The Secrets of America’s Greatest High School Math Team

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ben Cohen headlined “The Secrets of America’s Greatest High School Math Team”:

It was a sticky Thursday afternoon in the middle of summer break when dozens of teenagers walked through the doors of their high school. One of the world’s most dominant teams was about to start math practice.

There was probability in one classroom and pre-algebra next door, code-breaking down the hall and number theory around the corner. And there were few adults to be found anywhere. The students would spend the rest of the day teaching each other.

I had also come here to learn from them. I wanted to understand how this otherwise average public high school in Florida has managed to win 13 of the last 14 national math championships.

The Buchholz High School math team is a dynasty built by one teacher with a strategy for identifying talent, maximizing potential and optimizing the American system of education.

Will Frazer popped out of his flaming red Corvette as his students were trickling into the classrooms. A bond trader on Wall Street in the 1980s, Mr. Frazer retired young and moved to Florida, where he became a scratch golfer and lived the dream for a decade. Then he got bored.

He took a job at Buchholz coaching golf, switched to teaching math, quickly formed a math team, applied the lessons of his experience in finance and turned a bunch of teenage quants into a fearsome winning machine.

“The difference between what I do now and what I did on Wall Street is that I used to get paid money,” said Mr. Frazer, 63. “Now we get trophies.”

The extraordinary thing about the Buchholz math team is how ordinary Buchholz is. It’s ranked 66th among schools in Florida and outside the top 1,000 across the country, according to U.S. News & World Report. But at the annual championships of Mu Alpha Theta, the national math honor society, the Buchholz kids have trouble counting the shiny objects they lug home.

Buchholz is an outlier in more ways than one. The math team’s run since 2007 coincides with the U.S. slipping to 37th place in the latest international rankings of teenage math performance and China starting to produce more STEM doctorates than American universities for the first time.

The son of an economist, Mr. Frazer believes in competition. He refuses to call the Buchholz math students a club because he wants them to think of themselves as a team. “A club is a social organization,” he said. “A team comes together to win.” And he was out to win.

As he picked the brains of rival coaches whose teams consistently beat Buchholz, Mr. Frazer became obsessed with one question: Why were their kids better at math?

It was because they were teaching math in an entirely different way.

“Here’s the typical model at every school,” he said. “You teach the kids the boring honors stuff during the day, and then you come after school to practice the competitive stuff.” What he meant by the boring honors stuff was the rote memorization and regurgitation that makes Mr. Frazer want to eat his calculator. “Life is not like that,” he said.

The trader in Mr. Frazer saw an inefficiency that he could exploit.

“My thought was I should find out what the best are doing and then figure out what the flaw in the model is,” he said.

With the backing of his school principal and the cooperation of his superintendents, he set about overhauling the Buchholz math department, implementing his own curriculum and hunting for talent at younger ages.

He believes the pipeline for the high school’s math team must begin long before students reach high school, so Mr. Frazer searches for prospects in elementary school and steers them to accelerated math classes in middle school.

“You wouldn’t grab a kid in ninth grade who’s never played football and expect him to be a great high-school football player,” he said. “For most of these kids, this is their football.”

Mr. Frazer’s insight was to connect four levels of education: The kids he scouts in elementary school develop in middle school, compete in high school and take specialized classes from college professors that he brings to Buchholz’s campus. As soon as the system was in place, the team started winning and never stopped.

It turned out there was value in putting a bunch of smart kids in the same room: They feel empowered to make each other smarter.

Many of the gifted kids in his program have parents who work at the nearby University of Florida and push to get on Mr. Frazer’s radar. Others he finds on his own. He tracks down test scores of students in his district, follows the data and recruits high achievers. Some who were discovered by his spreadsheets have since graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with math degrees and landed on Wall Street themselves.

The mathletes who try out for the team and make the cut are combined into one class section and fly through competitive algebra, geometry and calculus during the school day. Mr. Frazer essentially bends the rules to move faster through harder material and pack more than two years of math into one school year. “I cover everything the state wants me to cover,” he said. “But there is no restriction on covering extra material.”

The big difference between a traditional honors class and Mr. Frazer’s class is the way students learn to approach tricky problems. He teaches accuracy, but he also teaches speed, since competitive tests are timed. He believes that pattern recognition is a more useful skill—in math, and in life—than cloning questions his students might have seen on their homework the night before.

Here’s a basic example involving a famous math problem: What’s the sum of every integer from 1 to 100? You could answer the question with brute force and punch all those numbers into a calculator, but students who are trained to think outside the box would instinctively look for symmetry. They would see that pairs of 1+100 and 2+99 and 3+98 add up to the same total and would simply multiply 101 by 50. They get the correct answer of 5,050 in a fraction of the time.

