What About the Math Olympians?

For the first time in more than two decades, a team of American high-school students won the International Mathematical Olympiad, a feat that drew comparisons to the U.S. Hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980.

When the individual math scores of the six American teens were combined for the team total, the United States took gold with a score of 185. China was second (181 points) and South Korea placed third (161 points).

If you’re wondering how challenging the questions are for the competitors, representing 100 countries and all seven continents, consider this: Over the course of two days each student works on a total of just three math problems. The questions include a challenging mix of algebraic equations, geometry, and number theory. Here’s one example from last year’s olympiad:

International Mathematical Olympiad

Students from this year’s silver- and bronze-medalist countries routinely outscore their American peers overall on international math assessments. (When their performance is pulled out from the national average, groups of U.S. students in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Vermont scored closer to academic powerhouses like Finland or Japan on recent international comparisons in both science and math, although they still ranked below Shanghai and South Korea.)

The 2015 U.S.A. Mathematical Olympiad winners (Mathematical Association of America / Flickr)

U.S. students are improving over time, according to these international assessments, but other countries are gaining faster and posting higher overall scores, keeping America’s ranking closer to the middle than the top. (What might the impact be if the nation’s young academic superstars were celebrated on par with their sports counterparts?)

There’s another gap the United States is trying to close: getting more girls interested in higher-level mathematics, with a goal of steering them to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The team members for the international event are selected through a series of competitions sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America. Po-Shen Loh, the head coach of the U.S. team and a math professor at Carnegie Mellon University, pointed out to NPR that there were two girls who scored in the top 12 of the U.S. Math Olympiad team this year. “That is actually something that one hopes will change,” Loh told NPR. “One might say, ‘Only 2 out of 12, that’s terrible.’ But I should say in many years, it was, unfortunately, zero.”

When bragging rights to being the world’s best math students are at stake, it might seem like fertile ground for bitter rivalries among nations. But Loh told The Washington Post that’s not the case:

It’s the exact opposite of backstabbing. The coaches are always the same. We are all friends. It’s very collegial. We are essentially going after the same goal, which is to drive the whole world up …

At the end of the day, the talent flow goes in many directions. For example, many of the top students come to the United States to go to university. So we are all the beneficiary.”

Indeed, U.S. institutions of higher education continue to soar in popularity among international students, particularly from Asian nations. That growth actually has some colleges and universities rethinking everything from admittance policies to programs and services.

The Christian Science Monitor wondered whether the victory at the olympiad in Thailand last week is evidence that U.S. math education is improving. I’d argue that’s a heavy laurel wreath to bestow without further evidence. What is known about how the winning team members were educated? Where did they acquire the foundational skills that are the essential preparation for higher-level math? What methods did their teachers use? Are there lessons to be shared amid the growing acknowledgment in U.S. education circles that teaching and learning math is more than mastering the numbers?

Those questions aside, the accomplishment of the U.S. team deserves to be heralded. Still, as Paige Kowalski of the Data Quality Campaign noted on Twitter, America’s “mathletes” unfortunately shouldn’t expect much in the way of public adoration:

This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.