There’s fear of math. And then there’s fear of Russian math, a private K-12 enrichment program cofounded by an immigrant in her Newton dining room in 1997. It has since grown to 32 locations in nine states and an online program and along the way earned such a reputation for intensity that some parents use it as a threat.
“If your attitude doesn’t improve,” Mary Lewis-Pierce of Jamaica Plain told her fourth-grader, “I’m sending you to Russian math.”
By her own admission, Lewis-Pierce has no firsthand knowledge, but she’s heard about Russian-math-induced tears. Hours of homework. Impossibly hard equations.
“I picture mean Russian women teaching math in some gulag,” she said.
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Let’s say right up front that while class time and homework for high schoolers taking Russian math can top six hours a week, there are no gulags. Classes are taught in pleasant towns such as Belmont and Marblehead and Wellesley. Recess is given.
Russian science is amazing. So why hasn’t it taken over the world?
We should all worry about a great power’s failure to convert on its knowledge, says MIT’s Loren Graham.
But what is Russian math, anyway?
It is more of an approach than an entirely new kind of math. The idea is that students are capable of understanding complex mathematical concepts at a far younger age than they are introduced in US schools, making kids stretch their brains. Think algebra in first grade.
With more than 11,000 students enrolled in nine Massachusetts locations and online, and plans to open centers soon in Weston and Burlington, the Russian School of Mathematics is one of the biggest math-enrichment programs in the region. (Disclosure: This reporter’s two sons attended Russian math classes, one just briefly.)
Its popularity — and that of programs such as Kumon, Kohlberg Math Learning Center , Girls’ Angle , and the free online Khan Academy — comes at a time when the country is increasingly focused on the importance of math education.
Some parents send their children for extra math because they fear they aren’t strong enough in the subject. Others want their children to have a competitive advantage when applying to selective colleges. Some families just love math and invest in extracurricular academic programs the way others do sports and music lessons.
There’s also a perception that public schools around the country don’t teach the subject well — a concern that isn’t new, according to Jon Star, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“For at least the past 200 years in the US, we have been engaged in frequent, almost continual conversations about how we teach math in schools,” he wrote in an e-mail.
RSM tuition averages about $2,000 a year. The school says it discounts the price when families of existing students “experience financial hardship,” but it does not offer scholarships.
The school touts impressive results on its website. “RSM’s 11th grade SAT average is 774 out of 800.” And: “For the past 3 years, over 75 percent of the Massachusetts Math Kangaroo Olympiad winners were RSM students!”
Lots of families — with the financial wherewithal to do so — sign up. And many of their friends and relatives have basic questions, such as: Is it math taught in Russian? By Russians? And why Russian math? Aren’t they better known for literature and communism and vodka? (No.)
And, finally: Are the teachers as scary as some say?
School leaders appear to have heard that last question before. When it was put to them on a recent Sunday morning, as students began arriving for the 8:45 class, the principal and three colleagues allowed themselves a tolerant chuckle.
“A lot of our teachers are parents themselves,” Ralitsa Dimitrova, the principal said, disputing the characterization.
As for the bigger question — what is Russian math? — Ilya Rifkin, chief operating officer, began by contrasting it with other approaches.
“The biggest difference is if you give a new [Russian math] student a problem they’ve never seen before, they will look at the problem and say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” he said.
But if you give a new problem to a veteran student, he explained, “they’ll look and look and look and say, ‘I don’t know, but I have a couple of ideas.’ ”
The school introduces algebra in first grade, and fundamental concepts of geometry in sixth grade — “significantly earlier” than most US schools, where the material is introduced in the sixth and seventh grades, and eighth and ninth grades, respectively, said Masha Rifkin, the school’s outreach director.
The math is not taught in Russian, but many of the teachers are from the former Soviet Union and were brought up with the Soviet methodology of math education, Masha Rifkin said.
And the approach, developed by Inessa Rifkin, is definitely Russian: It’s based on the theories of a Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky , who died in 1934 at age 38.
As the school explains on its website, under the heading “What makes our math ‘Russian?’ ” — “Vygotsky recognized that education can stimulate intellectual development.
“By specifically targeting the edge of a student’s current understanding (or his or her ‘Zone of Proximal Development’) you provide mental exercises that challenge the mind in the same way that physical exercise in sports challenges the body.”
Greater Boston is filled with Russian math dropouts. In Andover, Tracey Spruce and her young children fought so much about Russian math homework, and her son, then a second-grader, became so anxious about homework and class, that after a couple of years in the program the family quit.
“I finally came to the conclusion that I was not willing to sacrifice my kids’ mental health for math excellence,” Spruce said.
But on Sunday morning in Newton, the students were as enthusiastic as infomercial stars.
“I really like learning intervals,” said Liv Davidson, 9, a third-grader at Bates Elementary School in Wellesley.
“I like to learn multiplication and division,” said Christina Gabrieli, a third-grader at Dexter Southfield, a private school in Brookline.
