How do we make math enrichment less elitist?
There’s a great article in the Atlantic that’s making waves on my Facebook page (granted, my Facebook feed has more than its share of math nerds).
Called The Math Revolution and written by Peg Tyre, the piece describes the recent proliferation of math education programs for young people, which include the old-fashioned things I grew up with like math team and HCSSiM, but also include new stuff I’ve heard about (Russian math circles, Art of Problem Solving) as well as stuff I’ve never heard of (MathPath, AwesomeMath, MathILy, Idea Math, sparc, Math Zoom, and Epsilon Camp).
What I like about this piece is it directly addresses something that has bothered me for years and has, frankly, kept me from devoting myself to creating or running one of these programs. Namely, the extreme elitism involved. From the article:
And since many of the programs are private, they are well out of reach for the poor. (A semester in a math circle can cost about $300, a year at a Russian School up to $3,000, and four weeks in a residential math program perhaps twice that.) National achievement data reflect this access gap in math instruction all too clearly. The ratio of rich math whizzes to poor ones is 3 to 1 in South Korea and 3.7 to 1 in Canada, to take two representative developed countries. In the U.S., it is 8 to 1. And while the proportion of American students scoring at advanced levels in math is rising, those gains are almost entirely limited to the children of the highly educated, and largely exclude the children of the poor. By the end of high school, the percentage of low-income advanced-math learners rounds to zero.
So my question today, dear readers, is how to address this problem, which I assume starts before kindergarten. Do we just expand math enrichment programs so much that they eventually become accessible to more people?
And beyond access, how could we possibly keep costs down, considering that the people who are competent to teach this stuff have other lucrative offers?
It’s clearly a transitioning problem to some extent, since once we have enough people who speak “fun math,” there will be enough people to train the next generation. And the beauty of math is that you really only need a stick in the sand (and time, and a devoted teacher and ready students) to make it happen.