Bill Gates’ Quest for the Mythical Magic Bullet: Next Quest: Algebra 1

From Small High Schools to Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) to Value-Added Measurements (VAM) to the Common Core State Standards, the Gates Foundation has been searching for the magic bullet, a vaccine for curing education, and the “cures” have proven fruitless (See links above)

The next magic bullet is a cure for Algebra 1, the course viewed as standing in the way of graduation and success in the post graduate world.

The Gates Foundation released an application for a new initiative: “Balance the Equation.”

Algebra 1 is one of the most important on-track indicators of students’ future success. Students who do not complete Algebra 1 have a one-in-five chance of graduating from high school and, as it currently stands, Algebra 1 acts as a gatekeeper – rather than a gateway – to future success.

We are looking for partners to help us radically transform and rethink the traditional math classroom to better support students who have been historically marginalized in math, including Black and Latino students, student who speak a language other than English, and students affected by poverty in the United States

The two-year one million dollar grants, called “Balance the Equation: A Grand Challenge for Algebra 1” asks applicants to address five areas,

These areas have the biggest opportunity for altering the traditional classroom experience for priority students in order to achieve the desired outcomes. Specifically, these areas include:

  • 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

As you would expect the application is detailed and specific – it’s only a few pages, read here.

The Gates Foundation poured hundreds of millions, maybe a few billion into “innovative” proposals, the small high school initiative created about 1200 small high schools across the nation, and Gates admitted his efforts “fell short

Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way. These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school. Even so, many schools had higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers. While we were pleased with these improvements, we are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.

Externally imposed reorganizations rarely are embedded in organizational cultures, At the core of organizational change are two axioms: “change is perceived as punishment” and “participation reduce resistance,” ignoring the axioms commonly dooms “new ideas.”

In New York City the small school movement began in a collaborative climate, and, under Bloomberg became a race to close as many large high schools as possible. Some small high schools are prospering; too many others are simply smaller replicas of the schools they replaced.

The Common Core is another massive initiative, designed to change the face of American education, stumbled, and fell by the wayside.

 Gates realizes that the large-scale transformation he envisions will require greater attentiveness to “locally-driven solutions identified by networks of schools.”

The statement evinces some realization that what might work well in some places might not work well in others. But the new-found sensitivity to locale is more than offset by the insistence on “data-driven continuous learning” (and who will store, manage, and mine this data, one wonders, if not large-scale tech companies, such as the one owned by Bill Gates?), “evidence-based interventions,” and the insistence on using “data to drive continuous improvement.” This data will provide us with shocking revelations, such as the data in Chicago that revealed students who attend class, complete courses, accumulate credits, and receive higher grades are more likely to graduate.

There are many who view Gates as the personification of evil, a bored mega-billionaire using his dollars to impose “solutions,” deeply flawed solutions, on the American education landscape. Others see him using his clout to enrich himself by driving education to “large scale tech companies” instead of locally based solutions.

Bob Moses, the iconic civil rights leader began the Algebra Project over thirty years ago in rural South, successfully teaching algebra to impoverished children of color with excellent outcomes.  Read assessment here

Why is the Gates funding another algebra initiative? Why not expand the Moses Algebra Project?

Bill is tip-toeing into another education morass.

The threshold question:  Should we be requiring Algebra 1 as a condition of high school graduation?

Andrew Hacker, in a New York Times op ed questions whether “Algebra is Necessary?”

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school …  Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

… a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.

Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.

Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives … [courses to] familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.

Peter Flom, a math teacher challenges Hacker,

Most of what we learn in school has limited applicability outside school. I took art in high school. I have never drawn or painted since. I took biology. I have not used that since, either. That is not the point. The point of education is not to teach children things they need to know, it is to expose them to the glories of the human mind.

By this logic, almost all of high school would not be required.

Is algebra necessary? In the strict sense, no. You can live without it. You can also live without art, music, literature or sports. Would you want to?