“Everyone has this idea that we practice constantly,” Mr. Frazer said as his students plowed through problem sets on their summer vacation. “It’s not true. We use our time efficiently.”

That means taking advantage of an opportunity hiding in plain sight: the summer. Hundreds of students come to school four hours a day, five days a week for a month during vacation. It adds up to 80 hours of extra practice.

There was a buzz inside Mr. Frazer’s classroom when I was there because the teacher at the whiteboard was charismatic—and she wasn’t Mr. Frazer.

Instead, a high-school sophomore named Katie He was instructing middle-schoolers, one of Mr. Frazer’s methods for pulling off a feat that many consider impossible: making math fun.

It’s a universal truth of childhood that nothing is cooler than being around someone a few years older. They may be there because of their parents, but they stick around because of their peers. The younger kids want to impress the students they idolize, and the high-schoolers are compensated for their time in community-service hours. The model is cheap, innovative and wildly effective. It’s as if Billy Beane were running a math team.

Timothy Jin, a rising Buchholz sophomore, wasn’t exactly thrilled by the idea of waking up early for summer math while in middle school. “I obviously thought, like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be another boring math class,’ ” he said. But he soon realized how wrong he was. Now he’s a teacher at the camp.

Hailey Lin knows how it sounds when people hear about math practice. “But it’s not, like, ‘Oh, my God, I have to do math,’ ” the Buchholz junior said. She loves the collaborative elements of team competitions and challenging herself against the best of the best. “I thought I was really good at math,” she said. “Then I came here.” (Mr. Frazer described her as one of the best female math students in the country.)

For someone always on the lookout for the latest edge, the pandemic unexpectedly presented Mr. Frazer with one. After the school shutdowns in early 2020, he feared more disruptions in 2021, so he made a curious decision: He resigned from Buchholz—and he kept teaching.

He rented an empty wing of his church and told parents that he would be teaching his usual curriculum in person as if it were a normal school year. Their kids could learn from him and take the rest of their classes remotely or carpool back and forth to Buchholz. Mr. Frazer says he invited 145 students. His friends thought 20 or 30 would come with him. His pastor was optimistic and predicted 80. He got 140.

The math team proceeded to win last year’s state and national titles by the widest gaps in the history of the program. The average margin of victory in Buchholz’s previous national titles was 315 points. Last year, it won by 920.

Total freedom from bureaucracy was tempting, but Mr. Frazer missed school enough to return to Buchholz and his old classroom right in time for politicians around the state to pay attention.

“The Buchholz math program should serve as a national model for other schools and districts to follow,” Florida education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said.

Buchholz is trying to beat them first. There was math to be done and trophies to be won at the Mu Alpha Theta convention ending Thursday night in Washington, D.C., where Mr. Frazer bused 70 students for team events and individual subjects ranging from probability and combinatorics (“Prob & Combo”) to differential equations (“Diffy Q”). The star of the team this year happens to be his elder son, Jake, who’s off to college next month, but there are younger whizzes like Ms. He, Mr. Jin and Ms. Lin among the hundreds of students in quiet rooms attacking exams with their pencils.

Mr. Frazer spent years trying to crack the code for making students better at math. He’s still working on it. But one measure of his success is that the best kids on his team are now better than he is.

“Every kid at Alabama is better than Nick Saban at football,” Mr. Frazer said of the legendary coach with the most college national championships. “He just knows how to win better than anyone on the planet.”

Ben Cohen writes the Science of Success column for The Wall Street Journal about what makes people, teams and ideas work in business, culture and beyond.

Comments

  1. Ruckweiler says

    Frazer reminds me of the late Jaime Escalante in his desire, or ganas in Spanish, to teach these students to be more. What is more amazing is that he’s tracking these kids in ways similar to what college coaches do for their sports. Congratulations to the Buchholz High Math Team for their Committment to Excellence.

  2. Tom Breuer says

    This takes me back more than 50 years, when I worked hard, did the best in my home state on the then only national math contest, and really started believing in myself. I wish there were a Will Frazer in every high school in America, getting kids excited about math, getting them competing, and getting them working as a team. Every kid needs something like this, whether football, debate, swimming…or math.
    I fear for the future of such things because they are fundamentally meritocracy, objective, and perhaps other things that many progressives seem to hate. Indeed, prior to last fall’s election we all saw the Virginia Board of Education effectively put speed bumps in the path of the state’s better math students. Bravo to Buchholz High School and I hope this spreads throughout Florida and beyond.

  3. The teachers’ unions and boards of education would try to stop people from doing this in other schools. In San Francisco the board of education eliminated advanced math in lower grades because it would make some students even better than other students. The parents rebelled and recalled three members of the school board.

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