Why Thousands Of American Parents Are Sending Their Kids To 'Russian Math' (2023)

When Larisa Itina was emigrating from Russia in 2000, her son Boris told her not to bother packing all the toys, games and puzzles she'd collected for helping children learn math.

He said, " 'Mother, you will never use this in the United States,' " she recalls."All of the people I know said to me, 'You will never teach in the United States. It's not possible.' "

They were very wrong. These days, Itina helps run a thriving after-school program in Brighton called the Studio of Engaging Math. Turns out, a great many American parents want to send their kids to what most of us call simply "Russian math." (As in my nagging refrain when my own children were younger and went to Itina's studio: "Have you done your Russian math homework yet?")

From Newton to Brooklyn, from Dallasto San Jose, "Russian math" is a rising trend, driven by a fast-growing chain called theRussian School of Mathematics. With22,000 studentsat latestcount, the schoolis the giant among Russian math programs, boasting 15 branches in Massachusetts, where it began, and 40 in total across the country.

One of those 22,000 students is 10-year-old Liv Davidson from Wellesley, who has been coming to the Russian School of Mathematicssince kindergarten. She says she finds it fun — and helpful with her regular-school math: "Well, it's more challenging than school math — way more challenging," she says. "It's like, the next level of math, so I've already learned the stuff I learn in school, which makes it easier."

Inessa Rifkin, who co-founded the school 20 years ago in Newton, says that one-fifthof the town's elementary school students cometo the Russian School of Mathematics these days. "We are taking what the Soviets did the best — math education — and we bring it out of that awful closed society to the free world," she says.

Where, it turns out, demand is rising along with the increasing emphasis on math education.

"I've read articles that, in the future that the kids will live in, math will be one of the most important skills, in addition to computer science," says Lisa Watanabe, whose daughter attends the Russian School of Mathematics branch in Brookline. "I just feel that if she's strong in math, it will open so many doors."

Students usually attend once a week, at a cost of about $2,000 a year. In towns where it's popular, Russian math has a somewhat daunting reputation for rigor — and thick packets of homework.

Rifkin says the school's curriculum is based on Russian teaching traditions that emphasize reasoning and deeper understanding early on, not just memorization and practice drills. "The child should be brought to abstract level as soon as possible," she says, "meaning early introduction of algebra and geometry, not only arithmetic," and helping children figure out principles for themselves rather than spoon-feeding them.

After-school math — what’s called math "enrichment" — is not new, from global chains like Kumon, which originated in Japan, to private tutoring and the online Khan Academy. But Russian math as a big "thing" among American schoolchildren is relatively new — and it's spreading so quickly that some parents say they worry their children will be at a disadvantage if they don’t go to Russian math.

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Some parents send their children to Russian math because they're dissatisfied with their school curriculum, or because their child simply loves math and wants more, says professorJon Star, who researches math education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

For some, there's also an element of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.

"They may feel that their child will be behind in school if they don't get the after-school help," Star says, "and it sort of leads to this kind of arms race, if you will, of after-school math instruction."

The Real Arms Race

The story of Russian math in America begins with a real arms race: the nuclear face-off between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. To bolster its science, the Soviet Union created elite math-and-physics schoolsand funneled the smartest math-minded kids into them.

"Russia has a brilliant mathematical tradition," says professor emeritus Loren Graham of Harvard and MIT, a leading American historian of Russian science. "There was a time in the Soviet period when Moscow was, in my opinion, the strongest center of mathematics in the world. Then it was hurt a lot by emigration — but it’s still strong."

That emigration, mainly of Russian Jews, began as a trickle in the 1970s. But as the Iron Curtain lifted, it turned into a great exodus, including an estimated half a million people who came to the U.S., many to the Boston area.

"I always tell my children, 'If you think about our immigration, we didn’t have anything, you know that, only education,' " says Rifkin, of the Russian School of Math.

Sheemigrated with her family in 1988 from Minsk, where she worked as a mechanical engineer, to Boston. She and her husband adapted quickly — they found workand bought a home in Newton. Life in America was working out well, until her son Ilya was in eighth grade and she got a life-changing shock: She realized he didn't know any of the math she expected him to know at that age.

