Ought there be a school just for math kids?

Proof School is a proposed San Francisco middle/high school (grades 7-12) which proposes to do three hours of higher math a day.



It seems certain this will be a great school, given that people like Ravi Vakil, Mira Bernstein and Richard Rusczyk are involved.

But I can’t help but be slightly put off by the presentation.  “We get math kids” is used as a kind of unifying slogan — in fact, it’s even trademarked!  (I hope my quoting it here does not require some form of license.)

I think it’s bad for us to carve out “math kid” as a kind of kid, separate from all others.  I think there ought to be an amazing school like the one Ravi and friends are building, but I don’t think it ought to be “just for math kids.”



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18 thoughts on “Ought there be a school just for math kids?

  1. JSE says:

    (But important note: my sense is that this website is aimed more at potential donors than at parents and former math kids like me. It’s possible it its the perfect note for that audience, which is probably more important, because you need to get the money to launch the school before you get parents to send their kids there, right?)

  2. Deane says:

    I don’t like schools like this that are overly specialized for the reason you indicate. It leaves out kids who develop their interest or strength in math later than others and targets only the precocious ones.

  3. Tom Goodwillie says:

    Maybe it should be called a “school for math nuts”. “You’re not a math nut” does not carry the suggestion that you can’t do math.

    When I sat down with a handful of first-year undergrad advisees a couple of weeks ago and said “let’s all introduce ourselves”, one of them began his turn by eagerly asking “Are we all math people?!” This is a math nut looking for kindred souls. Everybody assigned to me is at least considering concentrating in math, or partly in math, but they might not all be as single-minded about it as he is.

  4. […] Re Proof School:  I have no problem with Julliard or the Fame school, nor do I object to those schools carving out a category of “young performer” and saying “these kids, not anyone else, is who this school is really for.”  Is there really a difference? […]

  5. Richard Kent says:

    I agree that designating “math kid” as a type of kid is bad. My response to the query, “What if you’d had a proof school?” is that I probably wouldn’t have become a mathematician (and if I would have, then I would certainly be a different kind of mathematician, in a way that my gut tells me is bad). Maybe I’m more ornery than most, but if someone had called me an “X kid” for some subject X when I was in junior high, I probably would have said, “Screw you.”

  6. Noah Snyder says:

    When I’d imagined a school like this before, I’d always assumed it would be residential. There are a lot of kids really suffering in high school who could desperately use a “proof School.” However, how many of those kids are a train ride from downtown SF? There’s presumably already a lot of high schools in the bay area which aren’t miserable for smart kids. That said, I do think it’s a really interesting experiment. There’s a lot of schools in the country and there’s certainly room for one trying to do what this schools is doing.

  7. NDE says:

    Juilliard Pre-College is a once-a-week supplement to whatever high school you attend (basically students spend all Saturday at Juilliard), not a full high school program. There are music/arts schools too, though they have to offer a full high-school curriculum in addition to the artistic program. Presumably this new school would do likewise, teaching also civics and foreign languages etc. in addition to math and the mathematical sciences. The Proof School kids might even learn that (most Western) musical rhythm is 2-adic.

  8. JSE says:

    Oh I didn’t know that about Julliard! OK, then restrict my comment to Fame school. Also: it’s clear from the site that the school teaches a full curriculum, not only math.

  9. Nigel Boston says:

    In the UK we specialized early to do A-levels and I basically did just math from 15 on. I think it was great but of course you need a full education before that.

  10. Adam Hertzman says:

    Some such schools already exist. See the Davidson Academy, http://www.davidsonacademy.unr.edu/

  11. My high school produced tenured faculty (in math) at Harvard and U Chicago – does that count as a math school?

  12. Nonlinearity says:

    This concept strikes me as odd… Are they really going to be able to find enough kids in San Francisco and surrounding areas who would be able and willing to go to a specifically math high school? This isn’t Moscow. More reasonable would be to develop a math/science high school like Thomas Jefferson, Bronx Science, etc. I think there would be enough smart kids in the area interested in this. But seriously, focusing on math over everything else??

  13. Alon Amit says:

    I’m a board member of the (upcoming) Proof School. I helped put this website together and I wholeheartedly agree that the tone, style and essence of the content needs much improvement. Specifically, I get how “math kids” may convey the wrong message, and I’ve no idea why it’s trademarked.

    We do indeed target those kids who are keenly interested in mathematics, specifically. My belief, and I think other founders feel the same way, is that it is borne out of a desire to fulfill a genuine, honest need of those kids who are craving a deeper exposure to mathematics. I’ve met numerous such kids in math circles around the SF Bay Area and elsewhere, and I believe such a school can bring much happiness to many. We hope to attract kids from a wider geographical circle, perhaps at some point turning it into a full boarding school.

    Proof School doesn’t require full and complete devotion to math exclusively. I don’t know if Fame-style school are like that for music, but if they are, that’s not my role model. We wish for it to be a well-rounded and complete high school with a strong emphasis on mathematics for those who enjoy and want such emphasis. (To the comment by Nonlinearity: yes, it does focus on math more than anything else, but not instead of everything else. Why is that so obviously wrong?)

    I am keen to continue this discussion with anyone who wishes to provide constructive feedback or reasonable amounts of scathing criticism :) Feel free to reach out to me directly (or certainly continue to comment on this post, I just don’t want to hijack this fine stage).

  14. Nonlinearity says:

    Alon, I didn’t mean to say I thought it was wrong… just that I didn’t think there are enough kids around who wanted a math-centered high school and who were able and willing to get to downtown San Francisco during the morning rush hour. But if there are, I’d be all for it, as long as the interest was genuine… I’d be worried though if most of the kids were children of math teachers/professors who were just trying to do what’s best for their kids by sending them to proof school.

    As a side question.. why is there no top-notch math/science magnet school in the Bay Area like Thomas Jefferson, Bronx Science, Illinois Math & Science Academy etc? I’d think if they put such a school in the Silicon Valley for example it would be highly popular..

  15. Alon Amit says:

    Nonlinearity, I don’t know for sure how many kids are there with an interest in and access to Proof School, but I believe there are more than enough. It’s still a high school, with an emphasis on math.

    From my experience with math circles (and, for example, the Julia Robinson Math Festival), there are plenty of kids with a genuine interest in mathematics. You sometimes come across kids that seem to be pushed into math by their parents, but this isn’t the majority – far from it. By the way, based on my anecdotal experience, those parents are very rarely (if ever) themselves math teachers or professors.

    Re the side question – I don’t think this is an answerable question. There isn’t such a school in the Bay Area because nobody built one, and if one got built it’s reasonable to assume it would work well. I don’t think there’s any deeper “why” here.

  16. Frasier Crane says:

    My husband and I are both writers and we have a “math kid.” I struggle with long division and he reads calculus text books for fun. It’s not a choice – it’s an orientation! We live on the east coast but are considering moving for this school.

  17. Alon Amit says:

    Frasier – this is amazing. We will all do our very best to turn this vision into reality.

  18. […] while back I complained, I hope good-naturedly, about Proof School’s self-description as “a school just for […]

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