Why are American kids getting so good at higher math?

The Atlantic investigates the social movement behind America’s recent surprise win at the international Math Olympiad:

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.”

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 New York Math Circle program run out of New York University filled up in about five hours.

In 1997, [Inessa] Rifkin, [a co-founder of the Russian School of Mathematics] 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.’?”

They settled into their seats as their teacher, Irine Rober, showed them conceptual examples of addition and subtraction by ripping paper in half and by adding weights to each side of a scale to balance it. Simple stuff. Then the students took turns coming to the blackboard to explain how they’d used addition and subtraction to solve an equation for x, which required a bit more thinking. After a brief break, Rober asked each child to come up with a narrative that explained what the expression 49+(18–3) means. The children invented stories involving fruit, the shedding and growing of teeth, and, to the amusement of all, toilet monsters.

[Daniel] Zaharopol doesn’t look for the best all-around students to admit to his program, which provides the kind of comprehensive support that wealthy math nerds get: a three-week residential math camp the summer before eighth grade, enhanced instruction after school, help with applying to math circles, and coaching for math competitions, as well as basic advice on high-school selection and college applications. Those who get perfect grades in math are interesting to him, but only to a point. “They don’t have to like school or even like math class,” he says. Instead, he is looking for kids with a confluence of specific abilities: strong reasoning, lucid communication, stamina. A fourth, more ineffable quality is crucial: “I look for kids who take pleasure in resolving complicated problems,” Zaharopol says. “Actually doing math should bring them joy.”