The Math Classroom All Students Deserve

Bob Hughes
Blog Post

Close your eyes and imagine your eighth-grade math classroom. Some of you may be excited, but I suspect more of you are remembering that feeling of being anxious and lost. That’s how I felt! Math class in eighth grade, or any grade for that matter, is a place where too many students have grappled with seemingly countless formulas, tests, and problems that appeared to have little application to the real world. It is not a place where they feel confident, supported, or even productive. Why is that the case? And how can we make math a rigorous and positive experience that sets students up for success both in school and in life?

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we’ve been thinking a lot about math and how to answer those questions. Math is more than just a tool for getting a good job. Math makes sense of the world and it is analytical thinking in action—the ability to understand patterns, problems, and challenges with ever increasing precision.

When students experience math in the way we know is possible and have seen in excellent math classrooms—as relevant and engaging—their interest, motivation, and persistence are evident. That is the math classroom we want all students to find themselves in.

The energy and engagement in this classroom are fostered by an enthusiastic and prepared teacher who is equipped with rigorous and engaging instructional materials. These supports inspire students, build their confidence, and give students a sense of agency.

In this classroom, the instruction is tailored to student needs. The teacher uses digital tools to personalize learning, making sure students get the help and practice in real time they need to master key concepts. The students also learn as a group, explaining their reasoning and discussing different ways to arrive at the answer to a problem. Whether they plan to be an engineer, coder, graphic designer, or nurse, students see math as a tool to make the world better. They also have a clear sense of the courses they need to take in high school and beyond to achieve their aspirations. This classroom is an inclusive environment, where every student feels like they belong. And they can see their interests reflected in the work they are doing, in a fun and interesting way.

And in this school, math teachers receive valuable preparation, mentoring, and professional learning aligned to the materials they use for instruction. Teachers are part of a broader community of math educators who work together to tailor instruction and share best practices.

Every student deserves this type of classroom. Every teacher deserves this kind of support. And there are places all over the country where this is happening already. But we want this to be the rule rather than the exception.

That’s why over the next 10 years, our work in K-12 education is going deeper in math. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is not new to mathematics. For the past several years roughly 40% of our K-12 education budget has supported math instruction in a meaningful way. But now is the time for bolder and clearer focus. Unfinished learning resulting from the pandemic—and the equity and outcome gaps that it exacerbated—require us all to think differently about how we’re approaching math education.

This is especially true of those working on behalf of the students at the center of our efforts—Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds—who even before the pandemic experienced inequitable access to qualified math teachers, advanced coursework, high-quality curriculum, tutoring and other resources necessary to serve the potential of every student. The stakes are real. While there are many factors impacting students’ opportunities and outcomes, research shows that students who pass Algebra 1 by 9th grade are twice as likely to graduate high school and are more likely to enroll and graduate with a bachelor’s degree and go on to well-paid careers. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, which shows a sharp decline in math achievement for nearly all subgroups, reinforces the urgency of redoubling our math efforts.

Over the next 10 years, we will work with our partners to focus on a few key areas.

  • We’ll work with partners to improve math instruction by supporting the development and use of high-quality instructional materials that increase student motivation, engagement, and persistence. This is a critical need, as a nationally representative RAND survey found that a majority of educators believe their instructional materials are unengaging, unmotivating, and difficult to implement effectively.
  • Our investments will support efforts to increase the number of teachers who are prepared and equipped to provide high-quality math instruction. We will do this by continuing to invest in strong teacher prep programs and in ongoing, aligned, job-embedded professional learning for teachers.
  • We’ll partner with districts to help implement the practices, protocols, and systems changes most essential for strong math instruction. This includes accelerating the use of continuous improvement to implement systemic, coherent supports for math instruction. Our work with Networks for School Improvement over the past several years has underscored how critical it is for improvement efforts to be part of a school’s overall vision, operations, and practices.
  • And, we’ll continue to work with our education pathways partners to better align the math course pathways leading from high school to college so that students have more options to pursue their interests and aspirations and are better positioned for future success. This means building course pathways that move beyond the one-size-fits all march to calculus and give students the opportunity to rigorously explore other subject areas that are in demand, such as statistics and data science.

We will also continue to bridge the gap between research and practice—investing in a Research and Development and an innovation agenda and partnerships to develop new tools and breakthroughs that get translated into classroom practice.

With your help, we’re excited to build on the work we’ve done with partners over the last 20 years to better understand how to drive improvements in teaching and learning and support schools in those efforts. And we look forward to a time when all students can see themselves as “math kids”, learn in the math classroom they deserve, and use math as a tool to prepare them for the futures they envision for themselves.