Romanian Rule

By Sean Cavanagh — October 27, 2008 3 min read
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Olena, Ana, and Ioana, we salute you.

At a time when American educators and elected officials are fretting about their inability to encourage more girls to consider studies and careers in math, you apparently jumped into that subject quite willingly. You three were high finishers in the Putnam Mathematical Competition, an intercollegiate, six-hour test of students from universities in the United States and Canada. Those results were reported in a recent study I wrote about, which examined the shortage of U.S. girls with superior math talent.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the study reports that several other top Putnam finishers were not born and educated, precollege, in the United States or Canada. According to the study, Ana and Ioana, were born and educated through high school in Romania; Olena was born in Russia and went to high school in Canada. In fact, of 11 high-scoring females on the Putnam, three listed their place of birth as Romania, two were born in Russia, one in Bulgaria. Just three were born in the United States. and one was born in Canada.

I’ve written, and so have many others, about the math curriculum and teaching in high-performing Asian nations, and how the strategies used in those countries can influence schools in the United States. As far as I can tell, much less attention has been paid to K-12 math study in Russia and former Soviet bloc countries, and what they do well, especially in helping their best female students.

Of course, by some measures, those nations aren’t doing that well at all. On the 2006 PISA, a major international test, Bulgarian and Romanian students, on average, didn’t fare especially well in math. Their performance also wasn’t stellar in a study released last week, which focused on how U.S. urban students compared with their counterparts in foreign countries.

Yet some scholars have voiced admiration for the math skills of high-performing students from Russia and the former Soviet bloc. If some of these nations are doing a better job of nurturing females with superior math talent, I’d be curious to hear readers’ thoughts on why.

One of the more interesting perspectives on math teaching in Eastern Europe that I’ve come across was that of Mark Saul. In a 2003 essay, published in the Notices of the AMS, Saul describes traveling in Eastern Europe and spending time with teachers and mathematicians in a number of countries, especially Romania and Bulgaria. While he concludes that no countries are doing as well as they should in involving girls in math, Saul also sees a lot to like about math instruction in Eastern Europe. One of his conclusions is that the math community in those countries is less divided than it is in the United States—mathematicians seem more interested in what is taught in K-12 classrooms, and teachers and scholars seem far more eager to work together.

He spoke with one Hungarian scholar, who, as I interpret the article, teaches K-12, college, and graduate-level education courses, a breadth of professional experience that Saul finds appealing.

“We don’t place an emphasis on calculus in the high school years, not on earlier algebra,” the Hungarian scholar said of his country’s approach to teaching math. “Rather, we look for ways to get students to make better use of what they already know. We spend time developing their cognitive abilities.”

Saul suggests that for years in Russia and Eastern Europe “intellectually active” people turned to math as a refuge from Communism totalitarianism. If there are readers who’ve examined math teaching in these countries, and can offer comparisons to the U.S. approach, I invite your perspectives.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.