Lifestyle

There’s fear of math. Then there’s fear of ‘Russian math.’

Tatyana Bisikalo (left) helped Justin Shaw, 10, use a compass at the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Tatyana Bisikalo (left) helped Justin Shaw, 10, use a compass at the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton.

There’s fear of math. And then there’s fear of Russian math, a private K-12 enrichment program cofounded by an immigrant in her Newton dining room in 1997. It has since grown to 32 locations in nine states and an online program and along the way earned such a reputation for intensity that some parents use it as a threat.

“If your attitude doesn’t improve,” Mary Lewis-Pierce of Jamaica Plain told her fourth-grader, “I’m sending you to Russian math.”

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By her own admission, Lewis-Pierce has no firsthand knowledge, but she’s heard about Russian-math-induced tears. Hours of homework. Impossibly hard equations.

“I picture mean Russian women teaching math in some gulag,” she said.

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Let’s say right up front that while class time and homework for high schoolers taking Russian math can top six hours a week, there are no gulags. Classes are taught in pleasant towns such as Belmont and Marblehead and Wellesley. Recess is given.

But what is Russian math, anyway?

It is more of an approach than an entirely new kind of math. The idea is that students are capable of understanding complex mathematical concepts at a far younger age than they are introduced in US schools, making kids stretch their brains. Think algebra in first grade.

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With more than 11,000 students enrolled in nine Massachusetts locations and online, and plans to open centers soon in Weston and Burlington, the Russian School of Mathematics is one of the biggest math-enrichment programs in the region. (Disclosure: This reporter’s two sons attended Russian math classes, one just briefly.)

Its popularity — and that of programs such as Kumon, Kohlberg Math Learning Center , Girls’ Angle , and the free online Khan Academy — comes at a time when the country is increasingly focused on the importance of math education.

Some parents send their children for extra math because they fear they aren’t strong enough in the subject. Others want their children to have a competitive advantage when applying to selective colleges. Some families just love math and invest in extracurricular academic programs the way others do sports and music lessons.

There’s also a perception that public schools around the country don’t teach the subject well — a concern that isn’t new, according to Jon Star, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“For at least the past 200 years in the US, we have been engaged in frequent, almost continual conversations about how we teach math in schools,” he wrote in an e-mail.

RSM tuition averages about $2,000 a year. The school says it discounts the price when families of existing students “experience financial hardship,” but it does not offer scholarships.

The school touts impressive results on its website. “RSM’s 11th grade SAT average is 774 out of 800.” And: “For the past 3 years, over 75 percent of the Massachusetts Math Kangaroo Olympiad winners were RSM students!”

Lots of families — with the financial wherewithal to do so — sign up. And many of their friends and relatives have basic questions, such as: Is it math taught in Russian? By Russians? And why Russian math? Aren’t they better known for literature and communism and vodka? (No.)

And, finally: Are the teachers as scary as some say?

School leaders appear to have heard that last question before. When it was put to them on a recent Sunday morning, as students began arriving for the 8:45 class, the principal and three colleagues allowed themselves a tolerant chuckle.

“A lot of our teachers are parents themselves,” Ralitsa Dimitrova, the principal said, disputing the characterization.

As for the bigger question — what is Russian math? — Ilya Rifkin, chief operating officer, began by contrasting it with other approaches.

“The biggest difference is if you give a new [Russian math] student a problem they’ve never seen before, they will look at the problem and say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” he said.

But if you give a new problem to a veteran student, he explained, “they’ll look and look and look and say, ‘I don’t know, but I have a couple of ideas.’ ”

Nina Shah, 11, used a protractor at the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Nina Shah, 11, used a protractor at the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton.

The school introduces algebra in first grade, and fundamental concepts of geometry in sixth grade — “significantly earlier” than most US schools, where the material is introduced in the sixth and seventh grades, and eighth and ninth grades, respectively, said Masha Rifkin, the school’s outreach director.

The math is not taught in Russian, but many of the teachers are from the former Soviet Union and were brought up with the Soviet methodology of math education, Masha Rifkin said.

And the approach, developed by Inessa Rifkin, is definitely Russian: It’s based on the theories of a Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky , who died in 1934 at age 38.

As the school explains on its website, under the heading “What makes our math ‘Russian?’ ” — “Vygotsky recognized that education can stimulate intellectual development.

“By specifically targeting the edge of a student’s current understanding (or his or her ‘Zone of Proximal Development’) you provide mental exercises that challenge the mind in the same way that physical exercise in sports challenges the body.”

Greater Boston is filled with Russian math dropouts. In Andover, Tracey Spruce and her young children fought so much about Russian math homework, and her son, then a second-grader, became so anxious about homework and class, that after a couple of years in the program the family quit.

“I finally came to the conclusion that I was not willing to sacrifice my kids’ mental health for math excellence,” Spruce said.

But on Sunday morning in Newton, the students were as enthusiastic as infomercial stars.

“I really like learning intervals,” said Liv Davidson, 9, a third-grader at Bates Elementary School in Wellesley.

“I like to learn multiplication and division,” said Christina Gabrieli, a third-grader at Dexter Southfield, a private school in Brookline.

Christina’s mother, Susan Gabrieli, a scientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, mentioned that three of Christina’s cousins who took Russian math are now at Harvard and a fourth has been accepted.

The scene in Tatyana Bisikalo’s fifth-grade honors class was similarly buoyant. The 10 students gasped when she handed out compasses.

“This is super cool,” one girl said, as another chattered happily about Venn diagrams.

Some parents believe it’s wrong to add to a child’s academic burden, while others fear their children will fall behind if they don’t take extra classes.

In Brookline, Aliza Dash is partially regretting her decision to opt out of Russian math when her son and daughter, now high schoolers, were young. “I thought, why torture children?”

But now their peers who did take Russian math are thriving, she said. “I feel like I set my children up for failure.”

Fear of Russian math: Turns it out strikes fear whether you do it or don’t.

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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