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When Math Doesn’t Add Up

China placed an embarrassing sixth at the Romanian Master of Mathematics 2019, prompting handwringing over whether China’s mathletes were losing the formula for success

By NewsChina Updated May.1

At 8am on March 3, 60 high school students who were enrolled in the national training camp for the 60th International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) and 34 auditing students were immersed in a lecture in a large classroom at the Affiliated High School of South China Normal University (SCNU) in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. 

Over the years, the famed high school has produced several math wizards who have gone on to pocket IMO gold medals. Within nine days, 16 students would reach the next round of selection and six students would eventually be picked to represent China at the IMO in Bath, Britain this July. 

Since it first participated in 1985, China’s team has had the highest scores for 19 years, dominating the annual six-problem mathematical Olympiad event. In recent years, however, although China often placed in the top three, it never took top honors.  

In late February when the news came that China finished in sixth place at the 2019 Romanian Master of Mathematics, a major international math contest for pre-college students in Romanian capital Bucharest, there was instant public outcry in a country where most people believe high school students outperform their international peers in math. 

Doing the Sums
Chen Jiahua, a math teacher at the Affiliated High School of SCNU is a busy man. Coach of the Olympiad class at his high school and coach of the former national training camp for the IMO, Chen was a student in the school’s Olympiad class many years ago. 

In 1999, when Chen was a fifth-grade primary student in Guangzhou, he attended a local training school for mathletes together with several of his classmates. He was good at math but he did not know much about competitions, and the class did not seem particularly geared to the Olympiad. “I did the class just because I was interested,” he told NewsChina. 

In his high school years, Chen twice won a national math competition, and later went on to study math at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon in France, returning to teach at his old high school armed with a master’s degree. 

The Affiliated High School of SCNU is well-known for producing mathletes. One of its students, He Jianxun, came third at the 28th IMO in Havana, Cuba in 1987. In 1993, the school established its math Olympiad class after gaining permission from the government. 

In 1985, China sent two students from the Affiliated High School of Peking University and Xiangming High School in Shanghai to the IMO in Joutsa, Finland for the first time, coming away with a bronze medal, causing an instant sensation in domestic math circles. Since then, the selection of contestants for the event has attracted nationwide attention. 

In 1986, the national high school students’ winter math camp was established at Nankai University in Tianjin which evolved into the Chinese Math Olympiad Contest, in which China’s top mathletes were whittled down to six chosen to represent the country.  

It was not easy to get into the national training camp, Chen said, as each provincial region could send a maximum of six students. But this stringent selection mechanism resulted in China winning six team championships at the IMO in the 1990s and 13 best team scores since 2000. Since the new millennium, he said, hundreds of thousands of students have attended the Chinese Math Olympiad Contest every year. 

Chen Yonggao, a professor at the School of Mathematical Sciences, Nanjing Normal University and deputy director of the Chinese Math Olympiad Committee, said that winners of math Olympiad competitions either held in China or abroad are more likely to be admitted directly to leading high schools and universities.  

From 2000 to 2004, Chen Jiahua led the Chinese team at the IMO, winning four gold medals. “Our success hinged on the large pool of talented students,” he told NewsChina. “If we were able to send two teams, we’d certainly get good results.” 

Cao Chun, an associate professor at the Faculty of Education at Northeast Normal University, told NewsChina that both students and the team leader representing China at the 2019 Romanian Master of Mathematics came from high schools in Shanghai, but many other countries had sent their national team. 

“Generally speaking, Chinese students’ math level has declined while other countries have improved, but there’s no need to worry about the math education or math competence of Chinese students,” Cao told NewsChina. “It’s common to see ups and downs in scores at international contests. It’s unreasonable and unscientific to measure China’s math foundation or research capabilities based on the results of one math Olympiad alone.”  

Different Equations  
Starting in 2015, US mathletes started to dominate at the IMO, securing first place for three years. China’s team finished second twice, and twice in third place. At the 2019 Romanian Master of Mathematics, the US team won the championship under the coaching of Po-Shen Loh, Hertz Fellow and an associate professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University. It was the third time the US team had won since Loh became head coach of the US’s IMO team in 2014. 
Just like in China, the US IMO team is selective and contestants need to go through several rounds.  

In February each year, the American Math Competition is held with roughly 200,000 participants. Nearly 10,000 participants will enter the US math tournament held in late March and 500 mathletes are able to participate in the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad, a highly selective high school math competition. The top scorers are invited to the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program in June to train for just over three weeks for the IMO, with six students being chosen. 

This lengthy selection process takes around 18 months, but Chinese contenders are chosen within six months. In the opinion of Zhang Sihui, coach of the Chinese IMO training team who is also a math lecturer at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, the US participants outweigh their Chinese counterparts in terms of “stability.” 

