Saturday, May 15, 2010


Please welcome this week's guest - Sujata Massey.  I have known her for several years as part of a writers group in Minneapolis and have been fortunate to benefit from her help and insights. She was born in England to parents from India and Germany and grew up in the UK and the United States. She graduated from the Johns Hopkins University and spent five years as a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun before moving to Japan, where she studied Japanese and worked as an English teacher.

It was in Japan that she started the Rei Shimura mystery series, ten novels, which include The Salaryman’s Wife (first in the series) and Shimura Trouble (the latest), about a modern Japanese-American woman sleuth. Her books have won the Agatha and Macavity awards and been nominated for the Edgar, Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark. She currently lives in Minneapolis, MN with her husband and two young children and is at work on a novel set in late colonial India.

You can find her on Facebook and at



Scholarship has long been part of Japanese culture. Today it is taking on a new form.
In Japan, there’s a half-admiring, half-scornful name for a certain kind of mother. I bet you’ve heard of her: the one who plays hours of classical music to her baby while in utero. The kind who drags her toddler to a certain playground, known as a ‘highway’, which improves the chances of being accepted into a desired kindergarten, and who finishes off her older child’s school day with an after-hours “juku”or cram school for even more learning. You laugh at her, right? And you feel sorry for her children.

During my time living in the bucolic, private-school obsessed Tokyo suburb of Hayama, all the women in my neighborhood were Education Mamas, and while we were good friends my private amusement never ended. Then I left Japan. Ten years passed, and suddenly I was mother of two children of my own: one who finds school a breeze, and the other who struggles to understand basic addition. And in an effort to help my frustrated second-grade son, I couldn’t help thinking back to the Japanese educational method, particularly its cram schools. Maybe what my son needed was what the Education Mamas insisted on: extra problems, rote memorization, structure. In our public school system in Minneapolis, Minnesota, these concepts are out of date. Mathematics is all about “understanding and verbalizing” the problems.

I went through math education here in the 1970s, and although the methods used for me were different, they left me with little confidence. So I became a novelist, one who cannot make heads or tails of a royalty statement. I wanted better for my boy, so I decided to Google the terms “juku” and “cram school.”

It turns out that cram schools are a worldwide phenomenon, with the most hysteria currently taking place in India (see Indian math methods are now believed so superior that Indian math schools are opening in Japanese cities. One can download “Indian Math” programs on the Internet, but I know how fast my boy would shift the computer to a Mr. Bean video if he had the chance. I wanted something fact to face.

It happens that very first of Japan’s cram schools, a gigantic worldwide operation called Kumon, boasting 45,000 schools around the world, has three franchise cram schools in suburbs around our Minneapolis home.  The Edina, MN, location that I visited was twenty years old and run by a soft-spoken Chinese-born woman in her 60s with a math PhD. In her school—a pair of open rooms with brightly colored walls on the second floor of an office tower—scores of children worked quietly on problem sets at tables staffed by South- and East-Asian origin tutors. The student population was heavily Asian, with my own ethnic group, the Indians, the largest. There were plenty of African families in the waiting room, too, and a sprinkling of All-American moms—the kind with blown-out hair, perfect pedicures and status handbags-- who chatted with each other in their own patois.

It was early spring when we began, and around the school’s ceiling, an electronic ticker tape flickered with news of the Kumon students’ college admissions. “Tran N, Harvard and Columbia. Jessica, Princeton and Duke. Dilip, UCLA School of Medicine.”

The electronic boasting was a bit much for me. I could not think that far ahead. All I could dream of was my son coming home with a report card that said MEETING STANDARDS. I reminded myself that Kumon was founded by a Japanese math teacher who was sad that his own son had to hide his marked-wrong school assignments in his coat pocket; sad enough to develop a simple system. I prayed Neel would absorb these secrets of Kumon and forget how much he hated math.

What I did learn was that the key to the method was not such a great secret. It was starting out strong, and then employing repetition. My son first took a pretest showing exactly where he was in terms of math knowledge; and then, given a set of worksheets starting at a level in which he was fully confident, my son began solving problems at twice-weekly sessions in the school, under a teacher’s supervision. On the five days of the week he didn’t go to cram school, he did a worksheet packet at home comprising exactly 190 problems. My responsibility was to record the time the assignment took him, score it for accuracy, and praise his work. “Even if there is nothing right,” the principal advised me, “you should praise his handwriting!”

190 problems every evening is a lot for an active eight-year-old boy to face. He complained endlessly for weeks; and still complains every other night. But in less than a month, he had stopped needing to count on his fingers. He had repeated so many math facts that the answers lived in his head. Most worksheet sets had two or three errors—but each week at least one assignment was completed perfectly, earning him $5 of “Kumon Money.” $100 in “Kumon Money” translates into a $5 bookstore certificate. Yes, it’s bribery, but as a mother I find that offering such a carrot is more effective than shaking the ruler.