Christina’s mother, Susan Gabrieli, a scientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, mentioned that three of Christina’s cousins who took Russian math are now at Harvard and a fourth has been accepted.
The scene in Tatyana Bisikalo’s fifth-grade honors class was similarly buoyant. The 10 students gasped when she handed out compasses.
“This is super cool,” one girl said, as another chattered happily about Venn diagrams.
Some parents believe it’s wrong to add to a child’s academic burden, while others fear their children will fall behind if they don’t take extra classes.
In Brookline, Aliza Dash is partially regretting her decision to opt out of Russian math when her son and daughter, now high schoolers, were young. “I thought, why torture children?”
But now their peers who did take Russian math are thriving, she said. “I feel like I set my children up for failure.”
Fear of Russian math: Turns it out strikes fear whether you do it or don’t.Beth Teitell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
Last week, I passed along a blog post by Heather Shumaker, a mom who has chosen to opt her children out of homework until age 11. In response, I received a thoughtful letter from a well-respected colleague. Martin Kirkwood is the director of guidance and college counseling for St. Theodore Guerin High School near Indianapolis, IN. His school is now in their 4th year of using SOAR.
He politely wondered if I was sending mixed messages. Below is his very insightful letter…followed by my detailed response. Thanks to Martin for sharing his thoughts and allowing me to share them with you.
Letter from Martin Kirkwood:
I just finished reading your recent article, Can You “Opt Out” of Homework, and felt the need to offer you some feedback from my perspective. As I hope you may recall, we have talked about my own son’s struggles with school. One of the challenges was that it was taking him a long time to complete his homework.
I met with his second grade teacher a few years ago to share some of my concerns; she offered me some of the best advice I had received on this topic. She said my son was very bright and capable, but that he could be more focused in school. She thought would help him get a better understanding of his work and that he would then be able to get more of his work done at school so he would not have to spend so much time on homework.
She even suggested that I tell him I would only help him for 30 minutes each evening and only answer two questions during that time. She correctly ascertained that he had become very dependent on the adults in his life when he was ready to pay attention and get his work completed. She said that he needed to form the proper habits of paying attention and using his time more efficiently at school so he would not continue to be frustrated and find school so challenging and discouraging.
These words were tough to swallow at first as we had recently experienced the death of his mother and my wife. I felt like he needed more understanding and support from his teacher. Instead of letting me focus my efforts in this direction the teacher challenged me to try to help empower him to develop the proper habits that would be more effective and serve him well in his future.
In fact, I was just reading one of your previous articles, Shifting Out of Low-Gear Learning and found this quote: “Very few students really understand that paying attention in class during the day may actually save them a lot of time on their homework later that night.”
It was only when I was encouraged to *empower* my son to solve his challenges with effective study habits that he grew in his confidence and re-gained his spirit. This is also why I originally chose to adopt your study skills curriculum for our school. I see this empowerment as the best way to help our students meet with success in school and prepare for their futures.
I am happy to report that I did follow her advice and over the past five years. My son, like yours, tends to be challenged with paying attention and would much rather play with his Legos and use his creative gifts than sit down and work through his homework and assignments. However, as you know, school requires certain skills in order to be successful. By helping him be more efficient with his time he has developed these better habits that will serve him well in school and life.
I understand your intention of trying to pay attention to the creative side and self-exploration of our students and kids. This spirit of the child is probably the most important thing to be concerned with in helping educate and raise our children. However, I have experienced both first hand with my own son and with numerous students in my twenty years of education, that the best way to help students fulfill this spirit is to develop the proper habits that you teach in your study skills curriculum.
So, when I read your article referenced above, I feel like you may be sending mixed messages to parents who are challenged with similar circumstances of our sons. I recognize and support your desire to not let school take the spirit out of our children, but I am afraid this article may send the wrong message.
If students are spending an inordinate amount of time on homework, I think the first question should be, “Why?” If the reason is that they are not using the proper habits and being efficient, then I think that should be where the focus is in addressing the issues. If the student is truly using the proper habits and the work load is unreasonable, then it might be appropriate to consider “opting out.”
Please know this feedback is meant as constructive as I truly value what you provide. I hope you find this helpful.
Director of Guidance & College Counseling
St. Theodore Guerin High School
I most certainly remember you and appreciate your detailed response. It is very valuable!
First, please let me offer my sincere condolences over the loss you and your son suffered over your wife and his mother. I know that was not the focus of your email, but I simply wouldn’t feel right without acknowledging the major strain that must have had (and has) on your life. I’m very sorry and have a tremendous amount of respect for your will to carry on and be such a strong father for your son. I’m sure you would say you weren’t given much choice, but you still deserve some sincere acknowledgment for the hurdles you have overcome!
Secondly, I love the suggestion you shared from your son’s 2nd grade teacher! She was very perceptive and extremely wise to recognize how to offer strength through a period of grief. Most people would not have the insight or confidence to recommend a “tougher” approach to managing homework in light of your circumstances at that time. Her advice is fantastic for *anyone,* but especially significant for you and your son.
