For Grabs: $1.5M To Edtech Startups That Fill Math Learning Gaps

An edtech startup with a great idea to improve math instruction might find the competition pretty daunting by now. Crowds of math products are already vying with each other for teachers’ attention and school district dollars.

Yet NewSchools Ignite, a non-profit edtech accelerator that helps young companies fill gaps across the digital learning landscape, announced today that it has chosen math as the focus of its latest competition for seed funding.

“You’d think that math is the last place we’d look because there are so many things out there,” NewSchools Ignite managing partner Tonika Cheek Clayton says.

But quantity doesn’t always equal quality, she says. While the market abounds with math learning products, taken together, they fall short in two ways, NewSchools Ignite concluded after talking to teachers and education experts. The offerings often don’t work well for middle school and high school students, especially among students of color. And many of the programs don’t teach higher ­level math thinking.

Clayton says some of the programs look snazzy, but only give the illusion of being an advanced way of learning math. Instead, they function as digital flash cards, memorization games, or electronic work sheets, she says.

“You don’t really get to the deep understanding of math concepts,” Clayton says.

So NewSchools Ignite, launched last July by Oakland-based nonprofit venture philanthropy firm NewSchools Venture Fund, is opening applications today for its Middle and High School Math Learning Challenge. A total of $1.5M in funding is up for grabs, to be split among as many as 15 winners. Grants will range from $50,000 to $150,000, and participants will also receive mentoring support and the opportunity to field-test their products during the six-month long accelerator program starting in early May. NewSchools Ignite doesn’t take an equity stake in the startups it backs.

Applications must be in by March 14. Interviews for those chosen as semi­finalists are set to begin March 22; the winners will get the word by April 22.
Clayton says the accelerator is zeroing in on products for grades 6 to 12, because that’s where the gaps are greatest. While the options for K-5 students aren’t perfect, she says, they’re more plentiful.

Even so, those K-5 math learning products can’t be used to help middle school and high school students who have fallen behind on skills usually learned in elementary school, Clayton says. Older kids will be put off if they’re cajoled to “learn from a penguin” or another cutesy mascot, she says.

“You need products that are tailored to those students,” Clayton says.

NewSchools Ignite is looking for edtech teams who can figure out how to engage older students by tapping into their particular interests—including the jobs they dream of doing—in order to show them how to solve real-world problems using math.

That might be accomplished by an edtech program that uses social media to foster a collaboration among teachers and students, who could cook up several different ways to find a mathematical solution. In that way of working, failure would not be a catastrophe, but would be seen as an important step in the learning process, as NewSchools Ignite sees it.

Successful applicants for the accelerator program will have a working prototype of their product that judges can play with and send to external reviewers, Clayton says. “It can’t be just an idea,” she says. NewSchools Ignite will be looking for companies with a business model that is scaleable and sustainable.

But will a small company that fits all these criteria eventually be able to muscle its way into a math edtech market that some see as already saturated? Clayton says it will. Teachers are now more sophisticated consumers of educational technology, and they’re becoming more choosy, she says.

“They’re more likely to switch to something they’re happier with,” Clayton says. “Just because no one has produced the product yet doesn’t mean there isn’t a demand for it.”

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