The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Wednesday that it will award more than $1 billion in grants over the next four years as part of a sweeping national plan to improve math education. His goal: to help students succeed in school and find well-paying jobs when they graduate, given research showing the link between strong math skills and career success.
The foundation, which has long stirred controversy over its education work, said to put more money into math it will cut grants for other subjects like reading, writing and the arts.
The increased focus on math comes after the pandemic “ravaged” learning in secondary schools and widened racial gaps in student achievement, with math scores falling more among black students than white students, according to Bob Hughes, director of the Reason and Educational Grant Program of the Gates Foundation.
The foundation made the switch because it sees better math teaching in earlier grades as key to students’ success in school and beyond. Students who complete an introductory algebra course through 9th grade have twice the chance of graduating from high school and going to college, Hughes said.
FOX NEWS SURVEY: SCHOOL CURRICULUM A TOP CHOICE OFFERING FOR PARENTS
The problem, he said, for many students is that math isn’t presented as a crucial, engaging subject.
“Too many students don’t have access to math classes in classrooms where they receive important resources that help them see the joy of learning math and believe they can become mathematicians as they grow older,” he said.
The new plan is the second major shift in education funding Gates has made in recent years.
After spending hundreds of millions of dollars promoting Common Core Standards, a set of national educational goals for students at every grade level, the foundation backed down in 2018. Acknowledging criticism that the approach did not allow individual schools flexibility, Gates devised a new plan that created networks of schools facing similar challenges. Educators in each of these networks were able to test teaching and course innovations and make adjustments at their discretion, rather than conforming to a set of national standards.
In 2020, Gates hosted a more than $10 million competition to identify new approaches to teaching algebra. These grants and discussions that Gates staffers have had with teachers, parents, school administrators, curriculum experts and others over the past two years have helped shape the foundation’s new approach.
Gates will provide grants to better prepare teachers for math classes and provide curriculum companies and nonprofits to develop better quality teaching materials. The foundation will also support research into math education and provide grants to help high school math courses prepare students for college and the workplace.
A big problem with today’s math is that students can learn in isolation and feel depressed when they get the wrong answer to a problem, says Shalinee Sharma, co-founder of Zearn, an educational nonprofit and Gates Fellow who works with Hughes He spoke to reporters this week. Zearn uses computer-based instruction that includes many visual elements to keep students engaged and provides progress feedback to help teachers customize instruction for individual students. A new approach in which students work in teams to solve problems could turn all students into “math kids,” she said.
FAUCI had no intention of keeping schools open during COVID closures: JENNIFER SEY
“If all kids are ‘math kids,’ then it’s okay to make mistakes,” she said. “It won’t be embarrassing. In fact, making mistakes is considered normal and an essential part of learning math.”
Gates has committed to this approach for the next decade, but has only made definitive spending plans for the next four years, during which $1.1 billion will be poured into the math. That’s the same amount it’s spent on its entire elementary and secondary education program over the past four years, in which just 40% has gone to improving math classes.
Initially, the foundation will provide scholarships to support students in California, Florida, New York and Texas. The states were chosen, Hughes said, because Gates has experience working with school districts in those states and because of their large proportion of Black and Hispanic students in the country.
As Gates “squats” on math, it will end its support for language arts like reading and writing, Hughes said. The change in approach is likely to spell the end of support for many educational nonprofits once the current grants run their planned course.
Gates Foundation officials are in touch with several foundations that may be willing to fill some of the gap, Hughes said, citing ongoing discussions with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.
In recent years, many major US foundations have channeled funds to improve civic education, said Amber Northern, senior vice president for research at the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, citing Carnegie Corporation and the Hewlett Foundation as prominent examples. But, she said, there are relatively few foundations that devote significant amounts to improving math education.
“A lot of foundations want to come together and leverage their impact by merging with other foundations,” she said. “This is an awareness call for other foundations to get on board.”
The Gates shift isn’t the first time American education experts have expressed the need to focus on math. In the late 1950s, after the launch of Sputnik, educators called for a new force in math teaching to keep up with the country’s Soviet adversaries during the Cold War, said Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken”. Education system – and how to fix it.”
Although math is important, Wexler says, only a small percentage of students use math in their daily lives. But every student is a member of society and needs different skills to make a positive contribution to society. For a democracy to function, people need basic literacy skills, the ability to read newspaper articles critically, and knowledge of how public policy is made.
GET FOX BUSINESS ON THE GO BY CLICKING HERE
Math classes are important, she said, but “the knowledge required to understand a newspaper and keep track of current events will be much more critical to empowering these students to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens.”
Hughes said other skills are important, but the foundation felt it could have the biggest impact by focusing on math. When taught properly, math courses can connect students to real-world problems that need solving, engaging them as students and ultimately as citizens.
“When kids feel alienated in middle school, it’s often the math class that drives them away,” he says.