I spent July in Ukraine, visiting my family and friends. My son (now almost 9) finally realized that mom and dad are not the only relatives he has. Anyway, from our observations of life of kids (school age) and interactions with people, a few things really stand out. And math is one of them.
First, for my son, the trip was educational in many respects. Learning to multiply two- and three-digit numbers in his head seemed easy for him. My husband's grandmother, 73 years old, a teacher for 50 (!) years and still going - taught my son the method of mental multiplication in less than an hour. And mind you, she teaches high school language and literature (both Russian and Ukrainian). My son loved it!
Second, one really needs to calculate fast there...(I forgot that in all these years in the states). Food is bought primarily at the farmer's markets. And any "sales person" (most often, a farmer's wife or a kid), will calculate the price for "2kg and 400g of tomatoes" in their heads. And you'd better be as fast as they are, or you may be cheated. I felt pretty safe sending my son to do shopping - at least I was sure he can calculate the right change.
Third, my son played with some random kids - in the streets, on the beach, -some were younger, some were older. But even the younger kids act and look more mature then my son. All of them could do multiplication, division, addition, subtraction fast and efficient in their heads. And most of the kids are really physically fit. They run, climb, walk. My son could not compete with them (and comparing to his classmates here, he is pretty skinny and well trained!)
Fourth, Ukraine changed the years of schooling to 11 (they tried 12 for at least 5 years); kids still can officially finish their schooling after 9th grade. Those who do not want to continue being in school, can go to vocational/technical schools or start working as they are.
Fifth, the official workload of a teacher (full-time position) counting the time in-from of the students is... 18 hours a week! The rest of the time is for planning, meetings, collaboration. The workday ends "as soon as everything is done". Kids are in school usually until 1 or 2 pm. No more than 7 periods a day (and that's more than I had when I was in school - never more than 6!) .
Schedule is different for every day of the week; the courses are still taught in vertical strands - physics begins in grade 6 and continues until grade 11, twice a week etc. Algebra begins in grade 6, along with geometry ( but taught as separate subjects) . I think they added more of calculus to 11th grade, but kept the earlier grades with the same sequence/pace as I had.
By any means, I was glad to learn that elementary/middle grades education is still solid in Ukraine. Because later -well, it too late!
(By the way, Ukraine does standardized testing - in 11th grade, math and language/literature. The results are submitted to colleges/universities. The results count for kids, but not for teachers. As my husband's grandmother put it, in the last grades, it is too late to teach things that were supposed to be learned earlier. But for the promising kids, the kids who showed that they want to continue their educations - the teachers ensure that the test are passed well (if you know what I mean).
As we returned to the US, unfortunately (or fortunately), I keep seeing and comparing. My son wanted to take karate classes. But I do not see the instruction/learning. I see "Mommy's treasure" - Good job! Did you have fun, my dear? And I look at that "dear" and at my son and I see them doing a lousy kiba-dachi and fooling around. And I really wish that instructor would yell or better hit my son (well, it's karate, you do things for a reason!) so he learns fast and effective - humility, obedience, and the right position. Well, we'll get home and my son will owe me 40 push-ups.