Israeli Kids Plummet to 53rd Place in International Mathematical Olympiad

The five Israeli competitors came home from the competition in Kazakhstan last week with one silver medal, one bronze and two honorable mentions.

The Israeli delegation to the 2010 International Mathematical Olympiad, the world mathematics championship for high school students, placed 53rd among the 96 participating delegations.

The five Israeli competitors came home from the competition in Kazakhstan last week with one silver medal, one bronze and two honorable mentions.

A total of 517 high-school students took part this year.

Math olympiad
George Paul Csicsery

Taking first place, respectively, were competitors from China, Russia and the United States.

The IMO is considered the largest, most difficult and most prestigious event of its kind, and has drawn teams from 100 different countries in recent years. Participants compete against each other as individuals, not as teams, although each country's results are also calculated.

Israel has competed every year since 1979, with the exception of two years during the 1980s when it was not invited. Israel's best result was in 2000, when it reached 11th place.

Israel's standing has been steadily slipping over the past decade, from 18th in 2002 to its current spot after Slovenia and Sri Lanka, which share 51st place, and before the 54th-ranked Malaysia.

Ahead of Israel in the ratings, in addition to the top-ranked United States, South Korea, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Japan, Turkey and Serbia, are Iran, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan and Mongolia.

On each day of the two-day affair, contestants are given four and a half hours to solve three complex math problems. The answers are checked over the following two days by a panel of judges.

"The problems are on a higher level than what is taught in Israel, the kind that challenge the students," Rom Dudkiewicz, an 11th grader at Ramat Gan's Blich High School and Israel's bronze medal winner, said yesterday.

Prof. Shay Gueron, from the Mathematics Department of the University of Haifa, has headed the Israeli delegation for 17 years, selecting its members and readying them for competition. The first round of selection, which is open to all, had 1,600 hopefuls from around the country. The top achievers in statewide contests are invited to attend training camps and workshops. They are given study material and submit work in order to vie for a spot on the team.

Last year's delegation had six members, but as Gueron explained, this year he was unable "to find a sixth participant at a high enough level."

Mathematics instruction in Israeli schools is at a low level and is getting worse, he said.

"Even the most talented students, the kind who stand out in the national competitions, lack basic knowledge and proper work habits, not to mention training or experience with advanced material," Gueron said. "Over the years, I see that students come to the national competitions with less and less knowledge, and there are elementary topics that were once part of the math curriculum and are no longer taught at all."

Gueron said Israeli students, unlike their counterparts abroad, don't have tangible incentives that could motivate them to make the sustained effort necessary to win the math olympiad.

"Israel's results in the olympiad are only a reflection of the cultural and educational situation in Israel and the way it is expressed among the youth," Gueron said.

The Education Ministry declined to comment.