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Gates Foundation Unveils Grants to Make Algebra More Culturally Relevant

100620_Bill_Gates_AP-BLOG.jpgThe Gates Foundation announced Wednesday it is launching a multimillion dollar grant program aimed at raising achievement in Algebra I for Black and Latino students, students in poverty, and English-language learners. 

The goal is to engage students with more culturally relevant instruction—including by redesigning courses so that they draw on students' lived experiences, strengthen their math identities, and explore issues of social justice. 

The grants will be awarded through the foundation's Grand Challenge platform, an initiative that targets persistent challenges in global health and development. Funding will be awarded in two phases: 10 to 15 awardees will receive $100,000 each, and then those winners will be eligible to apply for $1 million grants. The foundation will select up to 10 recipients for up to $1 million grants, distributed over two years. 

Entrants can propose solutions that would work during distance learning—the foundation notes that the "classroom environment" they're designing for can be a physical or virtual space—but the goal is to develop longterm systems for improving the quality of math education and removing systemic barriers for these student groups. 

"We're trying to look around the corner, while recognizing and appreciating the immediacy of the moment," said Henry Hipps, the deputy director of the K-12 education team at the Gates Foundation, on a press call Tuesday. "And I think we have an opportunity during this time to think differently in order to address the persistent challenges in math, especially for students who are Black, Latino, experiencing poverty, and/or who speak a language other than English."

Algebra I is a "gateway" course: Students need to take it before they can access higher-level math, and passing it is considered critical to college readiness. 

But Black and Latino students have less access, and later access, to Algebra 1 than their white and Asian peers, research shows. When Black students do have access to the course, it may be a watered-down version of the one that white students get. A study released this summer in the journal Educational Researcher found that, in majority-Black schools, 8th grade Algebra 1 teachers spent less time covering algebra and more time covering basic numeracy topics than teachers in majority-white schools. 

In addition to having less access to rigorous Algebra 1 material, some experts say, Black and Latino students are also less likely to see themselves represented in the curriculum, making it harder for them to see math as relevant to their lives or to identify as "math people." This is the problem that the Gates Foundation is trying to address. 

Some districts have taken up similar work, combining math education with ethnic studies. In Seattle last year, the school district created a new framework designed to "rehumanize" math, which asks students to explore the histories of how "empires of color" created and used math in the past and investigate the racialized power dynamics of how math is taught in the classroom and used in society. The move received acclaim from some educators and scholars of mathematics education, but also faced pushback from conservative commentators. 

The Gates Foundation grant proposal has five specific areas of focus:

  • Building out support systems

  • Improving relevance of algebra content

  • Elevating understanding of mathematical language

  • Empowering and strengthening teacher practices

  • Developing new or better feedback mechanisms

Examples of the kinds of proposals that might meet the criteria include developing lessons that reflect students' cultures and communities, expanding opportunities for mathematical discussion, building new kinds of assessments that "empower and humanize students," and creating professional development that asks teachers to reflect on their own biases.

Image: Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, gestures as he speaks at an event at the Lyon's congress hall, central France in 2019. —Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP, File

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