Why the Gates Foundation Is Investing $1.1 Billion in Math Education

By Alyson Klein — October 19, 2022 8 min read
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What do you get when you add up more than a billion dollars, plus a foundational but often overshadowed K-12 subject, and multiply it by the influence of the biggest player in K-12 education philanthropy?

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is hoping the answer will equal: Exponential change for math instruction.

The foundation will target the subject for as long as a decade, beginning with a $1.1 billion four-year investment. The goals: More and better trained math teachers, a new trove of engaging and effective teaching materials, and a clearer sense of how to teach a subject that many students now find dry and intimidating.

“Math helps students make sense of the world,” Bob Hughes, the foundation’s director of K-12 education told reporters in an Oct. 17 call. “It gives them critical thinking and problem-solving skills they can use later as adults.”

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Math educators are excited by the prospect of the investment. But they hope the foundation will take into account the perspectives of seasoned educators, something many saw as lacking in past Gates initiatives on standards and teacher evaluation.

“I’m a little bit giddy that somebody is actually going to help fund improvements in math education, so that maybe we might have the tools that we need to actually address some of these things that are coming out in the research,” said Latrenda Knighten, a mathematics instructional coach in Baton Rouge, La.

The foundation’s math effort will “only be as good as the people [Gates] chooses for [its] advisors,” she said. “You have to talk to folks who are in this business, you have to talk to teachers, you have to talk to the organizations,” including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, on whose board Knighten used to sit.

Gates has spent the past year in listening sessions with hundreds of educators, experts, parents, and community members, and will continue those efforts, Hughes promised.

“We expect to learn a great deal and make appropriate adjustments as we listen to and work with the many educators who have helped us shape and formulate the strategy,” he said.

Gates will focus on the four most populous states: California, Florida, New York, and Texas because of their high populations of children in poverty.

Gates already spends about 40 percent of its K-12 budget on improving math education. The money for this deeper initiative will come, in part, from shifting dollars out of grants for projects in other subjects, including language arts.

Big problems in math achievement, teacher training

Gates is announcing its move into math just over a month after long term trend data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress showed that 9-year-old students scored, on average, seven points lower in math in 2022 than did their pre-pandemic peers in 2020.

In particular, Black student achievement plummeted, falling 13 points from 2020 levels as opposed to 5 points for white students. That widened the gap between the two groups from 25 points in 2020 to 33 points in 2022.

What’s more, the math teacher shortage—a perennial problem—has only been exacerbated by broader concerns about instability in the profession, spurred in part by the pandemic.

“We have shortages everywhere,” said Robbi Berry, an elementary school teacher in New Mexico who focuses on math. “I think people are just feeling overwhelmed with the amount that teachers are being asked to do.”

In response to such concerns, Hughes pointed to “alternative staffing structures” that may help build the teacher pipeline, including teacher residencies, which typically allow prospective teachers to work under the supervision of a more experienced educator while obtaining their credentials.

Technology could be part of the solution

Students, Hughes said, need digital tools that can adjust to where they are on a particular math skill and give them a chance to practice and advance, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with their peers on math problems, explaining to one another how they might have taken different routes to arrive at the correct solution to a particular problem.

One glimpse into the type of tools Gates may have in mind: Zearn, a digital math program that works to quickly catch students up on the background they need to master grade level content. Its CEO and founder joined Hughes on the call with reporters, touting the foundation’s support for her nonprofit organization.

Zearn has shown some promising results. Students who use the program struggled less on grade level math skills than their peers whose schools choose to do math remediation, which seeks to give students a more comprehensive understanding of the skills they failed to grasp in previous grades, according to a recent report.

(Both Zearn and the nonprofit organization that conducted the report, TNTP, have received grants from the Gates Foundation. Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, receives sustaining support from the foundation. The media organization retains sole editorial control over its articles.)

Can Gates stay above the fray in the math wars?

Gates appeared open to helping schools broaden advanced math offerings beyond the traditional peak: Calculus, which has long been seen as a must for students who want to get into the most competitive colleges, even if they’re not planning on majoring in math or going into a STEM profession.

More recently, though, there’s been a push to steer more students to courses like statistics or data science, which may be more applicable to their likely career or major and also build advanced math skills.

Calculus “continues to be an important path, particularly for young people who are looking at physics or engineering or advanced STEM careers,” Hughes said.

He noted that Harvard University, Stanford University, and the University of California system have all expressed support for other options. “We’re not interested in narrowing opportunities for students in math. We want more students to take more math with much greater exposure to things like statistics and data science.”

But Gates seems to be looking to remain neutral when it comes to some of the biggest debates in the math teaching world these days, including whether to emphasize an inquiry-based, problem-solving approach or more traditional teaching methods that emphasize procedures and algorithms. A hot debate over those approaches is currently playing out in California, which is seeking to revise its math guidelines.

“We’re working on a holistic approach to mathematics that enables young people to both gain procedural and conceptual understanding and apply that to real world problems,” Hughes said, when asked which approach the foundation favored. “We’re really committed to ensuring that kids have interesting, exciting math. We’re really committed that they learn the basic skills they need to be successful in complex problem solving.”

Gates is also agnostic when it comes to how fast to accelerate advanced math students—whether they should be given the opportunity to take Algebra 1 in middle school, for instance—another topic generating controversy in the Golden State.

“The research base is mixed. I think that we’re going to be supporting people who believe [Algebra 1] in eighth grade or ninth grade is appropriate,” Hughes said when asked about the debate. “We want young people to take the math that’s most appropriate to them at the highest level they can actively participate.”

Jon Star, an educational psychologist who focuses on math education and is a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said Gates has the opportunity to make a big impact, but wondered how the foundation’s decision to side-step divisive issues would play out.

“They have the ability to do something transformative with that kind of investment,” he said. Star, who was among the experts Gates consulted about its plans, said that from what he’s seen, the foundation is focused primarily on equity and “trying not to get into the weeds in terms of the other debates we’ve been having in the field for a while” when it comes to math instruction.

“On the one hand, that might be admirable, that they’re trying to stay above the fray, be open-minded,” he said. But on the other hand, he worries it could be “the beginning of a fault, a misstep, where we’re not learning from our past mistakes.”

‘There’s no silver bullet’

This isn’t Gates’ first big foray into math. The foundation was a major funder of the Common Core initiative, which specified what students need to know and be able to do in both math and language arts.

The standards were launched in 2009, and adopted in all but four states by the end of 2011. But a major backlash followed that initial success, with several states reversing their decision to embrace the standards, others rebranding them, and more than half ditching tests designed to measure mastery of them.

Parents and educators criticized the foundation for not reaching out enough to teachers and school leaders to get their perspective on implementation. There was similar criticism of the foundation’s push to link teacher evaluation, based in part on test scores, to pay and promotion, another major Gates initiative rolled out around the same time.

The $1.1 billion, four-year expenditure is comparable to the foundation’s previous marquee K-12 initiatives. Gates spent $1.6 billion on small schools and early college high schools, and $1 billion on teacher effectiveness.

Ultimately, Knighten is eager to see what will come out of the ambitious effort. But she already knows it won’t fix all the problems in math education.

“I realize no matter what they do, no matter how much money they bring, they cannot bring the silver bullet,” she said. “Because it doesn’t exist.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Why the Gates Foundation Is Investing $1.1 Billion in Math Education


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