"So I started to talk to other Russian families, and they had all the same problem," she recalls. "And the main problem wasn't even attitude; the main problem was performance in math and science. And all of us engineers, and all of us making money with math and science, this is what let us become independent so quickly. And our kids, they don't know it, so what are they going to do?"

When the Russian School of Mathematics opened at her home in 1997, she expected mainly Russian immigrant families to enroll, and many do. But with the rising importance of technology and science in the economy, plenty of other families see the virtues of Russian math, too.

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A few voices from parents who send their children to the Brookline branch:

Joanna Messing: "We looked at the American mathematics program and American scores, and it was underwhelming to say the least."

Dominic Nicholas: "[Our son] had some natural proclivity for math, and we wanted to have him reach his maximal potential. And it didn't feel like that was necessarily going to happen in public school."

Rafael Irizarry: "Our biggest fear was that she would think math was boring and not interesting and not like it, and Russian math has saved us from that."

Deep Understanding Of 'Why'

Slava Gerovitch, a math historian at MIT, says that despite the American parental shorthand, there’s actually no single thing called "Russian math."

"It’s not that the Russians particularly have a gene for math or anything like that," he says. "But I think there are some systemic features of the Soviet school system that helped kids learn math easier and better."

Among them: strong training for teachers, and well-honedtextbooks used by virtually the entire country. They were "not just sets of problems but also deep explanations," Gerovitch says, helpful references if students couldn't understand classroom work.

"The way Russians teach is that they make sure that every student, when they perform a mathematical operation, they understand why it is performed this way, not just learn how to do it," Gerovitch says.

Itina, at the Studio of Engaging Math, helped write some of those Russian textbooks, and now enlivens and adapts that material for children in Brighton. She says math inevitably involves some work — just as playing an instrument requires practice — but the key to teaching math to kids is to understand that they can work well only if they're emotionally invested.

"If I give to a child some problem in the academic style, he will say, 'I don't understand that, I hate it,' and go away," she says.

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So a typical math problem at the studio might involve the geometry of a princess' castle, says Itina's daughter, Anya, who teaches there. Studentsat the studio play extensively with "manipulatives," shapes and puzzles that help them learn using their hands — a collection vastly expanded beyond the paraphernalia Itina brought from Russia.

"What I think I do," Anya Itina says, "is to develop critical thinking, as well as certain math skills, through understanding and not memorization, while trying to make it more fun, in small groups."

Here's the irony: To Americans, she teaches "Russian math," but as the product of real Russian schools, she can see how dramatically "Russian" teaching in this country differs from back in the USSR. For example, in contrast to big Russian classes at regimented desks, the studio teaches only in small groups of a half-dozen children around a table. And it divides the groups by ability levels, so it might have five or six different leveled groups for children who are all in the same grade at school.

"This is not a Russian thought," Anya Itina says. "Russian thought is everyone learning the same way."

At a recent Studio of Engaging Math class for kindergartners, the students solve some basic addition and subtraction problems on paper, but also a harder puzzle that teacher Elina Starobinets presents on the chalkboard:

First line: A blank box shaped like a triangle +a blank box shaped like a circle= 12.

Second line: A triangle box + a triangle box = 16.

The kids figure out right away that the triangles have to be 8 and so the circle has to be 4, but Starobinets pushes them a little further:

"Why did you start with the triangles first?" She calls on Sonia Shroff, who's raising her hand. In a piping but confident voice, Sonia asserts her idea:"You should do the bottom one first, because they're the same."

Right, Starobinets affirms. "They're the same number, so I'm only guessing one number."

Sonia has just derived the principle that it's best to solve equations with only one unknown. At age 6.

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Challenges For American Schools?

The rise of Russian math classes can pose challenges for American schools. For example: when a teacher introducesa new topic, only to find that a quarter of the students have already covered it in Russian math.

Some teachers find Russian math may also make some kids overconfident about how well they understand a math topic, says Steven Rattendi, the chair of the math department at Newton South High School.

And there’s concern that Russian math could increase the math performance gaps between rich and poor, between families that can afford $2,000 a year for weekly after-school classes and thosethat can’t.

