NewSchools Offers $1.5M to Fund Math Tools For Minority and Underserved Students

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Roxanne Lanzot, an Algebra I and Geometry Teacher at San Jose’s Downtown College Preparatory High School, is tasked with preparing freshman and sophomore students for college. Though they are in high school, her students’ abilities vary widely: For example, many of her students struggle to understand division.

"How do I, as a high school teacher at a college prep school, help my students be successful by addressing those low level gaps?” she asked.

It’s a common question that now has a $1.5 million answer as NewSchools Ignite throws itself into the fray. NewSchools Ignite, the virtual accelerator attached to NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF), has launched the Middle and High School Math Learning Challenge, which will provide grants ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 to up to 15 companies creating tools for math education in grades 6-12. The grants are intended for companies to grow, field test and evaluate their products, and the program will run from May to October. Neither NewSchools nor its partner WestEd will ask for equity in return. Applications are open and must be received by March 14.

This is the second in a series of NewSchools’ national challenges after 2015’s Science Learning Challenge. Later this year, NewSchools Ignite will open applications for its English Language Learning Challenge.

These challenges are part of NewSchools’ efforts to fill gaps that are unaddressed by the available edtech tools. Math wasn’t supposed to be one of the holes. If anything, the team thought there were too many math tools on the market. (By our count, there are 162 math tools on the market today.)

“Math is the last place I thought we would focus on because there are so many tools out there, but it turns out the majority of them are digital flashcards, worksheets and memory games,” says Tonika Cheek Clayton, Managing Partner of NewSchools Ignite’s Tools and Services Team that manages NewSchools’ investment in edtech companies. “We kept hearing from superintendents and teachers that there aren’t tools that teach kids how to learn math the right way.”

Lanzot agrees. She believes most of the math tools she encounters don’t help her address the foundational gaps in her students understanding.

“Part of me feels like there are too many math tools, but the tools out there right now are traditional,” she said. “They’re not based on problem solving or a conceptual understanding of math. They’re teaching procedure.”

She currently uses an online College Preparatory Math textbook, Desmos, Khan Academy and School Yourself in her classroom. She also finds interactive activities on the Internet to supplement certain lessons. She trusts these tools, but it took her a long time to assemble this trusted suite.

“I could spend the majority of my time exploring those tools even without teaching. That’s a problem. Testing the tools is a problem: I just have to say, ‘We’ll try this and just see how it goes.’”

Clayton and NewSchools also saw that math tools were not reaching black and Latino students, which is where Lanzot got involved as a participant in NSVF’s market research. Downtown College Prep is a majority-Latino school, and many of the students live in poverty.

A recent study found that much of the minority achievement gap begins with poor-quality math instruction and content. According to the Gates Foundation, that figure isn’t likely to improve: Only three percent of district spending goes towards products focused on math. It is important to note that the sample size for the Gates Foundation's findings was only 16 schools, so that figure is not nationally representative. It is still, however, concerning.

In her conversations with educators and administrators, Clayton found that tools don’t cater to minority students, leaving struggling students doubly disengaged.

“Teachers want tools that make math accessible to people of varying cultural backgrounds and abilities,” she said. “Students need to be able to engage with age-appropriate content that relates to who they are as people.”

What Lanzot hopes to foster in her students is a “growth mindset”—the idea that intellect isn’t fixed but can improve with hard work. But she hasn’t found a tool to do it.

“Often, freshmen and sophomores are embarrassed to not know the stuff they were supposed to learn in 5th grade. Or they admit it and they think they’re bad at math. Either way, they’re not open to help. I want them to see themselves as a successful student. They sometimes can’t even picture it. The moment they can, with a human or a computer, is a huge, transformative moment.”

But to do that, tools have to provide students with lessons suitable for their abilities without making them feel like they’re in remediation. It’s a simple concept, but one that has proven problematic for many tools. Clayton has noted that high school students won’t engage with a tool made for third graders, even if it does offer the right level of content. She’s made appropriate differentiation a goal of the Learning Challenge’s grants. Rote memorization is out.

Neither Clayton nor Lanzot believe that tech will solve students’ struggles with math, but they both believe it will play an important role in complementing good teachers. Lanzot believes that differentiation remains key.

“I think tech works so well for kids who are already motivated and know what they want to accomplish. It’s much more difficult to make it as effective for students who haven’t yet engaged. The buy-in piece is human.”

Editor's note: NewSchools Venture Fund is an investor in EdSurge.

Update: This article has been updated to say that the Gates Foundation's findings on district spending are not nationally representative.

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