Gates Foundation Targets Culturally Responsive Math Teaching With New Grants

By Sarah Schwartz — August 11, 2021 4 min read
illustration of an exhausted boy studying on a laptop with numbers and equations circling above. His mother is behind him with hands on his shoulders while his head is in his hand.
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Over the next two years, 11 organizations will each be granted up to $1 million to improve Algebra outcomes for Black and Latino students, English-language learners, and students experiencing poverty.

These grants are courtesy of the Gates Foundation, through its Grand Challenges platform—an initiative that targets persistent challenges in global health and development.

In this case, the challenge at hand is Algebra 1: a course that students in the United States often have to pass to graduate high school, and one that is the gatekeeper to accessing higher-level math that can set students up for success in the subject in college.

Black and Latino students have less access to Algebra 1, and they often take the course later than their peers. But as Education Week has reported, access isn’t the only barrier: Racial stereotypes influence teachers’ perceptions of students’ math abilities. Many experts also say that students’ sense of belonging and competence in the subject can affect their motivation—and that Black and Latino students, English-language learners, and students experiencing poverty aren’t encouraged to see themselves as “math people.”

These issues are at the core of what the Gates Foundation is attempting to address. The funding is going to organizations that aim to make Algebra more culturally responsive—more “accessible, relevant, and collaborative”—to engage and support students.

The grantees are:

  • BetterLesson Inc., a lesson-sharing site;
  • The Black Teacher Collaborative, a social entrepreneurship venture focused on supporting Black educators;
  • ConnectED, which partners with districts to develop college and career pathways;
  • Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, in partnership with Howard University;
  • Mastory, a German-Hungarian ed-tech startup;
  • The Rhode Island Department of Education;
  • The University of California at Los Angeles Curtis Center for Mathematics and Teaching;
  • The University of Florida;
  • Village Education Tutors Foundation, a tutoring and mentorship program in Delaware;
  • The Young People’s Project, a community organization supporting youth math literacy in Massachusetts;
  • Zearn, a nonprofit math program.

Programs aim to support students’ emotional well-being, not just achievement

While these grants weren’t designed as a response to COVID-19, they’ve been awarded in the midst of growing concern over the pandemic’s effect on student learning.

Recent reports have shown, following trends from interim assessment data released over the past year, that students of all backgrounds didn’t make as much academic growth as they would have in a “normal” year. An analysis of state testing data from the Center for Assessment this month found decreases in the percentage of students scoring proficient, from 7 percent to 15 percent drops in math.

As the 2021-22 school year starts, educators and other experts caution that social-emotional concerns have to be part of the plan for academic recovery. Students have to feel comfortable working with peers and that they belong in school for learning to happen, they say.

“The pandemic reinforces what we know about mathematics and how students gain math proficiency,” said Bob Hughes, director of K-12 Education in the United States Program at the Gates Foundation.

Making sure that teachers create supportive environments where students can develop strong math mindsets, “those things need to be part of the new paradigm post-recovery,” he said. The Gates Foundation has commissioned an evaluation by the American Institutes for Research of the work funded through these grants, that will look at the efficacy of the organizations’ programs over the next few years.

Attending to students’ global wellness, not solely their math performance, is the goal for Village Education Tutors Foundation, one of the Gates Foundation’s grantees.

The group, which is based in Wilmington, Del., will use the funding to support its tutoring and mentorship program for African American and Latina 8th grade girls.

Students in the program work virtually in small groups with certified teachers and university student mentors on curriculum-based instruction. And they also participate in wellness coaching, where they can talk about issues like managing the stress of COVID-19, or how to create a peaceful environment in their home for studying. About 120 students from the Colonial School District in New Castle, Del., participate currently.

“All of the program is really centered around making sure that folks feel whole,” said Shawnickque Kent, the founder and executive director of the organization. “How do we tap into children who may be brilliant beings, but they’re just struggling on a social-emotional front?”

Village Education Tutors recruits its university mentors primarily from historically black colleges, so that “students who are mentoring are coming from the communities they’re serving,” Kent said.

Kayla Scott, a mentor with the program and a rising junior at Howard University, said that the mentorship program can provide a protective environment for African American and Latina students, who face a host of stressors at school—from test pressure to discriminatory discipline practices.

Most of the grant winners—nine of the 11 organizations—are minority-led, the Gates Foundation reported. “We wanted to ensure that people who are proximate to our populations have a role in forming solutions,” Hughes said. A little under half are also first-time grantees.


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