But Russian math also seems to be helping to expand the pool of American kids who are comfortable with math. In every town where the Russian School of Mathestablishes itself, says co-founder Rifkin, "very quickly the number of honors classes, especially in high school, grows tremendously."

At Newton South, the percentage of students in honors math classes has gone up from about 20 percent to 30 percent over the lastdecade, Rattendi says. But is that thanks to Russian math? Without data, he cannot say.

He does worry that the sheer numbers of students in Russian math may add to pressure on parents and kids.

"'My neighbor's child is in Russian math, I need to be in Russian math,' " Rattendi sayshe hears. "And I think the answer to that is probably no. You don't have to be in Russian math to be successful in math. Does extra math certainly help? Absolutely. I can't take that away. Just like extra music lessons outside the school day are going to make you better at playing the violin."

Russian math teaching methods have not been extensively studied by American researchers, says Harvard professor Star, probably because Russia doesn't top the list of international math scores as, say, Singapore and Finland do.

But its popularity has reached the point, he says, that if it is making public school teachers' jobs harder because it increases the gaps among students,then "we have to think about what challenges this creates for the school system and how we can solve those challenges. And that's something that we should be doing."

It remains to be seen how big Russian math will grow, and what effect it will have overall.

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For now, at the individual level, Rifkin says her teachers see a difference when their students face a hard problem. They go from a knee-jerk "I don't get it," she says, to "Hmmm, let me think..."


Why are so many Russians good at math? ›

Russians have their own unique way of teaching mathematics and physics, from school teaching to university under and post graduate studies. Russian professors and researchers in mathematics and physics have a different way of thinking or analyzing theories and proofs.

Is Russian math worth it? ›

Parents may think it is helping their kids, but Harvard's Jon Star says there is no evidence that enrollment in RSM translates into better grades in schools or better standardized test scores. What's more, he takes issue with the idea that Russian math is somehow better than the math that's taught in public schools.

What is the Russian math method? ›

“Russian Math” is built on the foundational principle that the cognitive ability of a child—the power to think and reason—is not predetermined at birth, but can actually be developed over time. And that mathematics is by far the best tool for this development.

Who owns Russian school of math? ›

The founder of RSM is Inessa Rifkin and the co-founder is Irene Khavinson. The focus of RSM is primary school mathematics. The high school level classes offer preparation for standardized tests such as the SAT, SAT II, and AP exams.

Which country is genius in mathematics? ›

Scientists from the United States dominate the list with 458 scholars included in 2022 which represents 45.8% of the whole ranking. 7 out of 10 scientists in the top 1% are from the United States, with the other three being from Israel, Canada, and Turkey. The United Kingdom ranks second with 63 scientists.

Is America good at math? ›

It's no secret that Americans aren't exactly leading the pack in mathematics. Out of the profusion of statistics that support this fact, the most telling may be that math performance by American high school graduates is roughly the same as most high school dropouts in other countries.

What is the hardest math to do in the world? ›

Today's mathematicians would probably agree that the Riemann Hypothesis is the most significant open problem in all of math. It's one of the seven Millennium Prize Problems, with $1 million reward for its solution.

What age does Russian math start? ›

“Russian math is about teaching students to work independently.” Math education begins in pre-kindergarten and continues through 12th grade. There are no year-to-year benchmarks; students are on a continuous schedule that relies less on exams and more on classroom collaboration.

What math system does China use? ›

The Chinese numeration system is a decimal (base-ten) system, unlike other systems such as the Babylonian (sexagesimal or base-sixty) or the Mayan (vigesimal or base-twenty).

What math does China use? ›

Mathematics in China emerged independently by the 11th century BCE. The Chinese independently developed a real number system that includes significantly large and negative numbers, more than one numeral system (base 2 and base 10), algebra, geometry, number theory and trigonometry.

How much does it cost to go to Russian math school? ›

Students usually attend once a week, at a cost of about $2,000 a year. In towns where it's popular, Russian math has a somewhat daunting reputation for rigor — and thick packets of homework.

How much does Russian School of Mathematics pay? ›

The average Russian School of Mathematics salary ranges from approximately $17,153 per year for Tutor to $98,074 per year for Automation Engineer. Average Russian School of Mathematics hourly pay ranges from approximately $13.54 per hour for Technical Support Specialist to $39.50 per hour for Marketing Coordinator.

