NewSchools Venture Fund Grants to Focus on Ed-Tech Market for Math

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An accelerator connected to the NewSchools Venture Fund will make awards to ed-tech companies focused on what the organization sees as a glaring need: developing high-quality math products for middle and high school students.

NewSchools Ignite, which is part of the Oakland, Calif.-based venture fund, will give out $1.5 million in competitive grants, worth between $50,000 and $150,000 apiece to up to 15 commercial and nonprofit organizations that are in early or growth stages.

NewSchools Ignite says it will not seek equity in return from winners of the competition, which is called the Middle & High School Math Challenge.

The focus on ed-tech math products represents something of a turnabout for the NewSchools Venture Fund, which describes itself as a venture philanthropy.

Initially, the organization was not keen on investing heavily in digital offerings in that area, reasoning that the market was over-saturated, said Tonika Cheek Clayton, managing partner of NewSchools Ignite. But as they studied the landscape of ed-tech math software and systems in greater depth–research that included extensive interviews with ed-tech purchasers–NewSchools officials came to believe that the field was coming up short in several, quite specific areas.

Far too many ed-tech math products today present the subject in shallow and superficial ways, Cheek Clayton argued, merely presenting “the illusion of an advanced way of learning,” when in fact they amount to little more than “taking quizzes and making them electronic,” or visually impressive digital “flash-cards.”

The lineup of digital math options is somewhat better in K-5 grades, but there’s a real paucity of high-quality math offerings tailored to students in grades 6-12, she contends.

Far too many digital math products are overly focused on memorization and math procedure, rather than building conceptual understanding, added Cheek Clayton, in an interview. (It’s worth noting that questions about the proper balance between students’ ability to instantly recall math facts and their ability to apply concepts date back decades.)

NewSchools Ignite hopes its awards will prod ed-tech providers to build or refine math apps, platforms, systems, or tools that foster a broad skills base.

Ultimately, students who develop a more holistic set of math skills will not only be better prepared for advanced math; they will be ready to apply math to solving problems in society, the organization says.

Applicants for grants will be judged on several factors, including their ability to come up with products that serve students at different learning levels and from diverse backgrounds, and whether they foster rich interactions between students and their peers, and with teachers.

Other factors on which vendors will be evaluated: whether they “scaffold” often-overlooked core math concepts, like number sense; their encouragement of “growth mindset,” problem solving, and working through challenges; and the application of math to problems outside the classroom.

The central question is “does it address critical student needs?” Cheek Clayton said. “We want to see what’s out there.”

The math challenge bears some parallels to another competition NewSchools Ignite staged last year, which was also focused on addressing gaps the organization saw in the market: the Science Learning Challenge.

That grant program drew 119 applicants. Fifteen for-profit and nonprofit providers were chosen.

The deadline for applying for the math competition is March 14.

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