Before he was promoted to head coach, Po-Shen Loh was deputy coach of the US team for four years, and in 2015, he led the team to victory at the IMO after a drought of 21 years. The Washington Post compared the stunning performance to the “Miracle on Ice” when the US ice hockey team won at the 1980 Winter Olympics after defeating four-time defending gold medalists the Soviet Union, which had dominated the event for roughly 40 years. 

Loh’s biggest change was to the selection criteria, allowing any high school student in the US to be considered, whereas previously, contestants had to be a US citizen. At the 57th IMO in Hong Kong where the US team secured first place, two of its members were holding Chinese passports. 

China also introduced new policies on IMO selection. In late 2000, the country’s Ministry of Education (MOE) and four other agencies called for an end to direct college admission for top prize winners at high school math contests. The MOE also banned extracurricular coaching for Olympics-style contests and all national math contests for primary school students in 2018.  

“There is no doubt that since the MOE requested that universities limit preferential admissions for top math competition scorers, both parents and students’ interest in the event has fallen,” said Chen Yonggao, former deputy director of the Chinese Math Olympiad Committee. “In addition, school principals also play a crucial role. Olympics-style math is only popular when school heads attach importance to it.” 

Statistics show that from 2000 to 2010 when Chinese teams dominated the IMO, more than 20 million Chinese students were qualified to attend the event. In recent years, however, the talent pool shrank to 10 million. 

Yao Yijuan, an associate math professor at Fudan University who led the Chinese IMO team twice, told NewsChina that in the US, an IMO training camp with a budget of US$400,000 is made up of 10 coaches and 10 assistants, and students receive lectures in different classrooms simultaneously. Under this kind of training regime, students can get more tailor-made coaching programs. Chinese students, however, usually receive lectures together on a budget of about 200,000 yuan (US$29,770). 

Feng Zuming, a math instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy who has coached the US IMO delegation since 2003, said that over the past 10 years, the US team has given priority to addressing their weak links. He focused on cultivating the potential of the sixth player. “On each national team there are one or two players who are outstanding, but the sixth player is relatively weak,” he told NewsChina.  

“It’s important to have a strong bench.” 

Long Divisions
In 1956, Chinese mathematician Hua Luogeng wrote in Shuxue Tongbao, a math magazine for high school teachers, that “math contests are only for students who are talented in math and have energy to spare beyond the regular curriculum.” Xiong Bin, a math professor at East China Normal University who is also a team leader of the Chinese IMO delegation, told media that competing as a mathlete is “only suitable for five percent of students.” 

Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences, said that an increasing number of Chinese parents and students take a utilitarian approach toward math contests, and many people get involved without really understanding what it involves. “Only students who are really interested in math are willing to participate in Olympiads. They shouldn’t try it as a way to get into a good university or to get a medal,” he told NewsChina. 

Zhang Qi, a math coach at the Affiliated High School of SCNU, agrees. He thinks that students should only become mathletes if they have other goals like improving their logical thinking ability or consolidating their knowledge. He said that there are more than 20 students in his Olympiad class, but only five or six students admire the beauty of math. 
“Students who are really interested in math are sometimes outperformed by the ones who spend a lot of time just doing math exercises,” he said. “Even at the national training camp, we see that students who are really good at exams often win out in the end.” 

Yao Yijuan argued that nowadays Chinese students are not as good at math as they were. Some math coaches at famed schools are organizing students and classes like a business. “We need to train expert teachers and establish a complete curriculum, and we need to decide who should take on that responsibility,” he said. 

In the opinion of Yang Tao, famed mathematician and head of the Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University United International College, those running the selection process and training of students could learn from other countries as well as seek more funding. The training camps should be longer, and more students should go abroad to take part in competitions.  

The IMO is closely linked with the Fields Medal, often referred to as the Nobel Prize for mathematics. It is awarded by the International Mathematical Union once every four years, to up to four recipients each time. In the past 20 years, one or two Fields Medal winners had also won a prize at each IMO event. “It is crucial to discover those who are really interested in math and to train top mathematicians,” Yang said. 

But in China, many victors at the IMO landed jobs unrelated to math after graduation. Fu Yunhao, a math lecturer at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen who won gold medals at the IMO in 2002 and 2003, said that often, highly talented students just lose interest in math after spending too much time on repetitive and intensive training. 

Po-Shen Loh told our reporter that it is the dream of many IMO contestants to win a gold medal, but this should not be the ultimate goal. “What I care most about is the long-term development of students,” he told NewsChina. “I look forward to reading in newspapers 20 years later about the great contributions they have made to humankind.”