I don’t know if I’ll keep my kid in cram school for ten more years, but I like what’s happened, not just to him, but to me. I’ve learned that being an Education Mama means supporting instead of criticizing. We work together as a team each evening, and there is usually a chocolate-covered almond at the end of it, and on the days we drive to the Kumon center, we usually have tea and sweets at a nearby patisserie.

But I am still a writer, which means that math is not the sum of all parts. In fact, I’ve recently heard about another program to build children’s reading comprehension and enjoyment. It’s a series of two-hour classes run by a local university that is carefully targeted to each child’s individual reading level. Of course, there will be more daily homework for my son. And for me.

Sujata Massey - Saturday


  1. Oh, I just love this post. I love practically anything that undercuts the woo-woo ideas that currently animate American education and that have turned us into the world's most poorly-educated developed country. All these people with Ph.D.s in education, the world's most useless degree, screaming about how COMPLICATED it will be, how IMPOSSIBLE it will be, to fix the American education system.

    How about a simple focus on skills, repetitive if necessary, and let all the other butterfly goulash go out the window? Teach kids to read and do math BEFORE you start worrying about what they should read and why anyone might possibly need math in a world where you can get a free calculator just for opening a bank account. Without the skills, they ain't going to discover Moby-Dick or the beauty of calculus.

    Of course, your post also points out the essentiality of interested and committed parents, which isn't as easy to fix. Sometimes I think we should issue licenses to parents. Okay, okay, I don't.

  2. Hmmm! I have a PhD in Education! Hey, Tim. Will you ever speak to me?? Stan

  3. Ahhh, but you've done something real, by which I mean write books. And I commend you for overcoming your degree.

  4. You mean all those years were wasted?? Sigh. At least I have redeemed myself.

  5. Oh, well, I've got one, too, but not in education. And my comment was obviously too sweeping -- it's just that here in America, a large percentage of people with doctorates in education brandish their degrees as they explain to us how they and only they can fix the public education system (and I mean state colleges, too) that they and only they screwed up in the first place.

    I'd never stop speaking to you, Stan.

  6. And by the way, before I go off half-cocked again, I really do love Ms. Massey's blog and I also deeply enjoy her books.

    Now I'll be quiet until tomorrow.

  7. I have long been a fan of Ms. Massey's books and I really appreciate and understand her frustration with second grade math. My grandniece is also 8 and the method she has to use to solve her homework problems has her mother beating her head against the wall.

    I am ancient, so old that I went to a Catholic elementary school, staffed by nuns, with 50 kids in the class. Repetition and stringent discipline were the only tools they needed. Creativity was not seen as an admirable trait. In a lot of cases it was memorization for the sake of memorizing but we learned multiplication tables, prepositions, spelling,and everything else that could be put in a list.

    My youngest is 24 and I didn't find the methods that were used in their elementary experience much different than mine in terms of the math tables and the rules of grammar, etc. Now it seems that things are made complicated for no reason.

    I am a mathematical dunce. I wish there had been cram schools so I could have acquired at least a minimal grasp of mathematics. But I wonder if a cram course in reading might actually be more harmful to a child's interest. Children get to be good readers by reading. Once parents know what the child is interested in reading, the job is to provide as much reading material as possible that they will want to pick up.

    My kids went to a school where there was DEAR time everyday (Drop Everything And Read). The students were encouraged to bring their own books but each classroom had plenty for kids to choose from if they didn't bring something.
    Reading levels went up for all the students.

    All my kids could read before they started school. I didn't teach them to read; I read to them while we sat together. They figured it out by watching and listening. They saw that I never went anywhere without a book (or three) so they never went anywhere without a book. I don't think too many people, even if they are good at math, do it for fun. But reading should be the greatest form of entertainment a child has.

    Kids who are readers have fantastic vocabularies, recognize correct sentence structure because they have seen it and heard it, acquire good grammar skills for the same reasons, and expand the imaginations with which all children are born.

    Some children do have trouble learning to read. Often the problems are outside of the education process. When my son started to read he could only do part of the sentence. Glasses with strong magnification fixed that problem. One eye moved better than the other so he couldn't cross the midline. When the eye muscles were strengthened, he had no further problem. Children with speech impediments other than stuttering can have trouble reading because their difficulty in processing words can prevent them from making the right sounds in a word. For some children it is an auditory difficulty; they don't hear things in the same way. If a child has a problem reading, parents have to be willing and able to look outside the school for solutions. A child can have 20/20 vision and still have a vision problem.

    There have been many children who didn't have much support at home but who lost themselves in books and created worlds that allowed them to cope with the one they were living. But most children who do well in school do so because there is a parent or two standing over them.


  8. Welcome Sujata and thanks for a fascinating post. We recently started our stepdaughter on Kumon, for literacy initially, and have already seen a vast improvement in her ability to read and comprehend. The school just didn't seem to be able to help her, and with 29 other kids in the class to tend to, just didn't have the time to give her that she needed.