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The Gates Foundation: In the Mood to Spread Math Awareness

Gates Foundation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested enormous sums of money to improvements in education, has decided to focus more of their efforts on math instruction. According to national math tests, students keep finding the subject as a barrier to graduating, and for going on to successful careers in science and technology. The Foundation is especially concerned that Black, Latino, and low-income students often remain significantly under-served by today’s approaches. Student performance in all subgroups remains well below NAEP (The National Assessment of Educational Progress) proficiency standards by the middle grades,” and meanwhile, Asian students are especially motivated and making progress.

It was in fall 2017 when Bill Gates announced the change of strategy. For several years prior, the Gates Foundation had focused on the method of evaluating teachers and trying to know (based on recording thousands of hours of classes) if they could learn from the best colleagues in the classroom. The initiative has been very interesting for researchers in education, but it has not translated into concrete results. “We will be fascinated to see what innovations will emerge,” Gates said. “Part of the beauty is that some will be ones that we don’t expect,” he added, showing how open the foundation is about the philosophies behind the initiatives.

Therefore, with a new approach, the Gates Foundation announced that they will focus on specific projects that use different strategies locally, and that have demonstrated that they work specifically in math. The Foundation has opened applications for these proposals and after analyzing the impact of each and will determine if the initiatives can be applied. What is required specifically is that the proposals demonstrate success in Black and Latino communities that are at risk for social exclusion. We, who serve 13,000 children around the world, unfortunately, cannot demonstrate the results in those communities, but we believe it is wonderful to spread awareness of math’s importance as a remedy against school failure. In fact, years ago in New York, the Robin Hood Foundation also focused on improving math instruction based on studies by Stanford professor Greg Duncan, but this was centered on young children.

What is admirable about the Gates Foundation is the honesty with which they analyze results. In the early 2000s, Gates explained that the Foundation focused on small schools and even created a type of smaller school within larger ones, and although the results improved, they did not improve in the way that the Foundation had anticipated. In a recent conference, Gates also recognized the limitations of their Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, the plan for teachers.

Regarding math, Gates said, “We’d like to make this (mastery of algebra) achievable and enjoyable for all kids.” At Smartick, we are working with young children and preparing them not to fall from the precipice of algebra, which happens to so many students when they enter higher grades. We take responsibility for giving children more confidence so that when they do algebra in school, they are very sure of themselves. At Smartick we are pleased that the Gates Foundation also contributes to emphasizing math’s importance (as well as those from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), because they have also come aboard this initiative).

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