(Note: * Denotes that a word is defined in the Glossary of Terms. Please see the Glossary of Terms for definition.)
Grand Challenges is a family of initiatives fostering innovation that historically solve key problems in global health and development for those most in need. These initiatives use challenges to focus attention and effort on specific problems. They can be traced back to over a century ago when a mathematician named David Hilbert defined a set of unsolved problems to spark progress in the field of mathematics. Each initiative is an experiment in the use of challenges to focus innovation on having an effect.
Balance the Equation is the first-ever Grand Challenge focused on U.S. education.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is seeking to disrupt the deeply imbalanced system against this generation – and previous generations – of Black, Latino, English Learners (ELs), and students experiencing poverty in the United States, who we will refer to as priority students, as it relates to their Algebra 1 experience in 7th, 8th, or 9th grade, in-class or online.
Submissions are welcome from across the globe for a chance at a Phase 1: Planning and Prototyping grant for US$100,000 to develop a pilot study plan alongside our external learning partner, American Institute for Research (AIR). Upon completion of the first Phase, awardees can then apply for a Phase 2: Pilot Study grant for up to US$1 million. Applicants are encouraged to consider how their solution* could benefit from the expertise of two or more organizations in a partnership or combine with emerging or existing in-market solutions. Partnerships representing collaboration with a full-course Algebra 1 or relevant middle grades mathematics series provider are especially encouraged, as this would represent a clear go-to-market pathway.
What is the Balance the Equation Challenge?
When you hear the word mathematics, what comes to mind?
“Difficult.” - 8th grader
"Challenging." - 9th grader
"A lot of work." - 8th grader
"Sometimes fun." - 10th grader
These are just a sampling of responses from 8th, 9th, and 10th grade priority students* - students who have been disproportionately affected in education - articulated in 90-minute interviews leading up to this challenge. This current reality of mathematics, laden with internalized negative beliefs, behaviors, patterns, and values, is not for lack of student assets* or efforts; but rather something much weightier and systemic.
Through this challenge, our goal is not only to bring balance to an exclusionary system that has stratified these students and tarnished the beauty of key mathematical concepts, but to also stack Algebra 1* education in favor of their unique gifts and boundless capabilities. Some examples of assets articulated during our interviews include:
- Being Goal-Oriented
"If you do well in math you'll do well in your career."
10th grade English Learner*, who wants to be an accountant
- Building Their Own Support Teams
"My uncle! He's one of the best people I know who's good at math... My friends.
Usually if we all have a problem with the same math problem, we'll call each other."
8th grader, when describing the important relationships she brings as a mathematician
- Having a Strong Sense of Self
"Math is my best and favorite subject because of my 3rd and 6th grade teachers... My mom was living on the streets with my little sister. And my plan since I was 11, once I get a job/place, is to take care of her."
9th grader, with a strong sense of self and clear future ambitions
Additionally, we heard from students who optimized their learning environment in response to disruptive school settings, found additional digital resources to aid their education, and were enthusiastic about the value of mathematics although it sometimes produced anxiety. Several other students we spoke to had clear future ambitions, from universities they wanted to attend and aspirational careers they wanted to pursue, to being able to financially provide for family members.
By focusing intentionally on priority students' mathematics experience - and we acknowledge there is no prototypical student - we are aligning to our belief that 'universal goals can be achieved through targeted approaches'. Our improvements, designed for priority students, could then unlock wide reaching and transformational outcomes for all Algebra 1 students.
Modern Algebra education has developed into a worldwide language, but its non-European roots have been largely neglected by historians. From Arabic, الجبر or "al-jabr", meaning, "reunion of broken parts", which symbolically echoes the ethos of this challenge. With Algebra 1 serving as a pivotal inflection point in students' overall mathematics pathway, as well as being a powerful on-track indicator of college readiness, it is important we realign the social and political narrative shaping mathematical education at this critical juncture.
With the onset of COVID-19, available data suggest that priority students are even more vulnerable to an imbalanced classroom experience. As of May 2020, total student progress in online mathematics coursework decreased by 39.6% compared to early January 2020. Progress increased by 2% for students in high-income ZIP codes and decreased 61.6% for students in low-income ZIP codes. During spring 2020, schools serving predominantly Black and Latino students had lower student engagement, just 60 to 70% were able to log in regularly. By focusing our efforts on redistributing classroom power to students and elevating their assets and deep interests, we can override the legacy conditioning and socialization that mathematics is inherently only for select students.