Cathy N. Davidson, a professor and founder of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York joins the debate,

For too many students, algebra is not the gateway to mathematical literacy. It is the gatekeeper.

Algebra is the single most failed course in high school, the most failed course in community college, and, along with English language for nonnative speakers, the single biggest academic reason that community colleges have a high dropout rate

 Do you fail someone from formal educational opportunities who has will, skills, and intellectual abilities simply because they can’t master algebraic thinking? Or do you offer alternative, productive forms of math competencies to challenge them and help them grow?

Whether to require or not require algebra — in both high school and in college — boils down to one’s view of the purpose of education. If the purpose is credentialing — certifying that the student has earned passing grades in a predefined suite of courses that, collectively, constitute the requirements for a diploma — then it is fine to require anything you want, including algebra.

But if you have a longer view of the purpose of education — that its true mission is to prepare students for everything that comes after graduation — then it is time get rid of the one-size-fits-all prescriptive curriculum.

Linda Gojak, the President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics raises the question of when to teach Algebra 1, the traditional ninth grade, or, as is increasing ly common in the seventh or eighth grade. Gojak sees the seventh and eight grades as opportunities to explore math concepts, preparing students for algebra.

 Seeing the relevance of mathematics in real-world situations and future career options encourages students to take more mathematics rather than to wonder, “When are we ever going to use this?” Solving interesting problems with high cognitive demand offers students experiences to make mathematical connections, form generalizations, and develop mathematical strategies that lead to making sense of early algebra concepts. Working on projects that deepen the level of mathematical understanding and promote algebra applications has the potential to prepare students for the level of abstraction and symbolism that students need for success in rigorous algebra courses.

Gates jumped beyond the question of whether Algebra is necessary, one can say from the frying pan into the fire

Math teachers are among the most contentious sets of teachers.

Professor Hung Wu, at University of California, Berkeley, the primary author of the Common Core Math Standards and the new Geometry standards, in a widely circulated article (“Potential Impact of the Common Core Mathematics Standards on the American Curriculum”), skewers all that preceded his standards.

Long before the advent of the Common Core State Standards Mathematics, American schools had a de facto national mathematics curriculum, namely, the curriculum dictated by school mathematics textbooks. While there are some formal differences among these books, the underlying mathematics is quite similar throughout. The resulting curriculum distorts mathematics in the sense that it often withholds precise definitions and logical reasoning, fails to point out interconnections between major topics such as whole numbers and fractions, and employs ambiguous language that ultimately leads to widespread nonlearning. The CCSSM make a conscientious attempt to address many of these problems and, in the process, raise the demand on teachers’ content knowledge for a successful implementation of these standards.

Professor Wu looks upon elementary school teachers as being “mathematically illiterate,” and implies that we first have to teach mathematics to elementary school teachers before they can teach mathematics to their students.

For elementary teachers, there is at present a feeling that they have been so damaged by their K–12 experience…that we owe it to them to treat them with kid gloves…. Those that I have encountered are generally eager to learn and are willing to work hard. The kid-glove treatment would seem to be hardly necessary. …There is another school of thought arguing that for elementary teachers, one should teach them not only the mathematics of their classrooms, but at the same time also how children think about the mathematics. Again, I can only speak from my own experience. The teachers I observed usually had so much difficulty just coming to terms with the mathematics itself that any additional burden about children’s thinking would have crushed them.

Additionally, there is a raging debate among math teachers about the Geometry Common Core course adopted by most states, mathematics teachers sharply disagree with Professor Wu.

Will the Gates investment result in a curriculum or a set of lesson plans, high quality videos of lessons, teaching Algebra 1 on Snap Chat or Instagram or the new social media site?  Will a “culturally relevant” Algebra 1 curriculum engage students?  How about including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) in algebra lessons? Whatever works …

Teachers are writers, actors, producers, directors and critics of a play that runs for one day. Hopefully we are reflective: What “worked?”  What didn’t “work?”  Why didn’t it “work?”  We mess around in our tool kit to look for the proper tool to fix the situation, and, we’re always looking for new tools.

