Russian mathematician Stanislav Smirnov (right) receives the 2010 Fields Medal from Indian President Pratibha Patil.
By Jaroslaw Anders Staff Writer
Washington — The new school year in the United States is in full swing, and children of recent immigrants are discovering that American schools can be pleasant, exciting and generally “great fun.” There is just this one little problem: Some immigrant parents think math, as taught in the United States, is too easy.
“It is all about multiple choices. They don’t think about problems,” says Russian mathematician and Boston-area resident Irina Khavinson. “They don’t explain why things are the way they are. In mathematics things are connected.”
In 1997 Khavinson, her colleague Inessa Rifkin and a group of Russian teachers opened the Russian School of Mathematics in a Boston suburb, right next to such centers of higher education as Harvard University and MIT, offering after-school courses based on an integrated approach to all branches of mathematics and encouraging individual problem solving.
Khavinson believes American primary school children start math too late. In secondary school they are faced with complex mathematical subjects, but in Khavinson’s view, they jump from topic to topic without learning how to think mathematically, without exploring the logic that is the foundation of all mathematics and all scientific reasoning. “They touch upon everything, but there is no deep knowledge,” she says.
Americans have long been concerned about their children’s performance in math, especially in comparison with students from other developed countries. In 2003 the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed 15-year-old Americans trailing far behind their colleagues from most other industrialized countries in standardized math tests. In 2006 the results were almost the same. PISA tests representative groups of students from 30 countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and 27 non-OECD partners.
Academics see the same trend in Russia, as the overall quality of education has dropped. In some international comparison studies young Russians do score higher than Americans, but not much higher. The gap is most visible in the early stages of education, but tends to narrow in higher grades. In fact, in the PISA studies American teenagers scored a little higher than their Russian colleagues in 2003 and almost the same in 2006. Both countries were significantly below the OECD average.
“There is no question that mathematical education in Soviet high schools was much higher,” says Leonid Bunimovich, who holds degrees from Moscow University and the Academy of Sciences in Kyiv, and teaches mathematics at Georgia State University.
Soviet mathematician I.M. Gelfand was elected as a foreign correspondent member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1970.
More and more American schools are adopting math programs based on a curriculum from Singapore, a country consistently scoring high in international comparisons. “Singapore math,” as it is known in the United States, requires teachers to spend more time explaining basic mathematical concepts rather than focusing on practical math applications and memorization of formulas.
The Russian School of Mathematics can be seen as a precursor of the current shift in math teaching in the United States. Started as a tutoring program for about 35 children from the local immigrant community, the school now has about 3,000 students in seven locations in three different states. About 10 percent still come from Russian-speaking families, Khavinson says. The rest are a mixture of children of immigrants from other countries and American non-immigrant families. The last group, often children of American university faculty, now dominates in the original Boston-area branch.
The students typically achieve high test scores and get accepted to the most selective U.S. universities. Some American educators point out that the school is likely attracting predominantly gifted or motivated youngsters, but Khavinson says that with the right approach almost any child can learn to understand complex mathematical relationships.
Her method, she says, is based on the work of Russian pioneer developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934), who advocated early introduction to mathematics as a crucial element in a child’s intellectual growth.
“If you look at the Russian emigration, we are all very successful, I would say. And the only one thing is our education. We change professions, we change everything, but we have logic,” Khavinson says. “You know, mathematics is the source of everything.”
Russian mathematics is generally held in high regard in the United States. Numerous Russian mathematicians teach at U.S. colleges, and Russian mathematical textbooks are a standard teaching aid. Russian students excel at mathematical competitions and Russian mathematicians are frequent recipients of the prestigious Fields Medal, awarded every four years by the International Mathematical Union and often described as the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics.”
Fedor Nazarov, a graduate of St. Petersburg State University who teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says one of the strengths of Russian mathematics is the continuity of schools associated with particular places — Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk — and often with particular teachers. The mathematical community in the United States, he says, is too mobile to establish lasting bonds between teachers and students.
In Russia, he says, it is not unusual to hire one’s own students. In the United States, graduates are likely to look for employment outside their alma mater. Both systems have their advantages, Nazarov says, and the ideal model would be some combination of the two.
Some Russian immigrants point out that the special status of mathematics in the Soviet Union was perhaps a product of an abnormal situation. Mathematics was practically the only area of scholarship that was free of ideological interference. It was a discipline in which there was no room for lies, and it attracted the best and the loftiest minds.
Today all this has changed. Mathematics has become just another demanding part of education. But Irina Khavinson tries to infuse her American students not only with respect and love for the discipline, but also with a sense of pride and excitement that math brought to her childhood in the Soviet Union. “I remember when I was growing up I could sit half a night over a problem because it was very cool in my school,” she says. “It was very cool to be a good mathematician!”
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)