To understand the quality and resonance of solutions, the Gates Foundation is shifting the authority into the hands of students. Applicants will pilot their solution in communities where priority students are 50% or more of the population. We will rely on the ongoing involvement of priority students to gather and incorporate feedback. By collaborating in this way, we can work with our learning partner, AIR, to improve solutions that yield positive outcomes for priority students.
Potential solutions supporting priority students might look like:
- Expanding daily practices for productive mathematical discussions to build their mathematics identity and reiterate mathematics' real-life connection in the evolving 'classroom environment' (physically or virtually; synchronously or asynchronously).
- Incorporating tasks and/or lessons that empower them and/or reflect students' culture and community, or serve to explore issues of humanity and social justice.
- Altering the focus of mathematical aptitude from "easily, quickly, and independently arriving at a correct answer" oriented around the individual to more thoughtful, iterative approaches that promote multi-person processes and interactions.
- Adding assessment approaches that empower and humanize students and leverage more nuanced forms of data.
- Enhancing teacher professional development so educators are set up to meet the unique needs of each student, reflect upon their own biases, and build relationships that allow students to feel supported.
At this time, we are not looking for solutions that:
- Are focused on mathematical subjects outside Algebra 1, or specific mathematical content that exceeds the learning goals of Algebra 1.
- Are focused on policy agendas.
- Do not sufficiently incorporate priority students who identify as Black, Latino, English Learners, and/or students experiencing poverty in the United States.
What is the Challenge Timeline and Process?
The grant process is broken into two Phases:
Phase 1: Planning and Prototyping and Phase 2: Pilot Study.
In both Phases, grantees will partner with AIR to plan for a pilot study by developing study plans that specify the mechanisms by which your solution is hypothesized to improve key priority student outcomes; including: developing a list of learning questions, determining which measures and data sources are needed to address the learning questions, and identifying Title 1 schools in which to conduct the Phase 2. Pending selection for continuation to Phase 2, grantees will continue to partner with AIR and participating sites to collect data and conduct the pilot study during the 2021-2022 or 2022-2023 school year.
Phase 1: Planning and Prototyping 4 months
10-15 US$100,000 awards in funding for planning and prototyping
- Application Opens: October 7th, 2020 at 5:00AM U.S. Pacific Time
- Application Closes: November 6th, 2020 at Noon U.S. Pacific Time
- Applications Reviewed: November - December 2020
- Applicants Informed: December 2020 - January 2021
- Awardees Announced: February 2021
- Collaborate on study plan with AIR: February - May 2021
Grantees from Phase 1 can then apply for
Phase 2: Pilot Study 13-24 months
8-10 awards up to US$1 million in funding for prototyping and implementation
- Application Opens: April 26th, 2021
- Application Closes: May 14th, 2021
- Applications Reviewed: May - June 2021
- Applicants Informed: July 2021
- Awardees Announced: August 2021
- Pilot studies conducted by AIR, in partnership with grantees and participating sites - Three rounds: Fall 2021, Winter/Spring 2022 (January 2022 start date) and Fall 2022
How Will My Application Be Assessed and By Whom?
Alongside your responses in the official Balance the Equation application, the Gates Foundation has identified the following as critical characteristics of a successful submission:
- Responsiveness of solution to priority student needs, outlined in the Area(s) of Focus.
- Ability to align to high-quality core curriculum as a component of a coherent mathematics instructional system. (We do not expect funded solutions to serve as standalone curriculum to replace core instruction, but rather to address student needs to expand access to core content.)
- Likelihood to produce desired student and teacher outcomes.
- Potential for pilot in Phase 2: Pilot Study during school year 2021-2022 or 2022-2023 alongside AIR.
- Creativity and boldness of thought.
1) Responsiveness of solution to priority students' needs outlined in the Area(s) of Focus.
Five Areas of Focus were derived through primary research with students, teachers, and academic experts across the nation. We believe these areas have the biggest opportunity for altering the traditional classroom* experience for priority students in order to achieve the desired outcomes. We acknowledge the interconnectedness of these areas on a student experience level, but have separated them for application purposes. Applicants will need to identify in their application to which area(s) their solution aligns.
