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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is committing some pocket change to solve the “Algebra problem”.

Dubbed “Balance the Equation,” the competition will award up to $1 million in grants for up to 10 education technology developers, nonprofits and other organizations working to solve the algebra problem, especially as it relates to making the subject more engaging and relevant for Black and Latino students, English language learners and those experiencing poverty.

We have been told that Algebra I is a “gatekeeper” course, “one of several important indicators for students’ college readiness and success”, thus the need for a technology solution to make the course “more engaging and relevant”. Right?

The competition isn’t about encouraging flashier math apps, says Hipps. The goal is to make Algebra I more accessible and engaging for underserved populations, which requires consciously designing curriculum and tools in ways that students identify with, and which reflect their lived experiences. So instead of introducing algebraic concepts through abstract formulas and variables, the subject can be framed through problems such as food deserts in low-income neighborhoods. Or through studying the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.

There are a few issues that stand in the way of success for this contest. Starting with the fact that there are already hundreds of apps, websites, and other “digital math materials” available.

However, while the pedagogy certainly needs improvement, the larger problem with Algebra is the curriculum itself.

Jo Boaler, an education professor at Stanford University who runs the math education nonprofit YouCubed, says one of the main problems with algebra instruction is that it is often couched in abstractions that feel divorced from the real-world problems that the subject is used to solve. To help students overcome that conceptual barrier, her work adapts concepts from “growth mindset” research to help students change how they think about their math abilities.

Nope. Forcing a “growth mindset” on students won’t do it.

But Boaler is exactly right that the problem with school Algebra, along with most of the typical K12 math curriculum, is largely taught as a mechanical process. Students are presented with a collection of recipes, along with some carefully chosen data, and expected to produce “the” right answer. At regular intervals, they get also are asked to “solve” some word problems, which add the additional step of figuring out the necessary input from the text.

In the real world, math is used as an analytic tool, applied in a variety of fields where the problem is defined first and the necessary mathematical tools brought in as needed. That is how math should be presented to students, rather than in its own silo.

Anyway, who am I to tell Gates how to spend his money? But everyone would be better off if he was working to fix what’s really wrong with K12 math education. 

The image is of a slide rule. When I took Algebra, way back in the previous century, using one of these things in high school was controversial. As with calculators when I was teaching Algebra 1, we were told it was a crutch that would hinder student learning. Photo by Wim van ‘t Einde on Unsplash.