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`Algebra Project' Seeks To Improve Math Literacy, Address Civil Rights Issues.

Imagine a 13-year-old in a low-income community who describes himself this way: "I'm a math literacy worker. I speak math. I do math. I work with math."

His name is David and he's part of a second revolution that Robert Moses, the legendary civil rights activist, is trying to lead through his Algebra Project.

Before anyone in Congress or the White House says another word about education reform, they owe themselves a few hours with Moses' new book on his crusade, "Radical Equations" (Beacon Press). Moses cuts through cant and phony debates with the serene urgency of someone who risked his life in the civil rights revolution.

The thesis of the book -- co-authored with Charles Cobb, another civil rights hero -- is straightforward: that "the most urgent social issue affecting poor people and people of color is economic access. In today's world, economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy."

Verbal literacy, says Moses, a Harvard-trained mathematician, is no longer enough. Algebra, "once solely in place as the gatekeeper for higher math and the priesthood who gained access to it, now is the gate-keeper for citizenship; and people who don't have it are like the people who couldn't read and write in the Industrial Age." The Algebra Project proposes new ways of teaching math to kids others have written off as failures.

Moses argues that unless education is rooted in the culture of today's students, many will just walk away. He believes most students can be inspired to learn higher math, but part of the inspiration will come from organizing by parents and students themselves.

"Like sharecroppers demanding the right to vote 40 years ago when those in power said they did not vote because they were apathetic, our students will have to demand education from those in power who say they do not get educated because they are dysfunctional," he writes. Yet Moses is a realist. "If you are a kid, for example, it can be great to go into a classroom and not be required to do any work, a relief not having anything, or very much, expected of you."

The objective is to win students to the idea that they can learn, and to demand the chance to do so. (The book's subtitle is "Math Literacy and Civil Rights.") Once engaged, students feel "less intimidated by difficult material and more determined to master what they didn't understand."

President Bush's education bill, with its requirements for continual testing, will sharpen the debate over whether "teaching to the test" helps or hinders education. Here again, Moses is a realist.

The problem with testing is that "we ask teachers to embrace change," and yet "the pressure on teachers is not to take risks but to march whatever children they can, lock-step, toward higher standardized test scores."

But testing is reasonable, because "parents want to know what these kids have learned at the end of the day." How can we satisfy this demand and at the same time "genuinely help--rather than hindering or punishing--children's learning? His answer is totally candid. "We are in a conundrum over this question, because there is no agreement about what assessments should be like in order to do both."

The key, of course, lies in teaching--the issue, says Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), that neither Democrats nor Republicans are addressing sufficiently. Can that change? In contrast to his hard-line stance on taxes, Bush has been admirably bipartisan in selling his education bill. It would do no harm if Bush encouraged Price and others dedicated to improving teaching to expand the bill's focus.

But Moses' civil rights experience impresses upon him that enduring changes can't just come from the top. They must come from communities of people who organize to make demands, and in the process transform themselves.

"The civil rights movement of the 1960s," he writes, "was less about challenges and pretests against white power than feeling our way toward our own power and possibilities--really a series of challenges by ourselves, and our communities, to ourselves."

One characteristic of America's crooked path to racial equality has been a to-and-fro between calls for "self-help," and political action aimed at tearing down institutionalized racism.

The genius of the civil rights era approach was its insistence that these strategies are inseparable. Students who demand the right to learn math are placing obligations on society--and on themselves. As Moses says, they are addressing exactly the same question their civil rights forebears posed: "How do the people at the bottom get into the mix?" That's still the right question to ask.

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is
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Title Annotation:Robert Moses, author, interview
Author:Dionne, E.J. Jr.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 12, 2001
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