- Builds out Support Systems: Facilitates the creation and maintenance of inclusive mathematics communities* – in person or virtual – between students and adults to build relationships. These supports build critical consciousness* among educators and an understanding about sharing power with students in co-constructing the mathematics learning community; a more expansive view of mathematics among adults and students; and promote meaningful collaboration, deep mathematical thinking, and exploration among students and adults. (S2S, T2T, S2T, S2Adult, T2SFamily)
- Improves Relevance of Algebra Content: Increases the relatability by using real-world examples that connect to the interests of students in the mathematics community (e.g., classroom) and increases focus on making sense of Algebraic concepts.
- Elevates Understanding of Mathematics Language: Improves linguistic awareness and practices by tackling mathematics vocabulary, syntax, morphology [changing word forms], argument structure, or feedback for students (in a manner that especially prioritizes emerging multilingual students, but also benefit monolingual English speakers) and/or teachers. Leverages linguistic and other assets of emerging multilingual students. Takes care not to create avoidable linguistic barriers to mathematical concepts.
- Empowers and Strengthens Teacher Practices: Offers new materials, tools, and strategies that empower, support, and expand teachers' knowledge and use of instructional practices that meet individual student needs, develop mathematical proficiency*, and create positive class experiences on a daily basis.
- Develops New or Better Feedback Mechanisms: Explicitly applies assessment or progress monitoring data for instructional purposes to enhance access to core Algebraic content.
2) Designed for use with a high-quality core curriculum as part of a coherent mathematics instructional system.
Having access to high-quality curriculum materials is an important factor to increase equity* for priority students and to dismantle the belief that 'only a select few are good at mathematics.' While the market is full of free and easily accessible options, today many of these solutions do not provide a full view of students, cannot easily be used together with a core curriculum, and fluctuate wildly in price point. Applicants will need to identify which of these three key components their solution covers.
- Independent Practice: Exercises and problems tied to core curriculum. Can be assigned in class or as homework. Provides students the opportunity to wrestle with content they have yet to master.
- Intervention: Designed specifically to help struggling students participate in mainstream classes or provide additional enrichment opportunities for students ready to extend their learning.
- Assessment to Inform Instruction: Diagnostic and interim assessments that provide data to inform instruction.
3) Likelihood to produce desired priority student and teacher outcomes.
We define a likelihood of addressing outcomes by a combination of:
- Existing evidence that the solution and/or critical components of the solution can move one or more of these outcomes; and
- A compelling, evidence-based articulation of the reasons why the solution has a likelihood of moving one or more of these outcomes ("why it will work").
We see successful solutions tackling some of the following outcomes:
- Increased positive experience in mathematics classrooms
- Increased positive identity* as mathematicians
- Increased mathematics growth and proficiency
- Increased positive mindsets and beliefs about priority student mathematics learning
- Increased skills in adapting curricula and instruction to meet student needs
- Increased use of effective mathematics instructional practices*
4) Potential for pilot in Phase 2: Pilot Study for School Year 2021-2022 or 2022-2023 alongside AIR.
AIR will work with each Balance the Equation Grand Challenge awardee to prepare and submit a pilot study plan for Phase 2. Each awardee will use their study plan as the basis of their Phase 2 proposal, as described in 'Timeline and Process.'
5) Creativity and boldness of thought.
We are searching for ingenuity. Unusual ideas, unexpected approaches, immersive concepts, solutions that surprise and delight. We are looking for solutions that will challenge mathematics education as we know it today.
Applications will be reviewed by internal Gates Foundation staff as well as external subject matter experts and thought leaders within the realm of mathematics relevance, content, language, assessment, professional learning, instructional practices, and the deep expertise centered around the needs of our priority students.
Thank You to Our Contributors
This challenge would not be possible without the many knowledgeable voices from within the educational and mathematics communities who generously provided feedback throughout the development of this challenge. We truly appreciate your involvement and thoughtful contributions.
For questions, please contact the Balance the Equation Grand Challenge Team at: [email protected]
 "Targeted Universalism: Policy & Practice," May 08, 2019, https://belonging.berkeley.edu/targeteduniversalism
 "COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime," June 01, 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-student-learning-in-the-united-states-the-hurt-could-last-a-lifetime#
 "Five Guiding Principles for Creating Inclusive Math Environments," August 31, 2020, https://mindsetscholarsnetwork.org/five-guiding-principles-for-creating-inclusive-mathematics-environments/