Opinion

Hughes: Every Student is a ‘Math Person.’ With Grants of up to $1 Million, 11 Groups Will Pilot Algebra 1 Programs in Schools — and Prove It

By Bob Hughes | August 11, 2021

(©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/David Evans)

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Last month, our nation lost one of the giants and architects of the civil rights era, as well as an icon within the mathematics community — Robert Moses. As a dedicated educator and founder of The Algebra Project, Moses worked tirelessly to advance a vision for how America’s education system could create a bridge between students’ culture and experiences and the world of math — a bridge that can lead to improved student outcomes, a greater sense of agency among students and increased economic mobility.

This week, the Gates Foundation is proud to announce the selection of 11 grantees for the second phase of our first U.S. education Grand Challenge, Balance the Equation. These winners were chosen out of more than 400 applications to design and implement solutions to make Algebra 1 more accessible, relevant and collaborative for students who are Black, Latino, English learners and/or experiencing poverty. In many ways, we aspire to build on Bob Moses’ commitment to empower students through mathematics teaching and learning.

Moses’ focus on algebra as a key lever of change was intentional. As he told my colleague Henry Hipps in a fireside chat last year, “In this country, algebra is a doorway into the mathematics needed to enter into the 21st century.” It is also one of the most important indicators of students’ future success. If a ninth-grader fails algebra and doesn’t recover those credits, the chance of graduating high school drops to 1 in 5. Algebra 1 also has the highest failure rate of any high school course.

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Black and Latino students, English learners and students experiencing poverty are particularly affected — not because they lack the ability to succeed, but because society tells them they are not “math people” and reinforces this message with inequitable access to qualified math teachers, advanced coursework, high-quality curriculum, tutoring and other supports necessary to serve the potential of every student. The current education system has also failed to innovate the way math is taught and missed opportunities to connect teaching and learning more directly to students’ backgrounds and experiences. As a result, many such students are put at a disadvantage in pursuing high-paying, in-demand careers.

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Every student is a “math person.” We believe that working with innovators, teachers and communities, we can change this narrative with concrete tools and strategies to raise students’ confidence, ability and levels of achievement. Last October, we issued a call for innovative solutions to improve the algebra learning experience for these student populations. In March, we announced the first phase of grantees, who used their funding to plan and prototype solutions. The 11 grantees we are announcing today are members of that group who will receive up to $1 million each to pilot their programs in schools.

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Each grantee has put forth exciting ideas to help support critical thinking, abstract reasoning skills, creativity through problem solving, and data analysis in ways that empower students to understand and critique the world around them through math. For example:

  • The Young People’s Project, a partner within the Algebra Project network led by Executive Director Maisha Moses, a member of the Moses family, will develop a formal certification program and online learning platform to support high school students experiencing poverty. This will empower them to create and use interactive math games to teach algebra to their middle school peers. Partners in this pilot also include The Math Door, Broward County Public Schools, Boston Public Schools Teacher Cadets, Territorium and the Center for School Climate and Learning.
  • The Black Teacher Collaborative will equip Black teachers to implement racially affirming instructional practices anchored in the collaborative’s pedagogical framework to teach Algebra I. This framework, rooted in African-centered teaching traditions, will use real-world examples to teach concepts like operations of inequalities (problems such as x + 3 > 2). The collaborative’s solution reimagines Algebra I teaching and learning experiences, which will in turn help students develop a stronger conceptual understanding of math and build a positive racial math identity, ultimately seeing themselves as “math people.”
  • The University of California at Los Angeles Curtis Center for Mathematics and Teaching is partnering with the Barack Obama Global Preparatory Academy, Charles Drew Middle School, FieldKit and South Los Angeles aerospace engineers and university mathematician to pilot The Applied Mathematics Mentorship Program, to motivate South L.A. students of color to improve their performance in mathematics. Under the mentorship of undergraduates, professors and engineers of color, students will be placed into small research teams to investigate local math problems. These could include the environmental science of their community, COVID-19 data visualization and aerospace engineering projects underway in the South L.A. area.

These are just a few examples of the 11 grantees’ creative pilot ideas. All the grantees share a deep understanding of the many obstacles and biases in the way algebra is taught, a willingness to push against the norm and a firm commitment to the students and educators that they serve. We hope these projects will inspire teachers to find new ways of teaching mathematics in their own school or community. This challenge is bigger than any one of us and will require the efforts of all of us to succeed.

With the launch of this group of Grand Challenge winners, I’m excited to see what our grantees will discover and contribute to the broader effort to engage all students more deeply in their enjoyment, mastery and completion of Algebra 1. As Bob Moses once said, “If we can figure out how to get children to make the system work for them, this will change the system in ways we may not understand now.”

Bob Hughes is K-12 director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to The 74.

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