Teaching Math in the USA:

Professional Integration of High-Skilled Female Immigrants from Russia and the FSU

Research project in progress


The study explores the professional and social integration of female immigrants from Russia and the former Soviet Union with strong educational backgrounds. The object of the study is so-called “Russian math education”—a specific professional and educational niche within the sector of supplementary after-school education created by Russian (female) immigrants. Russian math schools have been proliferating across the United States since the 1990s and their number continues to grow.

The phenomenon of Russian math education is evolving at the intersection of immigration, gender, and high human capital, making it a multifaceted and extremely interesting object of study. In this project, we analyze this phenomenon from different research perspectives using the optics of different social disciplines.


Russian Math Schools as Part of Shadow Education

From the perspective of educational studies, the phenomenon of Russian math education is analyzed as part of the culturally specific sector of “shadow education.”  By shadow education, scholars of education usually mean supplementary training that takes place outside the mainstream school system. Although the meaning of “shadow education” was initially identical to private supplementary tutoring aimed at preparing students for exams and tests, today this phenomenon encompasses a vast array of institutions that go beyond mere tutoring. They are varied in form, purpose, and audiences, ranging from one-on-one lessons to larger group classes.

After-school math education in the US is largely led by immigrants, who employ the teaching approaches and methods that have proved highly effective in their home countries. Russian math schools, which have spread across the US since the 1990s, seek to reproduce the effective approaches to teaching math in the Soviet Union that made the country a world leader in mathematics and the hard sciences.

While Russian math schools have great potential to improve math education, they fall outside the state’s focus because they operate in the “shadow” outside the formal education system. The project seeks to explore the possibilities for incorporating the advantages of informal Russian math education into formal school teaching.


Russian Math Education as Ethnic Entrepreneurship

From the perspective of immigration studies, Russian immigrants’ math teaching looks like ethnic entrepreneurship or the self-employment of post-Soviet female immigrants with high human capital.

Ethnic entrepreneurship or involvement in self-employment is usually higher among immigrants than among native-born citizens. The decision to become self-employed may be the result of blocked professional mobilities, structural barriers, or the emergence of new economic opportunities. Our study seeks to understand what kind of opportunities or obstacles played the decisive role in the professional trajectories of those Russian immigrant women who have decided to become educational entrepreneurs.

The ethnic (Russian) origin of Russian math education is another research puzzle. While “Russian math” has become an “ethnic brand” of high-quality math education in many states, to what extent can it be considered an ethnic business from the perspective of immigration studies? An ethnic community is usually seen as an important resource of ethnic business, providing support to entrepreneurs starting businesses and often serving as their main customers. What cultural determinants make math education an ethnic business associated with Russian immigrants? What is the role of the Russian immigrant community in the success of Russian math education?


Gender Determinants of Russian Math Education

The professional integration of high-skilled immigrant women differs from that of high-skilled men due to the peculiarities of their gender roles within the family.

Despite the fact that the majority of immigrants to the United States in recent decades have been women, the existing literature on immigration is biased toward low-skilled male workers, particularly undocumented workers (Meyers and Jachimowicz 2003). At the same time, research on high-skilled immigrants, and especially on high-skilled female immigrants, has been limited. Most studies fail to address how gender affects immigrants’ integration (Logan and Rivera Drew 2011). In recent decades, however, a new wave of research has emerged at the intersection of gender and immigration, bringing scholarly attention to immigrant women and “engendering” migration studies. From the gender perspective, the sector of Russian math education is a great case study through which to examine the balance between gender roles as workers or as wives and the importance of Russian female immigrants’ high educational attainment for their involvement in paid employment.


Research Design and Methodology

The study employs a qualitative approach based on in-depth biographical and expert interviews. We plan to collect about 50 interviews and three case studies of different kinds of math schools. Our informants include: founders of Russian math schools; self-employed math teachers; Russian math teachers in public and private schools; parents of children in Russian math schools; alumni of these schools; and experts.