Note: An audio version of this article first appeared on WGBH.
It is early on a chilly Saturday morning at the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton, Mass., but 10-year-old Sebastien Sobeih does not seem to mind. He is already deeply engrossed in three hours of advanced math. Sobeih’s sixth grade geometry class is exploring angles and parallel lines. His teacher, Maryna Yeroshkina, is standing in front of the class at a large blackboard with chalk in hand and, as soon as she asks a question, Sobeih’s hand shoots right up with the answer.
There is no doubt that Sobeih, who has been attending the Russian School of Mathematics (RSM) since kindergarten, enjoys numbers, but it is also the way that math is taught that appeals to him. At the Russian School, the teachers present challenging mathematical concepts at a young age and then return to those concepts again and again.
“The teaching style is very direct – no fluff on it,” he explained. “And that’s what I really like about RSM.”
As for what math without any “fluff on it” is exactly, Sobeih has an answer for that too.
“Fluff is when you introduce outside topics that just make the problem harder to understand and it’s not at all direct,” he said.
The U.S. does not fare well in math when compared with other industrialized nations. Just take a look at our poor performance on international tests like the PISA, which is administered every three years. Consequently, for parents who want to help their students succeed or get ahead in math, and can afford it, after-school programs that focus on the subject in great depth, including the Russian School of Mathematics, are a popular option.
Inessa Rifkin and Irina Khavinson founded the school back in 1997. Rifkin, an engineer who had immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union, was disappointed about the math education that her son received at his public school in Newton and created the Russian School of Mathematics to help him and other children overcome their struggles with the subject and develop critical thinking.
Rifkin was worried that her son was being taught to memorize facts instead of acquiring a genuine understanding of mathematical concepts and the necessary skills to solve problems by himself, according to Rifkin’s daughter, Masha Gershman.
“The meaning of math was completely different [in Russia and the Soviet Union]," said Gershman, who is now the director of outreach at the Russian School of Mathematics. “It was historically seen as a tool to develop the mind, a tool for mental empowerment.”
Math was also a tool that the former Soviet Union used during the space race to try and gain advantage over its Cold War rival, the United States.
“The one benefit of a totalitarian regime is that you can force all of your top academic minds into education, and that’s really what they did,” Gershman said.
The Russian School began at Gershman’s mother’s kitchen table and was soon supported by plenty of other immigrant families who were equally disappointed about how their children were taught math in the United States.
The program has grown significantly since its early days. It has 48 branches and serves over 30,000 students around the country, from kindergarten through 12th grade, according to data provided by the school.
It is difficult to measure the overall effectiveness of extracurricular programs such as Russian math, but Jon Star, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has some concerns about parents sending their children to programs that teach algebra or geometry before they learn it in school.
He thinks that parents, especially those in affluent suburbs where after-school math programs are popular, should ask themselves why they are opting for extracurricular classes.
When students, particularly in middle or high school, “go to the after-school program with the goal of getting ahead, they often do get ahead, but as a result they’re quite bored when they go to school,” Star said. “If the parents are sending the students to the after-school programs to further their curiosity and their interest in math, only to go to school to be bored and lose interest in math, that seems counterproductive to me." ...
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