I do understand how my support of the “Opt Out of Homework” blog may seem like a mixed message. From one perspective, I supposed it is. However, my perspective in sharing Heather Shumaker’s blog was simply to empower parents in recognizing that they can put limits on homework.
I speak with countless parents in my work and have noticed a disturbing trend of several different things: complaints of too much homework, accepting it without providing feedback to the teacher, a general -yet overwhelming- sense of “parent guilt” and insecurities, and increased complaints over “unmotivated and lifeless” children and teens.
Meanwhile, I have also had some very powerful experiences that are very clearly pushing me in the direction of promoting respect for the child’s spirit…loudly and clearly! Your point, however, is very well taken; that spiritual development can -and should- be provided in light of promoting responsibility and empowering our children to handle that responsibility.
I was thinking many of your same thoughts as I read Heather Shumaker’s blog and probably should have made my intentions more clear in last week’s newsletter. I should have also shared how Ms. Shumaker successfully convinced me to consider things a bit differently.
Ms. Shumaker made a very strong case for respecting the importance of “home learning.” Our society places such a tremendous value on academic learning, but almost no “outward” value on a home education. I believe we can all use a good dose of encouragement to recognize the value in the education we provide simply by being a family and spending time together.
She also feels that homework is very valuable, but she prefers to keep homework out of the “responsibility-development” equation until age 11. She chose age 11 as the ideal transition point because that gives her children a couple of “practice” years for doing homework and building those skills of responsibility before reaching high school.
This element of her argument was a tipping point for me; I have always found that age 11 is the ideal time to introduce study skills to a student. This a prime age where they are ready, and able, to handle these strategies independently. Prior to age 11, I am usually (although, not always) coaching parents and teachers on how to cultivate these skills, not the students.
Prior to age 11, Ms. Shumaker wants to fill her children’s after-school hours with solid “home learning” and proper sleep. She believes that proper nights’ sleep is a top priority. In order to ensure a full night’s sleep, her children are in bed at 8PM. They get home from school at 4PM, so they only get four hours out of the day for family time, dinner, household chores, practicing the piano, reading books of their own choice, and play time. Her concern is that homework interrupts this limited time of home learning.
These points hit a nerve with me after personally speaking with hundreds of families who have told me, in one way or another, “Homework is destroying our family.” I wanted to share how one mother chose to stop that cycle. I wanted to encourage parents to recognize that they have a choice and they must speak out to protect the boundaries of their home life. They must be an advocate for developing the part of their child that can only be nurtured at home.
However, there are a lot of well-intentioned parents that carry heavy loads of Parent Guilt! Far too many parents second-guess themselves, think they are inadequate, wish they could be doing better out of a sense that they are never doing enough…its a vicious cycle! (This cycle is one reason why parents are too shy about speaking up over heavy volumes of homework.)
When homework becomes a serious strain on the family, many parents feel like they are doing something wrong. They don’t realize that many other parents are in the same situation. The poor teachers don’t *want* this for their students’ families, but they are rarely given feedback about what is happening at home…because parents don’t want to admit that they are doing something wrong.
Personally, every time I’ve had to stand up and say,”Sorry! This is simply too much homework,” I have felt very lonely! (After all, no one else is speaking up.) I do it because I have to respect my family’s boundaries AND I have the professional background to speak up with confidence. But, it is never comfortable!
My hope in sharing Ms. Shumaker’s insights and plan was that it might provide a couple of parents with permission to do what they believe is right for their family, and completely opt out of homework. But, my guess is that most parents will not be comfortable with this extreme approach. Therefore, I hope sharing Ms. Shumaker’s “dramatic” stance against homework would make a request to *limit* homework seem much less difficult. Hopefully, she can inspire parents to have more confidence in setting limits on homework and feel more comfortable in protecting their family from a deluge of having to suffer through too much!
You brought up an essential point, however…and that is that parents should first be asking, “Why is there so much homework? “ In my mind, I was thinking about the hundreds of scenarios where I have exhausted all study skills and parent strategies…and *I’m* concluding there is simply too much homework. You are right, however. It certainly would be prudent for parents to evaluate the skills their children are using (or are NOT using) before determining if they should opt out of homework.
In conclusion, Martin, I value your feedback and sincerely appreciate your time in sharing it. You’ve provided good information and perspectives that will be very valuable to the SOAR community. You’ve also helped me realize that I omitted a very important part of my thought-process when I passed Ms. Shumaker’s blog along.
I think it is safe to say that we both want the same thing…to see young children and adolescents grow with a strong and happy spirit that is grounded in a solid sense of responsibility and discipline; we both know this is the key to a happy, rewarding life! Hopefully, our “discussion” will provide helpful insight to parents as they make decisions towards accomplishing this goal for their children.
Filed Under: ParentsTagged With: homework, parents