Foreign math

A Soviet refugee, now an American scientist, is trying to start a charter school in Massachusetts to teach a rigorous math and science curriculum. The locals are suffering from “patriotic pique,” reports the Boston Globe.

“I believe kids in elementary and middle school are just wasting their time in school. Everybody feels they’re supposed to have fun,” said (Julia) Sigalovsky, 48, a Sudbury resident. “They’re capable of learning at a much higher level.”

. . . Critics have distributed fliers accusing outsiders of denigrating their schools by saying an American education is inferior to that of Russia, China, and Germany. At a forum last week, assistant superintendent John Petrin demanded to know, “Where’s this proposal coming from? Where is the need? It’s coming from the outside.”

Audience members said Sigalovsky’s school would be based on a model that is as discredited and obsolete as Communism. “She talked about Germany, how they teach in . . . China and Japan. I don’t want my kids educated like Germans,” said Tom Leveillee, 77, a retiree and World War II veteran.

The proposed school for grades six through 12 also is being criticized because it might attract the best students but be too hard for students with learning problems.

Sigalovsky’s concept is founded on some basic principles: that children should, and can, grasp theoretical knowledge before learning examples. That schools should teach physics, chemistry, algebra, geometry, and biology not just once in four years, but every year. That history should not be divided by country, but should survey the modern world. That literature should parallel the history courses and should focus on periods and movements instead of countries. That geography is not tangential, but an integral part of understanding world history.

Specialists in their fields would be recruited to teach. There would be some drilling, a famous aspect of Soviet education. A child would have to be enrolled by seventh grade. “If by the age of 13 they don’t have the habits, the hard work, and logical thinking, it’s too late,” Sigalovsky said. She says they will accommodate special education needs, but if a child cannot keep up, he will not advance.

Whether her ideas will work, I can’t say. The whole charter idea is that she should be allowed to offer the option to interested parents. And there will be parents willing to try out some of them fancy foreign education ideas.

About Joanne


  1. My wife was born and educated in Leningrad [Soviet] Russia. The education she received indeed in many ways superior to what I received in one of the best school districts on Long Island, NY. However, Soviet methods differed by geographic location. Those outside of major urban areas obtain a far less rigorous education, most of the time.

    By rigorous, I also mean that strict discipline was enforced–and not by the use of time out.

    The problem with applying these rigorous methods now in the US is that many parents want their children to be natural creative learners, and the Soviet methods confine that creativity to very specific channels.

    Unfortunately, rigorous education is no longer the norm in Russia. Many–even urban–schools in Russia are failing to provide quality education.

  2. As a graduate student in mathematics, I can tell you that foreign math students are head and shoulders above even the best U.S. math students. The most elite graduate schools admit very few U.S. students, and those who are there sometimes feel like “affirmative action” acceptances. (Google “VIGRE grants” and check out the opinion of a Berkeley prof decrying this U.S. government-funded program because it supports only Americans.)

    At my good but not elite grad school, while American and foreign students are admitted at equal rates, the majority of American students drop out. And the Soviet system may be the best one to emulate for mathematics — forty percent of my department (not of foreign students/profs, but of the ENTIRE department) is Russian.

  3. Steve LaBonne says:

    If this was happening around here (N.E. Ohio) I’d sign my kid up in a minute.

  4. dave'swife says:

    As if this would happen in N.C. …. but if it did, I’d put my boys in, drive a bus and volunteer in the cafeteria.

  5. KimJ,

    Having completed an undergrad math major, I second your observations about Russian math education showing results far superior to American methods.

    I have only a five-month old boy, but when the time comes, I might become political and push hard for such a charter school in my area. There being several enclaves of Russians here in Northern VA, I might be able to drum up powerful interest group support.

  6. I had a Soviet emigre friend about ten years ago who was a classical pianist. She quickly discovered that piano teaching methods in this country were lax and sloppy, and so she opened a school to teach “European” methods. The word obviously had cachet in the suburbs, and many parents were thrilled to have ANYthing taught with rigor and discipline.

    The community members in this story can protest all they like, but the truth is that rigor and discipline have disappeared from pretty much all areas of education.

    Except for sports. In athletics, it’s still all right to learn how to do something well.

  7. Sign my kids up too!!

  8. I’d send my daughter there in a picosecond.

  9. dave'swife says:

    is a picosecond better than a bus?

