Grand Challenges are a series of grant-making initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation focused on fostering innovation to solve key problems in global health, development, and equitable access to opportunity. Early in 2020, two teams within the foundation's K-12 Program, Coherent Instructional Systems and Middle Years Math, set out to release a Grand Challenge, primarily focused on Black, Latino, emergent multilingual learners, and/or students from communities experiencing poverty to dramatically overhaul and improve student experiences and outcomes in Algebra 1.
The foundation partnered with Substantial to use design research and strategy to help define the most impactful areas of focus to affect change in the Algebra 1 landscape. These opportunity areas would then inform the Grand Challenge.
For middle and high school students, Algebra 1 is one of the most important indicators of future success. Students who don’t complete Algebra 1 have only a 1 in 5 chance of graduating from high school. Many young people don’t have the support they need in the Algebra 1 classroom — especially Black and Latino students, students from communities experiencing poverty, and emergent multilingual learners.
The goal of the Grand Challenge was to encourage the brightest minds across the country to submit ideas that promise to accelerate student learning toward mastery of Algebra 1 by the end of 9th grade. Moreover, the foundation outlined their desire for this Grand Challenge to elicit a response from people who might not typically apply to large grants.
Led by VP of Strategy, Sheryl Cababa, Substantial’s researchers sought to conduct human-centered design research that provided the foundation with: 1) a full understanding of the Algebra 1 existing ecosystem and its stakeholders; and 2) a clear definition of the ideal areas of focus to address student mastery of Algebra 1.
The Substantial team focused on two major points of inquiry: 1) harnessing the expertise of math and education luminaries through participatory design workshops, and 2) learning about and elevating student voices through direct activities and interviews with Black and Latino Algebra 1 students. Aligning with principles of targeted universalism which emphasizes an understanding that Black and Latino students are not a monolith, we sought to interview students from varied economic backgrounds, school types, and U.S. geographic regions, both urban and rural.
To carry out this work, the team also partnered with EdSolutions for market and quantitative context, and Samantha Gil-Vargas from Geeking Out Kids of Color to provide cultural context for our researchers. The start of the research project coincided with the beginnings of the COVID-19 global pandemic. As a result, the team had to find creative ways to conduct research and engage expert stakeholders in a virtual format, rather than the usual approach of contextual inquiry and dynamic in-person workshops.