What We're Learning: Math Should Be A Gateway, Not A Gatekeeper to Student Success

Bob Hughes with math student
Bob Hughes with math student. Gates Foundation
Bob Hughes
Blog Post


or the last three years our Networks for School Improvement (NSI) investment has supported groups of middle and high schools to work together to identify and solve common problems using approaches that best fit their needs, learning what works and refining their approaches as they go. 

One of our intentions was for NSIs to look systematically at factors affecting student achievement around on-track measures that are predictive of adult success. As a result, and to our surprise, a lot of interest in the field and several of our NSI partners centered around a single subject: math.

Thinking back, we shouldn’t have been so surprised. Educators recognize how math can be a gatekeeper to student success. If a ninth grader fails algebra and doesn’t recover those credits, the chance of graduating high school drops to 1 in 5. Math also bars quick entry into postsecondary education, with high levels of remediation. And this disproportionately impacts Black and Latino students, English Language learners, and students of all races and ethnicities experiencing poverty, as they are less likely to be taught by highly qualified teachers or have access to the resources and supports than their white peers and more affluent peers.

Critically, the pandemic has also exacerbated gaps in learning math. One study showed that a year of disruptions due to COVID led to significant learning loss in math but not in reading. Socioeconomic and racial gaps in learning were also exacerbated: Zearn, a partner of ours and an online math learning platform serving 1-in-4 K-5 students in the U.S., collected data from last year showing that students experiencing poverty had greater drops in learning than those in schools in higher-income communities. This data and more underscores the urgent need to focus on the opportunity gap now before it impacts students for years to come.

Yet, even before the pandemic, the status quo in math instruction wasn’t working for too many students. According to 2019 NAEP data, only 44 percent of white 8th-grade students, 14 percent of Black 8th-grade students, and 20 percent of Latino 8th-grade students performed at or above proficiency in mathematics. Additionally, according to the same NAEP survey, Black and Latino students indicate they want to be better in math but their scores still lag behind the average. There is more we must do to help them reach their aspirations.

Traditionally, math instruction has been rigid and static – which also means it is ripe for innovation in teaching and learning. As an education sector, we can do much more to make math more engaging and relevant to students and their lives. And to tap students’ full potential, we need to know more about student agency, motivation, and mindsets – the barriers that keep too many students from seeing themselves as “math people.”

As a foundation, we see a tremendous opportunity to use this moment in time to not only address the learning impacts of COVID-19, but to explore new ways to increase student achievement in math in recovery.

For example, earlier this month we announced the winners of our first-ever education Grand Challenge, which focuses on finding new approaches to making Algebra 1 more culturally relevant and accessible to students in ways that help them build an affirming math identity. As an illustration, one of the winners, Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science is piloting a program to help female Black students use algebra to explore poverty and wage gaps, and algorithms to understand the effects of social media.

We’re also committed to leaning into student voice and more deeply understanding students’ personal experiences in math. Several NSIs and their partners are developing frameworks and strategies for elevating student voice and agency in their schools, including a student voice framework developed by Community Design Partners and Building Assets Reducing Risks’ (BARR) toolkit for understanding student mindset, which could be applied to students to develop a strong math identity and mindset.

In addition to understanding student perspectives, we also need to learn more about the way students learn math. To that end, we’ve helped fund an R+D program, EF+Math, for the last two years that partners with a diverse community of educators, researchers and developers to develop new practices and prototypes, and generate evidence about the potential of blending executive function (EF) skill development with math instruction. Their goal is to double the number of Black and Latino students who are proficient in math in grades 3-8.

We look forward to building on these and other examples in the months to come, as we believe that transforming math will also result in other key indicators of overall student success, such as improved attendance and reduced student suspension, and open new horizons for young people that will enable them to be successful once they graduate. Our hope is math will become part of a primary school experience and high school diploma that allows them to understand math as part of the world, not separate from it.

We are convinced that every student is a “math person”, and we’re excited to work with our partners to help all students get to a point where they believe it too.