Balancing the Equation: Innovating Algebra 1 education for Black, Latino and students experiencing poverty in the United States

We designed a unique programme for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenge. Working with a large cohort of education innovators, here’s what we learned.

By Michelle Joseph & Andrea Kobor

Since 2018, the WFP Innovation Accelerator has provided innovation journeys for innovation teams selected for the Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) Program, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). The Gates foundation launched its first ever Grand Challenge focused on education in the United States in October 2020. Building off the Accelerator’s experience supporting early stage projects for GCE finalists in health campaign effectiveness and immunizations, WFP was invited to expand our reach and impact with a United States of America (U.S.A.) domestic-focused innovation programme for Balance the Equation — A Grand Challenge for Algebra 1.

In the U.S.A., the Algebra 1 high school course is an important indicator of students’ future success. The chances of graduating from high school are one in five for students who do not complete Algebra 1. Algebra 1 is also a gatekeeper to future success for students who are Black, Latino, who speak another language other than English, and students experiencing poverty. Phase-one planning and prototyping grants were awarded to 15 organizations with tools and curricula that are consciously designed in ways that make math more relevant, engaging, and accessible for underserved students.

Teams participated in a six-week innovation journey consisting of workshop days, individual coaching sessions, and research. This initial part of the programme not only gave them the opportunity to learn from experts and each other, it also allowed them to quickly test the value of their solutions. Teams were then able to advance and refine their work over a three week period. There were three main features of the programme: individual team time, working groups, and field research. Below we describe our experience and learnings.

1. Individual team time allows for more productive conversations later.

On workshop days, an hour-long plenary session introduced a focus topic for the day. Innovation teams then had the chance to work on their own for an hour (i.e. individual team time) before meeting other teams and their facilitator in the Working Group session. Each team nominated a facilitator, time keeper, and Mural master to manage their online workspace. In this way, teams were able to hold each other accountable and work on the day’s activities independently first, which positioned them to have more aligned and focused conversations with other teams and their facilitator later on.

2. Working Groups are a powerful way to facilitate peer support.

WFP Accelerator Bootcamps typically involve five to nine teams, allowing facilitators to work with just one team each. Due to the large size of the cohort, the “Balance the Equation” challenge had 15 teams, divided into Working Groups of three teams to one facilitator. Each group shared a common theme such as solutions focused on improving the understanding of math for multilingual students, interactive learning platforms, and student-driven content. Grouping teams this way encouraged collaboration amongst the teams, and allowed participants to get deeper insights from other teams’ solutions, research results, and receive peer feedback.

Interestingly, although this solution was born out of necessity, it turned out to be the most valuable aspect of the programme. We can not underestimate the power of peer support and learning: all teams agreed that the opportunity to work closely together with two other teams throughout the programme was highly valuable. For example, the cohort’s only Europe-based team was grouped with two U.S.A.-based, minority-led organizations. Thanks to our skilled facilitator and the open mindset of the teams, their collaboration flourished during the programme, leading to meaningful exchange and conversations about the reality of Black and Latino students in the United States. This not only motivated teams to make their solution more accessible to students they are planning for through their field research, but it allowed groups to have conversations they may not have working more independently.

3. Rapid field research leads to more applied learning and iterations.

Participants had the opportunity to design a field research plan to rapidly test some of their most critical assumptions with their users. Teams were tasked with organising and running user interviews or user tests within a short period with facilitator support to make sense of their findings. Carving the time to talk directly to students and teachers during the programme ensured teams were keeping users at the center of their solutions. After the research, teams came back together to learn about each other’s insights, craft a product roadmap, and plan for future iterations based on new insights and a better understanding of teachers and priority students in the U.S.

The overall experience provided a six-week accelerated learning journey for the teams where the insights from facilitators, peers and most importantly, users, highlighted the strengths and gaps of their projects. Many of the teams decided to pivot their solution or to narrow down and focus their solution in a way that provided the most value to users.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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