Why the Gates Foundation is investing $1.1 billion in math education – Education Week | Team Cansler

What do you get when you add up more than a billion dollars plus a fundamental but often overshadowed K-12 subject and multiply it by the influence of the biggest player in K-12 educational philanthropy?

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is hoping for the answer: exponential change in math education.

The foundation will focus on the issue for a decade, beginning with a $1.1 billion investment over four years. The goals: more and better trained math teachers, a new mine of engaging and effective teaching materials, and a clearer sense of how to teach a subject that many students now find dry and intimidating.

“Math helps students make sense of the world,” Bob Hughes, the foundation’s director of K-12 education, told reporters in an Oct. 17 call. “It gives them critical thinking and problem-solving skills that they can use later as adults.”

Math teachers are excited about the prospect of the investment. But they hope the foundation will incorporate the perspectives of experienced educators, something many felt was missing from previous Gates initiatives on standards and teacher evaluation.

“I’m a little dizzy that anyone is actually going to help fund improvements in math education so maybe we have the tools that we need to actually address some of these things that are coming out in research,” said Latrenda Knighten, a Math teacher in Baton Rouge, La.

The foundation’s commitment to mathematics will “only be as good as the people [Gates] chooses for [its] advisor,” she says. “You need to talk to people who are in this business, you need to talk to teachers, you need to talk to the organizations,” including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, of which Knighten used to serve.

Gates has spent the past year in listening sessions with hundreds of educators, experts, parents and community members and will continue those efforts, Hughes promised.

“We expect to learn a lot and make adjustments accordingly as we listen and work with the many educators who helped us shape and articulate the strategy,” he said.

Gates will focus on the four most populous states: California, Florida, New York and Texas because of their high populations of children in poverty.

Gates already spends about 40 percent of his K-12 budget on improving math education. Funding for this broader initiative will come in part from the reallocation of grant dollars to projects in other subjects, including language arts.

Big problems in math performance, teacher training

Gates announces his entry into math just over a month after long-term trend data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress showed that in 2022, 9-year-old students scored an average of seven points worse in math than their pre-pandemic peers in 2020.

In particular, performance among black students plummeted, falling 13 points from 2020 levels, as opposed to 5 points for white students. This widened the gap between the two groups from 25 points in 2020 to 33 points in 2022.

Additionally, the shortage of math teachers — a perennial problem — has only been exacerbated by broader concerns about job instability, fueled in part by the pandemic.

“We have bottlenecks everywhere,” said Robbi Berry, an elementary school teacher in New Mexico who focuses on math. “I think people just feel overwhelmed by the amount that is being asked of the teachers.”

In response to such concerns, Hughes pointed to “alternative staffing structures” that could help build the teacher pipeline, including teacher residencies, which typically allow prospective teachers to work under the supervision of a more experienced educator while they receive their credentials.

Technology could be part of the solution

According to Hughes, students need digital tools that adapt to their current level of a specific math skill and give them the opportunity to practice and progress, as well as the ability to collaborate with their peers on math problems and teach each other how they may have taken different paths to arrive at the right solution to a particular problem.

A look at the kind of tools Gates might have in mind: Zearn, a digital math program that quickly gives students the background they need to master grade-level content. Their CEO and founder joined Hughes on the call with reporters, touting the foundation’s support for their nonprofit organization.

Zearn has shown some promising results. According to a recent report, students using the program struggled less with class-level math skills than their peers whose schools opt for a math touch-up designed to give students a fuller understanding of skills they didn’t have in previous grades have understood.

(Both Zearn and the nonprofit that produced the report, TNTP, have received grants from the Gates Foundation. Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, receives sustained support from the foundation. The media organization retains sole editorial control about their articles .)

Can Gates stay above the fight in the math wars?

Gates appeared willing to help schools broaden the offering of advanced math beyond the traditional pinnacle: Calculus, which has long been considered a must-read for students looking to get into the most competitive collegeseven if they are not aiming for a math degree or a MINT job.

More recently, however, there have been efforts to direct more students to courses such as statistics or data science, which may be more applicable to their likely career or major and also build advanced math skills.

Calculus “remains an important pathway, particularly for young people pursuing physics or engineering or advanced STEM careers,” Hughes said.

He noted that Harvard University, Stanford University, and the University of California system have all expressed support for other options. “We are not interested in limiting opportunities for students in math. We want more students to do more math and get a lot more exposure to things like statistics and data science.”

But Gates seems to remain neutral when it comes to some of the biggest debates in the world of math education these days, including whether to emphasize an inquiry-based, problem-solving approach or more traditional teaching methods that emphasize procedures and algorithms. There is currently a heated debate going on in California about these approachestrying to revise their mathematical guidelines.

“We are working on a holistic approach to mathematics that enables young people to gain both procedural and conceptual understanding and apply that to real-world problems,” said Hughes when asked which approach the foundation prefers. “We are really committed to making math interesting and exciting for children. We’re really committed to helping them learn the essential skills they need to be successful at solving complex problems.”

Gates is also agnostic about how fast advanced math students can be accelerated — whether, for example, they should be given the opportunity to take Algebra 1 in middle school — another topic that stirs controversy in the Golden State.

“The research base is mixed. I think we will support people who believe [Algebra 1] in eighth or ninth grade is appropriate,” Hughes said when asked about the debate. “We want young people to take the math that suits them best, at the highest level that they can actively participate in.”

Jon Star, an educational psychologist who focuses on math education and is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said Gates has the opportunity to make a big impact, but wondered how the foundation’s decision to close divisive issues affected it deal with.

“You have the ability to do something transformative with this type of investment,” he said. Star, who was among the experts Gates consulted on his plans, said that from what he’s seen, the foundation’s primary focus is on justice and “trying not to get in the weeds of the other debates , which we have led in this area for a while” when it comes to math teaching.

“On the one hand, it’s perhaps admirable that they’re trying to stay above the fray and be open-minded,” he said. On the other hand, he fears that this “could be the beginning of a mistake, a misstep where we don’t learn from our past mistakes”.

“There is no silver bullet”

This is not Gates’ first major foray into mathematics. The Foundation was a major funder of the Common Core initiative, which established what students needed to know and be able to do in both mathematics and the arts of language.

The standards were introduced in 2009 and by the end of 2011 had been adopted in all but four states. Several states have reversed their decision to adopt the standards, others have renamed them, and abandoned more than half of tests designed to measure mastery of those standards.

Parents and educators have criticized the foundation for not reaching out enough to teachers and school leaders to get their views on implementation. There has been similar criticism of the foundation’s push to tie teacher evaluation, based in part on test scores, to pay and promotion, another major Gates initiative launched around the same time.

The four-year spending of $1.1 billion is comparable to the foundation’s previous K-12 initiatives. Gates spent $1.6 billion on small schools and high schools for early colleges and $1 billion on teacher effectiveness.

Ultimately, Knighten is excited to see what will come of the ambitious effort. But she already knows that it won’t solve all problems in math class.

“I realize no matter what they do, no matter how much money they bring, they can’t bring a silver bullet,” she said. “Because it doesn’t exist.”

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