Closing the Learning Gap with Asia: A Strategy for Top Students in the U.S.

U.S. Lags Far Behind Asia in Math and Science Education
The U.S. lags behind China, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea in its level of math and science education. And today, with the push for diversity and equity in U.S. education, some U.S. students are falling even further behind (San Diego high school eliminates AP classes for diversity and equity reasons). Also, the elimination of testing by many universities will also hurt students who particularly excel.

Why Bridging the Gap Is Important:
International Competition Is Coming, Especially for People with WFH Jobs
Aided by technological advances and COVID-19 measures, Work from Home (WFH) has become increasingly common for many jobs once performed in the office. However, this is also ushering in a new era of international job competition where workers can no longer be protected from competition by their borders. If your job can be done online, look out! You will be facing competitors from around the world.
This is why boosting your abilities to the international level is so important! Don’t fall into the “big fish in a small pond” mindset that is so common in mediocre schools!

Built-in Advantages of Asian Education System
U.S. students do not have a level playing field when facing Asian students in academics. In Japan, the school year is typically 220 days (vs. 180 days in the U.S.), and because of the rigorous entrance exams required to enter universities, after-school tutoring schools are widespread. In these Asian cultures, academic achievement brings high prestige, and even the average student scores high in math and science.

The Asian Education System Is Far From Perfect
This article is not intended to compare the educational systems, but in fairness, I must mention that the Asian education system has its own problems.
The entrance exam system means that students are studying to the exam, and non-exam knowledge is usually ignored. Things that cannot be easily tested, such as engineering-related building skills or practical problem solving skills, cannot be easily incorporated into a paper exam. Students often spent their time memorizing facts and formulas without understanding their basis. This emphasis on rote memorization as been cited as one of the reasons for Japan’s lack of innovation the past few decades.
There can be tremendous parental and peer pressure on students, and this “pressure-cooker” atmosphere has led Japan to have one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world.
The high cost of tutoring and other services to keep up with other students means that the cost of raising kids can be quite expensive, which is one major factor in the extremely low birthrate in Japan. For many parents, it’s just “too expensive” to have more than two kids.

The U.S. Student CAN Surpass Asian Students with the Right Tools
Despite these academic disadvantages, a U.S. student can still reach a level on par or above his or her Asian counterparts by participating in a Competitive Math Team and a Science Olympiad Team.
In fact, in the top levels of international academic competition, the U.S. has had numerous victories against top Asian countries. As U.S. Math Olympiad coach Loh said, “At least in this case with the Olympiads, we’ve been able to prove that our top Americans are certainly at the level of the top people from the other countries.”
And you too can follow this blueprint to boost your academics to the international level.
U.S. Math Olympiad Team as World Champs (2015)
Not the Same as Taking an AP Course
AP courses, while good for getting college credit and boosting your transcript, will not offer the same in-depth learning that you get from math and science competitions. In essence, your academic classes are the theory, and the math and science competitions are where you get to actually practice what you’ve learned.
At the highest levels of competitions, most of the students have also taken multiple years of accelerated math/science.

Mathletes > “A” Math Students, and it’s not even close
Mental Math
Mathletes on the math team are adept at Mental Math, which is a skill that typical math students in the U.S. have lost due to their (over-)use of calculators. About half of all math contests do NOT allow use of a calculator (such as the AMC).
Asian students are also adept at mental math due to the competitive advantage that it gives during an exam — quicker work means you have more time to work on other problems, and of course, calculators are prohibited on Asian entrance exams.

Ability to recall previous math content
Mathletes are able to recall and use obscure geometry and algebra concepts that typical math students have long forgotten. This is exacerbated by the growing de-emphasis on testing in the U.S. By contrast, in Asia, students must retain their geometry and algebra knowledge throughout high school for the entrance exam.

Problems in depth
Mathletes often tackle problems where it may seem that there is no clear path to the answer, and so mathletes develop powerful problem-solving skills far beyond those of the typical “A” math student. This is because the “A” student is used to studying in a format where you cover a unit from the textbook and then do problems on that content only. There is little “thinking outside the box” which mathletes must do.

Examples of Math Competitions
  • MathCounts: National math competition for grades 6 to 8
  • Local math competitions: Many universities host math competitions on their campuses
  • AMC10/AMC12 Competition: National math competition with an invitational round (AIME) and national round (U.S. Math Olympiad), eventually determining the U.S. team for the International Math Olympiad.
  • Math League: Series of six 30-minute contests taken over the year. Many local schools take this, and so it’s an easy way to see how you stack up against nearby schools. Plus, the archive website has past school results going back 30+ years!
  • Rocket City Math League: Consists of a team competition that brings teams from all over the world (but primarily U.S.) and a multi-round individual competition.
  • Arete Labs’ Math Madness: An online platform for challenging math teams from around the country.
  • Purple Comet: Online team contest held in April that brings teams from all over the world.
Events in Science Olympiad
Science Olympiad consists of 23 events, which include study events such as Disease Detectives, Astronomy, and Codebusters, building events such as Flight, Robot Tour, and Tower, and hybrid events such as Optics and Detector Building.
In a 15-person team, students have their own specialization and typically participate in 3 to 5 events each.

No Math or Science Team at Your School or Homeschooled?
Don’t worry! There are still numerous opportunities!
For math competitions, MathCounts (grades 6 to 8), AMC10/AMC12 (certified proctor required), and Math League are available to homeschoolers. In some cases, you will need an accredited local school to proctor the contest. Also, online team contests such as Arete Labs’ Math Madness and Purple Comet allow homeschooling groups to participate as a team.
For science competitions, due to the team aspect, Science Olympiad is more difficult, but I’ve personally seen a few invitational (non-official) tournaments that welcome homeschoolers. Plus, there are many available individual science competitions! Numerous Robotics teams are community-based, not school-based, and so homeschoolers can easily participate. For study-type competitions, the U.S. Physics Olympiad, U.S. Biology Olympiad, U.S. Chemistry Olympiad, U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad, and U.S.A Computing Olympiad are available to individuals or homeschoolers with a certified proctor.

Math Competition Resources
Our top two picks are ideal for providing a structured approach to problem solving. Unfortunately, these books are difficult to find at a reasonable price.
Top Pick 1:
An excellent reference, but difficult to find.
These texts would be ideal for a Math Problem Solving course or for independent/self-directed study. Instead of drilling in past problems repeatedly, these books present a systematic approach to problem solving, including the required mindset and approach. The Art and Craft of Problem Solving is intended for advanced high school students, while Art of Problem Solving Vol 1 can be used by advanced MathCounts students and high school students who are new to math problem solving.

Resources for Specific Math Contests
The Art of Problem Solving website has an excellent list of Resources for Math Competitions — both online and paper books. Here’s our selection of some of the best available books for each competition.

Science Olympiad Resources
The best resources for Science Olympiad continue to be the official Science Olympiad Store, official kits from Ward’s Science, and past tests from Science Olympiad Test Exchange Archive.

Resources for Individual Science Competitions
These are some excellent resources that I found, but better resources may also be available. This is intended just to point you in the right direction.

My Credentials
I lived extensively in Japan, and some of my children attended Japanese public schools for many years. Of course, Mrs. JapanDude spent her entire life in the Japanese school system. The educational differences between the U.S. and Japan fascinated me, and so I was always intensely learning about Japanese schools and comparing them to U.S. schools.
I am not a full-time educator, but I am heavily involved with the competitive math and science teams at our local public school.
Credits: Top image by ijeab on Freepik
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