We ask our colleagues, how did you teach this or that?  Can I come into your classroom and watch you?  Can you take a look at me and can we talk?

There are no magic bullets.

Teaching is a frustrating and at the same time a gratifying job.

When a kid left my room after a lesson and said, “Mr. G, that was really hard, I think I got it,” I beamed inside.

A school leader invited me to sit in on a teacher meeting; New York State switched to the Common Core Algebra 1 curriculum and a Common Core Algebra 1 Regents Examination.

The teachers completed grading the exam and constructed an “error matrix,” the most common wrong answers, and, asked the lower grades to sit in on the meeting: everyone brought their lesson plans.

Why did the kids get a specific question wrong, and, how could they adjust their plan to better teach the concept?

In order to change outcomes you have to change inputs.

In how many schools if kids do poorly on a test do we offer remediation, defined as teaching more of what they failed to understand the first time.

Bill,I have a suggestion, save the millions, how can we create collaborative school cultures, schools in which teachers, facilitated by the school leaders, can explore instructional practice; how can we redefine professional development, not as a block of time sitting in a room with a sage, but what you do every day.

As my friend Jonathan is fond of saying, “The answers are in the room,” we just have to find them.

7 responses to “Bill Gates’ Quest for the Mythical Magic Bullet: Next Quest: Algebra 1

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    I have to agree with Mr. G and Bill Gates. We need to create collaborative school cultures and we need to rethink the high school math curriculum so that it is more useful and accessible for all students.

    Expecting our kids to memorize math operations that can’t be applied to their lives and have no meaning for them is a self-defeating and terminal academic exercise for an unconscionable number of students. The present Algebra 1 curriculum needs to go the way of that prior education gateway, Latin, so that we can focus on the skills required to access knowledge so all youngsters will understand how they fit into the world, can lead productive lives, and respect one another.


  2. I do not think Bill Gates is out to “fix” public education as much as change it to fit his perception of what he wants to world to be like. Gates isn’t that much different than Trump, the Koch, the Waltons, et al.

    What Gates doesn’t think of is the fact that too many other billionaires, some weather than him are doing the same thing, doing what they can to reshape the world into what they want it to be, but their visions do not match.

    If they all succeed in their tiny little economic kingdoms that they bought like slaves on the auction block, the day will come when the greedy shits that were corrupted by their wealth and power will clash and then they will expect the working class in their realm to sacrifice their lives and fight for them.


  3. Algebra 1 is important because it is used to solve problems in many fields. For example, chemistry, physics, engineering, medicine, and architecture all use algebra. People who fail to learn Algebra 1 are worthy of respect and can accomplish great things; however, their lack of proficiency in Algebra 1 limits their career options. Algebra 1 is not so much a gatekeeper as it is a key to opening an otherwise locked gate.


  4. Pingback: Peter Goodman on Bill Gates’ Next Big Idea | Diane Ravitch's blog

  5. Getting things wrong, and wrong, and wrong again should be disqualifying. If it weren’t for Gates’ money, no one would pay attention.

    As far as the math – there’s clearly problems with our instruction and curriculum, well before high school. But stating that there is a problem should not be understood as an open invitation to TC, Bank Street, the other ed schools, and the Billionaires to find solutions – they make the problem worse.



  6. Fundamental algebra is an essential concept that is easy to teach and learn because it is concrete and logical. As soon as a full year algebra 1 course strays into the abstract, even good students lose interest. There are many successful accelerated algebra students who still can’ set up and solve using proportion. As far as applications in the sciences, engineering, and architecture it sure would be nice if math teachers had enough of a background in these subjects to integrate them into their instruction.


  7. Pingback: Should New York State Change Graduations Measures?  (Meaning: the courses and student assessments) – Ed in the Apple: Blogging on the Intersection of Education and Politics Title

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