States.

Principal Competitors

Educate, Inc.; Huntington Learning Centers, Inc.; Kaplan, Inc.; Sylvan Learning Systems.

Further Reading

Biederman, Marcia, "Japanese Math Program Tallies Success with Discipline," New York Times , November 15, 2000, p. B15.

Clayton, Mark, "We're Off to See the Tutor," Christian Science Monitor , May 30, 2000, p. 20.

Harris, Sarah, "Japanese Teach Us How to Do Our Sums," Daily Mail (London), January 6, 2005, p. 18.

Hwang, Suein, "Parenting: Cram School for Tots," Asian Wall Street Journal , October 15, 2004, p. 1.

Lohr, Steve, "Tutoring, the New Growth Industry," New York Times , January 10, 1993, p. C24.

Maddocks, Todd, "You Do the Math," Entrepreneur , July 1999, p. 152H.

Nussbaum, Debra, "How a Speeded-up Society Trickles Down to Children," New York Times , October 31, 1999, p. NJ1.

Phalon, Richard, "Juku," Forbes , July 20, 1992, p. 82.

Reingold, Edwin M., "Mathematics Made Easy," Time , June 4, 1990, p. 83.

Russell, Nancy Ukai, "The Kumon Approach to Teaching and Learning," in Teaching and Learning in Japan , Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Thomas, Robert McG., Jr., "Toru Kumon, Innovator, 81, in Math Studies," New York Times , July 27, 1995, p. D22.

Van der Pool, Lisa, "TechnoGraphics-Vox Paves Way for Kumon," Adweek , March 17, 2004, p. NA.

Weischadle, David E., "Extended Learning Opportunities," Education , Fall 2002, p. 73.

Witthaus, Michelle, "It All Adds Up," Business Franchise , June 2004, p. 40.

White, George, "Japanese Company Tutors U.S. in Math Education," Los Angeles Times , November 19, 1990, p. 1.

—A. Woodward

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