Gates Foundation donates $1B to prioritize math education
Bill and Melinda Gates pose for a photo in Kirkland, Wash. 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 to help students 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.
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 Shalinee 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.”