Russian Math

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My grandchildren are taking Russian math. This was quite a surprise to me because, in my innocence, I had always believed that math would be the same in any country. It turned out that by “Russian math” people meant math taught the way that Russians teach it.

Russian math assumes that children’s ability to think and reason is not innate but can be developed, and mathematics is the best tool for developing it. Students are taught to look beyond the numbers of a problem to the abstract relationships among them. It is hoped that children gradually learn to keep their minds open to approaching challenging problems with abstract thinking.

Whether it does or doesn’t enhance abstract thinking, extra math instruction will probably be beneficial anyway. A poster outside my grandchildren’s Russian math class claims that children who learn this way do much better on the math S.A.T.

Based on the work of a developmental psychologist named Lev Simkhovich Vygodsky, the Russian School of Mathematics (RSM) was developed in 1997 over the kitchen table of Inessa Rifken with her teacher friend Irina Khavinson. Both women were immigrants who valued their mathematics education in the old Soviet Union and wondered why American schools were not providing as rigorous a math foundation.

The founders lived in the Boston area and soon many hotly competitive suburban school systems began making Russian math available to bright young children who would be competing for slots in elite colleges. The program was adopted by schools in other states and RSM data shows they now have 48 branches in a dozen states as well as an online course and two branches in Canada. The total number of K-12 students served is about 30,000. Connecticut has Russian math schools in Rocky Hill and Stamford.

Many parents hesitate to load their kids up with even more formal classes requiring homework, and there are lots of RSM dropouts. However, parents also worry about ensuring their kids are academically competitive when it comes to applying to colleges.

The tuition for Russian math classes varies among branches but runs between $147 and $300 per month. New students are evaluated before being placed. These requirements would make the classes outside the ability of lower-income families and those whose schedules are complex enough to make transportation a problem.

People with a more egalitarian attitude could feel that courses like Russian math further separate the elite few from their more conventional peers. Ability tracking in schools used to do this, but losing it seems to have dumbed down education, thereby causing more ambitious families to look elsewhere for higher academic standards.

One of the biggest cross-national tests that measures academic skills among 15 year olds rates the math skills of U.S. students as 38th out of the 71 countries tested. So perhaps it is not inappropriate to look for ways to increase our math skills. 

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