  10. Seconding Agathon’s comment. Rigor and discipline are simply accepted, if not outright expected, in successful high school and college athletic programs. Any coach who expresses a philosophy of letting the kids “evolve to become their own baseball players” with no direction and discipline, is guaranteed to see his team in the cellar at the end of the season, and everyone knows it. Why is it so much harder for people to accept this reality in the academic world?

  11. “At a forum last week, assistant superintendent John Petrin demanded to know, “Where’s this proposal coming from? Where is the need? It’s coming from the outside.””

    Yes, it is coming from the outside, from the huge number of information industry workers who value numeracy and scientific literacy. Many of these workers are themselves immigrants, who know from experience that schools can be more rigorous than the American average. They know the need, because the demand for educated workers brought them here.

    The administration of the Marlborough schools cites the large number of immigrant children to explain the comparatively poor MCAS results. I would bet, however, that they are well aware that thechildren of educated immigrants are likely to score much better than the children of American high-school graduates. In effect, that is, some immigrant children are counted twice, once as part of an immigrant population, and once as “the cream.”

    The best part is, most of the parents can’t vote for or against the school district’s, because becoming a citizen takes time. I have also noticed a trend among “mixed marriages”, that is, one parent American, and one foreign, towards each parent retaining his or her citizenship.

  12. The proposed school for grades six through 12 also is being criticized because it might attract the best students but be too hard for students with learning problems.

    I don’t see why that should be a problem. The public schools can farm out the severely gifted (I still can’t get over that term), and be free to teach to the 30th percentile without disruption.

  13. John Thacker says:

    Well, Cornell is about half US born and half foreign math grad students, and the US born students don’t drop out at any greater rate.

    Of course, you have to keep a few things in mind; first, there is a greater population to draw foreign students from, even after excluding French, German, and British students, and other who typically (though not always) go to universities in their home countries. Secondly, the students who come to the US are typically the very best from their own country. Third, I grant that things like VIGRE do work as a sort of affirmative action. Fourth, while in many of these countries academia is the surest path to relative wealth, in the US a very intelligent individual has many other options and might be tempted to go into business, law school, trading on Wall Street, or other such options.

  14. I hated math until I experienced it properly in university. Then I became a math minor.

    The statement in the article that “children should, and can, grasp theoretical knowledge before learning examples” is right on.
    Math is pure beauty, and if taught properly, can be enjoyed in the same way as music.

  15. Where can I sign my son up? He’s suffering through Chicago Math, which even at its advanced levels, is a painfully stupid way to learn math.

  16. Here is another local newspaper article about this proposed charter school: A statement from an assistant superintendant: “Every student that leaves a Marlborough public school for a charter school takes about $8,500 with him or her, Petrin said.”

    Er, I’m confused. I was under the impression that charter schools are also public schools.

  17. My wife is Taiwanese and we regularly send our son to Sunday Chinese school which takes up an entire afternoon. It is run by volunteers and accepts a minimal tuition to cover xeroxing and other handouts. Half the time is spent on language — speaking and writing Chinese. The other half usually consists of science and math courses taught by volunteers — usually local professors, scientists, and teachers from the Taiwanese American community. You can be certain that almost none of the parents — including those whose children go to the most elite private schools — feel that American math and science education is adequate.

    Apparently this stubbornness pays off because these kids get accepted to the top universities in unusually high numbers.

  18. Insufficiently Sensitive says:

    A statement from an assistant superintendant: “Every student that leaves a Marlborough public school for a charter school takes about $8,500 with him or her, Petrin said.”

    Rejoice, O Assistant Superintendant. That’s one less burdensome student you have to educate. But why your concern with that loss of money? Oh, it doesn’t TAKE $8,500 to educate that kid? You mean, you enjoy a profit whereby the institution more than covers its costs of teaching? Enabling administrative slush funds for organizational Worthy Purposes above and beyond imparting knowledge?

  19. Anonymous says:

    “The proposed school for grades six through 12 also is being criticized because it might attract the best students but be too hard for students with learning problems.” I know this has already been commented on but I can’t help it.

    By all means, let’s optimize every existing program for kids with learning disabilities. Every single one.

    Also, Kevin, if your son is 5 months old and you want such a charter school for him, you probably ought to start pushing for one now. That way he’ll come along after the initial shakedown.

  20. Lori McCray says:

    I spoke in favor of the charter school proposal presented to the Dept. of Ed this week.
    I am admittedly naive and up to this point, apolitical, but even I was suprised by the viciousness of a community which claims to believe in and support Diversity.
    Those gathered to attack set a horrible example of open-mindedness and personal integrity for the young people they claim to love so much and educate so well.

