Gates Foundation donates $1B to prioritize math education

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Wednesday that it is making grants of more than a $1 billion as part of a sweeping national plan to improve math education over the next four years. Its goal: to help students succeed in school and land well-paying jobs when they graduate, given research that shows the connection between strong math skills and career success.

The foundation, which has long drawn controversy over its education work, said that to put more money into math, it will cut grants to other subjects like reading, writing, and the arts.

The increased focus on math comes after the pandemic “wreaked havoc” on learning in secondary schools, and widened gaps based on race in student performance, with math scores among Black students falling more sharply than declines among white students, according to Bob Hughes, director of the Gates Foundation’s elementary and education grant-making program.

The foundation made the switch because it sees better math instruction in earlier grades as a key to helping students succeed in school and beyond. Students who pass an introductory course on algebra by 9th grade are twice as likely to graduate from high school and go to college, Hughes said.

The problem, he said, is for many students, math is not presented as a crucial, captivating subject.

“Too many students don’t have access to math instruction in classrooms where they receive critical resources to help them see the joy in learning math and believe that they can become math people 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 to promote common-core standards, a set of national educational goals for students at each grade level, the foundation in 2018 backtracked. Acknowledging criticism that the approach didn’t allow individual schools flexibility, Gates developed a new plan that created networks of schools facing similar challenges. Educators in each of those networks could test teaching and coursework innovations and make adaptations as they saw fit, rather than adhere to a set of nationwide standards.

In 2020, Gates held a more than $10 million competition to identify new approaches to teaching algebra. Those grants, and discussions Gates staff held over the past two years with teachers, parents, school administrators, curriculum experts, and others, helped formulate the foundation’s new approach.

Gates will provide grants to prepare teachers better for teaching math and to curriculum companies and nonprofits to develop higher-quality teaching materials. The foundation will also support research into math education and make grants to help high-school math courses prepare students for college and the workplace.

A big problem with math as it is taught today is that students learn in isolation and can feel crushed when they get the wrong answer to a problem, says Shalini Sharma, co-founder of Zearn, an educational nonprofit and Gates grantee who, with Hughes, spoke with reporters this week. Zearn uses computer-based lessons that incorporate a lot of visuals to keep students interested and provides feedback on progress to help teachers tailor lessons for individual students. A new approach in which students work in teams to solve problems, she said, can turn all students into “math kids.”

“When all kids are ‘math kids,’ making mistakes will be OK,” she said. “It won’t be embarrassing. In fact, making mistakes will be considered normal and an essential part of math learning.”

Gates has committed to the approach for the next decade but has only made final spending plans for the next four years, when it will plow $1.1 billion into math. That’s the same amount it spent on its entire elementary and secondary education program for the past four years, during which only 40% was devoted to improving math instruction.

Initially the foundation will direct grants to assist students in California, Florida, New York, and Texas. The states were picked, Hughes said, because Gates has experience working with school districts in those states and because of their large share of the nation’s Black and Latino students.

As Gates “hunkers down” on math, it will end its support for language arts, such as reading and writing, Hughes said. The change in approach probably means the end of support, once current grants run their scheduled course, for many education not-for-profits.

Gates Foundation officials are in touch with several foundations that might be willing to pick up some of the slack, Hughes said, citing ongoing discussions with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.

In recent years, many larger U.S. foundations have funneled money to improve civics education, said Amber Northern, senior vice president for research at the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, citing the Carnegie Corporation and Hewlett Foundation as prominent examples. But, she said, there are relatively few foundations that devote significant sums to improve math education.

“Lots of foundations want to come together and leverage their impact by joining with other foundations,” she said. “This is an awareness call for other foundations to come on board.”

The Gates shift is not the first time American education experts have expressed a need to focus on math. In the late 1950s, after the launch of Sputnik, educators called for a new vigor in math instruction 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.”

While math is important, Wexler said, only a small percentage of students go on to use math in their daily lives. But every student is a member of society and needs other skills to become positive contributors to society. For a democracy to function, she said, people need basic literacy, the ability to read newspaper articles critically, and knowledge of how public policy is made.

Math instruction is important, she said, but “the knowledge that goes into understanding a newspaper and following current events is going to be much more crucial in enabling those students to carry out their responsibilities as citizens.”

Hughes said other skills are important, but the foundation felt it could have the biggest impact focusing on math. If taught properly, he said, math courses can connect students to real-life problems in need of a solution and keep them engaged as students, and eventually citizens.

“When kids start to feel alienated in middle school, it’s frequently the math course that drives them away,” he said.

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9 thoughts on “Gates Foundation donates $1B to prioritize math education

  1. A growing minority–perhaps soon a majority–of the American public has grown increasingly skeptical of the benevolent intents of Foundations. Though Gates Foundation isn’t alone in prompting this skepticism, it is certainly in the crosshairs more than most.

    When a PR bobblehead makes gloom-and-doom statements like “For a democracy to function, she said, people need basic literacy, the ability to read newspaper articles critically, and knowledge of how public policy is made” rest assured there’s more of an agenda than what’s being stated in the promo material. Only one party speaks about “democracy” like it’s under threat, which would make a lot more sense if we were a democracy to begin with. And true civics education MUST distinguish “democracy” from “constitutional republic” so that sixth graders can understand it….

    …and even if the Gates Foundation’s math isn’t barely-concealed political indoctrination (it almost certainly is), it’s also almost certainly a tool to do what Bill Gates has always done with his “charity”–dump huge money into resources that entrap small institutions/schools into using new Microsoft products, so Bill & ex-squeeze Melinda get a fat return. Though I guess there’s no law against foundations turning into an investment tool for the creator of said foundation, reasonable people look askance….the main reason a foundation should yield a good return is so that it remains a viable tool in perpetuity and doesn’t get depleted, not so it lines the pocketbooks of its originating “philanthropist”.

    1. Classic – you think you’re smarter than your kids teachers don’t you?

      Don’t want them reading books you’ve never read?

      Imagine saying that teaching children MATH in grade school is political indoctrination.

      Kinda like vaccinating your kids against polio is healthcare indoctrination?

      Sigh

    2. Yikes you have a lot of hate in your heart (I know not achieving anything in life can be tough)- well at least we both agree religion is for the mentally handicapped…

    3. Lauren is flat-out wrong when she says the US is not a democracy. Our constitution established a democratic republic form of government. If she wishes to discover what that means, she can do her own homework and look it up.

    4. Being told I’m wrong from Brent is usually the highest praise, but even Brent doesn’t usually contradict himself in two successive sentences.

      Brent, a “democracy” is not the same as a “democratic republic”–the terms are not fungible. Your second sentence is actually largely correct, but to conflate this with “democracy”–the majoritarian referendum based system that the establishment wants to pretend that we have so they can snuff out “minorities” (if not directly than by creating a false majority through fraud)–is the grift that deserves every bit of pushback it’s getting, and then some. It simply isn’t true. But then, a majority of the country knows what they REALLY mean when they talk about “threats to our democracy”.

      And you’d better believe it’s a threat. The “democracy” part is just as bogus as ever.

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