A Surging Group of American Teens Are Excelling At Advanced Math. Why?
The Atlantic|March 2016

What’s behind the surge in American teens who are highly fluent in high-order math.

Peg Tyre

On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a highstakes poker tournament.

Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year— practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.

Still, it was hard to know how his team had stacked up against those from the perennial powers China, Russia, and South Korea. “I mean, the gold? Did we do well enough to get the gold?” he said. “At that moment, it was hard to say.” Suddenly, there was a shout from a team across the lobby, then a collective intake of breath as the Olympians surged closer to their laptops. As Stoner tried to absorb what he saw on his own computer screen, the noise level in the lobby grew from a buzz to a cheer. Then one of his team members gave a whoop that ended in the chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” and the smattering of applause from the other Olympians grew more robust, and finally thunderous. Beaming, one of Stoner’s teammates pulled a small American flag out of his backpack and began waving it. Stoner was grinning. For the first time in 21 years, the United States team had won first place. Speaking last fall from his dorm at Harvard, where he is now a freshman, Stoner recalled his team’s triumph with quiet satisfaction. “It was a really great moment. Really great. Especially if you love math.”

It also wasn’t an aberration. You wouldn’t see it in most classrooms, you wouldn’t know it by looking at slumping national test-score averages, but a cadre of American teenagers are reaching world-class heights in math—more of them, more regularly, than ever before. The phenomenon extends well beyond the handful of hopefuls for the Math Olympiad. The students are being produced by a new pedagogical ecosystem—almost entirely extracurricular—that has developed online and in the country’s rich coastal cities and tech meccas. In these places, accelerated students are learning more and learning faster than they were 10 years ago—tackling more-complex material than many people in the advanced-math community had thought possible. “The bench of American teens who can do world-class math,” says Po-Shen Loh, the head coach of the U.S. team, “is significantly wider and stronger than it used to be.” The change is palpable at the most competitive colleges. At a time when calls for a kind of academic disarmament have begun echoing through affluent communities around the nation, a faction of students are moving in exactly the opposite direction. “More freshmen arrive at elite colleges with exposure to math topics well outside of what has traditionally been taught in American high schools,” says Loh. “For American students who have an appetite to learn math at a high level,” says Paul Zeitz, a mathematics professor at the University of San Francisco, “something very big is happening. It’s very dramatic and it’s happening very fast.”

In the past, a small number of high-school students might have attended rigorous and highly selective national summer math camps like Hampshire College’s Summer Studies in Mathematics, in Massachusetts, or the Ross Mathematics Program at Ohio State, both of which have been around for decades. But lately, dozens of new math-enrichment camps with names like MathPath, AwesomeMath, MathILy, Idea Math, SPARC, Math Zoom, and Epsilon Camp have popped up, opening the gates more widely to kids who have aptitude and enthusiasm for math, but aren’t necessarily prodigies. In Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, math circles—some run by tiny nonprofit organizations or a single professor, and offering small groups of middle- and high-school math buffs a chance to tackle problems under the guidance of graduate students, teachers, professors, engineers, and software designers—now have long wait lists. In New York City last fall, it was easier to get a ticket to the hit musical Hamilton than to enroll your child in certain math circles. Some circles in the 350-student program run out of New York University filled up in about five hours.

Math competitions are growing in number and popularity too. The number of U.S. participants in Math Kangaroo, an international contest for first- through 12th-graders that came to American shores in 1998, grew from 2,576 in 2009 to 21,059 in 2015. More than 10,000 middle- and high-school students haunt chat rooms, buy textbooks, and take classes on the advanced-math learners’ Web site the Art of Problem Solving. This fall, the Art of Problem Solving’s founder, Richard Rusczyk, a former Math Olympian who left his job in finance 18 years ago, will open two brick-and-mortar centers in the Raleigh, North Carolina, and Rockville, Maryland, areas, with a focus on advanced math. An online program for elementary-school students will follow. Last fall, Zeitz—along with another math professor, a teacher, and a private-equity manager—opened the Proof School, a small independent secondary school in San Francisco similarly centered on amped-up math. Before the inaugural school year even began, school officials were fielding inquiries from parents wondering when a Proof School would be opening on the East Coast and whether they could get their child on a waiting list. “The appetite among families for this kind of math instruction,” Rusczyk says, “seems boundless.”

Parents of students in the accelerated-math community, many of whom make their living in STEM fields, have enrolled their children in one or more of these programs to supplement or replace what they see as the shallow and often confused math instruction offered by public schools, especially during the late-elementary and middle-school years. They have reason to do so. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, much of the growth in our domestic economy will come from STEM-related jobs, some of which are extremely well paid. College freshmen have heard that message; the number who say they want to major in a STEM field is up. But attrition rates are very high: Between 2003 and 2009, 48 percent of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field switched to another major or dropped out—many found they simply didn’t have the quantitative background they needed to succeed.

The roots of this failure can usually be traced back to second or third grade, says Inessa Rifkin, a co-founder of the Russian School of Mathematics, which this year enrolled 17,500 students in after-school and weekend math academies in 31 locations around the United States. In those grades, many education experts lament, instruction—even at the best schools— is provided by poorly trained teachers who are themselves uncomfortable with math. In 1997, Rifkin, who once worked as a mechanical engineer in the Soviet Union, saw this firsthand. Her children, who attended public school in affluent Newton,Massachusetts, were being taught to solve problems by memorizing rules and then following them like steps in a recipe, without understanding the bigger picture. “I’d look over their homework, and what I was seeing, it didn’t look like they were being taught math,” recalls Rifkin, who speaks emphatically, with a heavy Russian accent. “I’d say to my children, ‘Forget the rules! Just think!’ And they’d say, ‘That’s not how they teach it here. That’s not what the teacher wants us to do.’ ” That year, she and Irina Khavinson, a gifted math teacher she knew, founded the Russian School around her dining-room table.

Teachers at the Russian School help students achieve fluency in arithmetic, the fundamentals of algebra and geometry, and later, higher-order math. At every level, and with increasing intensity as they get older, students are required to think their way through logic problems that can be resolved only with creative use of the math they’ve learned.

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