Is there homework in Russia? ›

According to stats, Russia is among the countries where students spend the most time on homework – on average, they are dealing with 9.7 hours of homework per week.

What is the US ranked in math? ›

Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 27th (this is the best estimate, although the rank could be between 23 and 29 due to sampling and measurement error). Performance in reading and science are both close to the OECD average.

What state in the US is the best at math? ›

The states with the highest math scores are:
  • Kansas.
  • Iowa.
  • Nebraska.
  • Utah.
  • Wisconsin.
  • South Dakota.
  • Montana.
  • Wyoming.
Nov 2, 2022

Which country math is hardest? ›

Which country has the hardest math? The United Kingdom, The United States of America, etc are the countries having one of the best education systems. But when it comes to having the hardest math, China and South Korea top the list.

What nationality is the most intelligent? ›


Why are Asians so good at math? ›

We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two-second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers — 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6 — right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds. Chinese number words are remarkably brief.

Why is America so far behind in math? ›

One likely reason: U.S. high schools teach math differently than other countries. Classes here often focus on formulas and procedures rather than teaching students to think creatively about solving complex problems involving all sorts of mathematics, experts said.

Is math hard in USA? ›

American students struggle in math. The latest results of an international exam given to teenagers ranked the USA ninth in reading and 31st in math literacy out of 79 countries and economies. America has a smaller-than-average share of top-performing math students, and scores have essentially been flat for two decades.

What is the hardest math in school? ›

In most cases, you'll find that AP Calculus BC or IB Math HL is the most difficult math course your school offers. Note that AP Calculus BC covers the material in AP Calculus AB but also continues the curriculum, addressing more challenging and advanced concepts.

Has 3X 1 been solved? ›

After that, the 3X + 1 problem has appeared in various forms. It is one of the most infamous unsolved puzzles in the word. Prizes have been offered for its solution for more than forty years, but no one has completely and successfully solved it [5].

What is the hardest math problem nobody can solve? ›

The Collatz Conjecture is the simplest math problem no one can solve — it is easy enough for almost anyone to understand but notoriously difficult to solve. So what is the Collatz Conjecture and what makes it so difficult? Veritasium investigates.

What is the easiest math? ›

Which math classes are the easiest? According to a large group of high-schoolers, the easiest math class is Algebra 1. That is the reason why most of the students in their freshman year end up taking Algebra 1. Following Algebra 1, Geometry is the second easiest math course in high school.

How old are 1st graders in Russia? ›

Primary general education comprises grades 1-4, from the age of 7 to 10 years. Lower secondary education takes 5 years and comprises grades 5–9, from the age of 11 to 15 years. Upper secondary education takes two years (grades 10–11). Students complete secondary education at the age of 17-18 years.

What grade do Russian schools go to? ›

Education System in Russia
PrimaryPrimary General Education6–10
MiddleBasic General Education10–15
SecondarySecondary General Education15–17
2 more rows

What is the oldest math subject? ›

A General View of Mathematics. Where did Mathematics Start? We have considered some very early examples of counting. At least one dated to 30,000B.C. Counting is but the earliest form of mathematics.

What country has the best school system? ›

  1. The United States of America. The American education system is known for its practical learning and offers a wide array of educational choices to international students. ...
  2. The United Kingdom. ...
  3. Australia. ...
  4. The Netherlands. ...
  5. Sweden. ...
  6. France. ...
  7. Denmark. ...
  8. Canada.
Jul 12, 2022

What country has the best education? ›

No. 5: France
  • United States. #1 in Education Rankings. No Change in Rank from 2021. ...
  • United Kingdom. #2 in Education Rankings. ...
  • Germany. #3 in Education Rankings. ...
  • Canada. #4 in Education Rankings. ...
  • France. #5 in Education Rankings. ...
  • Switzerland. #6 in Education Rankings. ...
  • Japan. #7 in Education Rankings. ...
  • Sweden. #8 in Education Rankings.

What grade is calculus taught in China? ›

Actually, Chinese students learn calculus around 11th grade.