  21. Lori McCray says:

    In my previous message I spelled surprise incorrectly, and failed to mention that the name of the charter school is the Advanced Math and Science Academy, located in Marlborough, MA.

  22. Julia Sigalovsky says:

    Dear friends,

    I am the Lead Founder of the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School that was described in the FoxNews story. I just found the story and these comments.

    Thank you all for great remarks. I am thrilled to see such massive support for our idea of bringing the world-class, Eastern European math and science educational model to the US. Specifically, we are trying to start this school in the Massachusetts’ Metrowest area that is famous by its high concentration of the high-tech industry. We think that there is a great need for this school in this area, although based on your remarks, it looks like it may be need for such school in many places.

    I invite everyone to read our proposed school design at our web site If you like what we propose, please help us to make the school a reality by writing your opinion letter to the Massachusetts Department of Education at You also can write a letter to Editor of our local newspaper, MetroWest Daily News, Rick Holmes ( ) or to the reporter of Boston Globe, Suzanne Sataline, who wrote the excellent article about us that is referred to in the FoxNews piece (

    Thank you all again,
    Dr. Julia Sigalovsky

  23. A number of Russian teaching techniques other than for math work quite well too. When I started 4th year Russian (Stylistics) at UMASS Boston out teacher Maya Berlina would ask us questions in the form of:
    “What does this phrase mean…..”
    We all look up startled.
    “Blablabla…” Of course no one had heard it because they were listening for their names.
    The American model is to go “Student X, what is…” which casues Y and Z and everyone else to turn off their minds.
    It really does keep people on their toes.

  24. Appalled Spectator says:

    I am appalled at the insensitivity of many of the comments on this board, especially this one:

    “Rejoice, O Assistant Superintendant. That’s one less burdensome student you have to educate. But why your concern with that loss of money? Oh, it doesn’t TAKE $8,500 to educate that kid?”

    Have any of you considered the fact that, in general, it takes far more money to educate students who have special needs? That the $8500 is an average of what it costs to educate a student? That the students who do not need educational aides or ESL tutors balance out those who do? Consider further that those SPED and ESL students will NOT be allowed to attend this ivory tower of higher learning.

    So yes, superintendents in these towns are understandably upset that the Academy will take $8500 for each student and the districts will be left with very little money to teach what the Academy considers to be “undesirable” students.

    By removing money from the 4 school districts, will those districts be able to increase their MCAS scores? I think not. How will those schools have any hope of improving if funds are not made available?

    I wonder what will happen to these districts if they begin failing on the MCAS. Certainly the Academy will not wish to take on all the students from Marlborough, Hudson, Maynard and Clinton. Will the state step in and take over these districts?

    And finally — to those parents who say that they would send their children to a school like this in a nanosecond — what if your child was not “selected” to a position in this school? What then? How happy will you be that your child must now attend a school overburdened and underfinanced?

  25. Sorry, that URL in my post appears to be wrong.

    The correct one is:

  26. You know what. My kid has a special need too. He’s really smart. He hated school. Why should my kid be asked to artificially bring up MCAS scores while he sits stagnant, hating every moment in school? Now (fall 2006) the public schools are using all their powers to shut down A.M.S.A. and keep my son prisoner. That’s just evil.

    My son literally had his science teacher tell him not to “use such big words” in class because it would make him “unpopular.” When I complained to the school system the wagons circled and I got nowhere. I knew then I had to find an alternative for my kid. When I told this horror story to a friend she told me about A.M.SA. He’s going in the fall (2006) and I just hope they are able to keep it open.

    Traditional public schools invest nothing in their best and brightest. This is an imperative option for kids like mine. As a result he’ll contribute a lot more to this country than he would have in a traditional setting and he’ll pay more in taxes to support the public schools. It’s not uncommon for very smart kids to get in very deep trouble because they have no place to express themselves, including drug abuse. Keeping kids like mine out of deep trouble is fulfilling a special need.

    Listen, if America wants to stay competitive in this global world, it has to reach out to its best and brightest. We have no problem excluding kids like mine from the football field (he’s a terrible athlete) because we have a tradition of excellence in sports. You have to “make the team.” But we have no tradition in excellence for academics. This school promotes excellence in academics for all children, and let’s face it, that scares some people. Too bad. It’s good for everybody. After all, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”


  1. Unilateral Disarmament of Educational Standards

    Joanne Jacobs has a very interesting Boston Globe report on a Russian immigrant to the U.S. trying to start a charter school. The school design sounds to us like it is very rigorous and clear-headed, but the residents opposed to the school have a handy…