What is the American math system called? ›

The U.S. is one of the few countries globally which still uses the Imperial system of measurement, where things are measured in feet, inches, pounds, ounces, etc.

Is math hard in China? ›

When it comes to school mathematics, China sets notoriously high standards. The format and difficulty of the Chinese Gao Kao (High School Examinations) varies somewhat throughout China. But mathematics is compulsory everywhere. Below are 3 multiple choice questions I have translated from the 2021 Shanghai Gao Kao¹.

Who invented algebra? ›

Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi: The Father of Algebra.

Why is Chinese math easy? ›

This stereotype might just be true, since researchers found that Chinese is a more efficient language for learning math than English. In Chinese, numbers are much simpler. Every number from 0 to 10 only has one syllable, making them easier to say and remember than numbers like the the multi-syllabic “zero,” or “seven.”

Is math easier in Chinese? ›

Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish use simpler number words and express math concepts more clearly than English, making it easier for small children to learn counting and arithmetic, research shows.

Is studying in Russia worth it? ›

One of the best reasons to study in Russia is that the country has one of the best mass-education systems in the world. It's a country where the “Made in Russia” education is a seal of quality. And it's proven by the very high literacy rate of 98%, surpassing most of other Western European countries.

Is the Russian education system good? ›

Fortunately for expats, Russia boasts one of the most reputable education systems in the world which ranks 43rd in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017. Furthermore, the country's adult literacy rate was 99.73% in 2018, which is the fourth-highest in Europe.

How long are Russian school years? ›

The eleven-year school term is split into elementary (years 1–4), middle (years 5–9), and senior (years 10–11) classes. The absolute majority of children attend full programme schools providing eleven-year education; schools limited to elementary or elementary and middle classes typically exist in rural areas.

What is the average Teacher salary in Russia? ›

How much does a Teacher make? The national average salary for a Teacher is 69,281 РР in Russia. Filter by location to see Teacher salaries in your area. Salary estimates are based on 57 salaries submitted anonymously to Glassdoor by Teacher employees.

What is a high paying job in Russia? ›

Judges ranked second, earning 324 thousand Russian rubles on average per month.
Careers with the highest average monthly salary in Russia in 2022 (in 1,000 Russian rubles)
CharacteristicAverage monthly salary in thousand Russian rubles
Bank manager247
6 more rows
Jul 6, 2022

How much do Russian teachers make a year? ›

Russian Teacher Salary
Annual SalaryMonthly Pay
Top Earners$50,500$4,208
75th Percentile$43,500$3,625
25th Percentile$34,000$2,833

Does Russia have school on Saturdays? ›

School is open five days a week, but some schools also require students to do some extra hours of school-based study over the weekends. It's worth noting that this calendar applies to state schools only - in private and international schools the calendar will be locally set.

How many hours do Russians work? ›

Average weekly working hours in Russia quarterly 2020-2022

On average, Russians aged 15 years and older worked 37.5 hours per week in the third quarter of 2022, marking a decrease from the previous quarter. In general, the mean working time decreased over the course of 2021.

Is Health Care Free in Russia? ›

Overview of Russia's Healthcare System

Since 1996, Russia's constitution has provided citizens and residents with the right to free healthcare. This is provided by the state through the Federal Compulsory Medical Insurance Fund (also called the OMI or Obligatory Medical Insurance).

Why was the USSR so good at math? ›

The Soviets decided they needed science to beat the West, especially after World War 2, so they put a lot of money and effort into science and math. One consequence was the Sputnik; another was a lot of math books written by people with Russian surnames.

Why is Russia's literacy rate so high? ›

Because of a strong literary tradition and a deep commitment to education, Russia had a highly educated population by the end of the 20th century. Today, nearly two-thirds of 25 to 34 year olds have completed post-secondary studies, along with just over half of 55 to 64-year-olds, well above the OECD averages.

Why are Asians better at math? ›

We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two-second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers — 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6 — right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds. Chinese number words are remarkably brief.

Why Russia has the best education system? ›

The higher education system in Russia is renowned for its achievements and emphasis in the field of science and technology. Many of the courses offered at state-funded institutions are focused around the sciences, but a large variety of humanities and social sciences programs are offered as well!


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