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Rethinking Schools

Summer 2001 [Vol. 15, No. 4]

Book Review

Radical Equations:
Math Literacy and Civil Rights
By Robert Moses and Charles E. Cobb Jr.
Boston: Beacon Press, 2001
Hardcover, 233 pages, $21.00

'Racial Equations'

Civil Rights veteran Robert Moses tells the story of the
Algebra Project and the struggle to ensure math literacy for
African Americans.

By David Levine <>

In Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights,
veteran civil rights activist Robert Moses collaborates with
journalist Charles E. Cobb to offer a stirring account of
the Algebra Project, a reform initiative designed to help
African-American students achieve a high level of
mathematical competency. The book raises important issues
about both math education and the struggle for racial equity
within our schools.

The Algebra Project focuses mainly on the middle-school
years, when Moses and his colleagues believe
African-American children must be prepared to enter high
school math classes, which will open the door to higher
education and technical careers requiring a strong math
background. It encompasses new curricular materials, teacher
training, the development of student leadership, and
community involvement well beyond the scope of most
educational reform efforts. From a modest beginning in
Cambridge, Mass., the program has grown into a national
network with 18 sites, over 100 schools, and 40,000

As a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC), Moses pioneered voter registration work in
Mississippi during the early 1960s. Through his soft-spoken
courage and patient encouragement of local leadership, he
played a crucial role in building the movement which
overturned state-sanctioned segregation and disfranchisement
in the South. After a sojourn in Tanzania, where he and his
wife Janet taught school, he and his family moved to Boston.

By 1982, Moses had been tutoring his eldest child Maisha in
math for years. He believed she was ready for algebra, a
subject not offered for eighth graders at her Cambridge,
Mass., school. Since Maisha rebelled against having to do
"two maths" -- her regular schoolwork and the algebra
tutorials her father insisted upon -- he convinced her
teacher to let him come to school to tutor her during the
day. Soon he was working with a small group of students, and
the Algebra Project was underway. As the program grew, it
also became a family collaboration -- Moses' wife Janet and
his children Maisha, Omo, Taba, and Malaika all came to play
important roles. In the early 1990s, Moses convinced a
colleague from his Mississippi days, Dave Dennis, to bring
the program into the Delta. This work has grown into a
multi-state "Southern Initiative" of the project, which
Dennis directs.

In their book, Moses and Cobb (a SNCC field secretary in
Mississippi from 1962 to 1967 and now a senior writer for present the Algebra Project as a spiritual
descendant and practical continuation of their organizing in
Mississippi 40 years ago. They argue that the civil rights
movement's undeniable achievements in winning civic
empowerment and formal equality for African Americans failed
to overcome the economic servitude still endured by millions
of black Americans. This failure has been exacerbated by
profound technological changes. Farm mechanization has
reduced the 110,000 agricultural jobs in the Mississippi
Delta during the 1960s to just 17,000 jobs today, reflecting
a national erosion in semi-skilled and unskilled jobs in the
industrial sector. At the same time, the computer revolution
has generated the need for "knowledge workers" with strong
academic skills. Cobb and Moses contend that poor (and
poorly educated) white, Black, and Latino students of today
are the equivalent of Mississippi's disfranchised Black
sharecroppers of the 1960s, "trapped at the bottom with
prisons as their plantations." More specifically, they argue
that mastery of the increasingly technological workplace
depends on increasingly sophisticated math skills, including
algebra. "People who don't have it [algebra] are like the
people who couldn't read and write in the industrial age,"
they argue.

To help African-American students master mathematical
literacy, the program has replaced traditional, rote-bound
instruction with imaginative activities that engage student
creativity and encourage sophisticated mathematical
reasoning. An African drums curricular unit is designed to
pair a drummer and a teacher in lessons which teach fourth
and fifth graders about ratios, proportions, fractions, and
rates. In his work with high school geometry classes, Moses
encourages students to post their own versions of geometric
proofs on the classroom wall, to be analyzed and possibly
challenged by their classmates.

For the sixth-grade curriculum, which forms a bridge from
arithmetic into algebraic thinking, Moses designed a
five-step learning process. The students first observe or
experience a physical event. For example, in a unit on
positive and negative numbers, Cambridge students begin with
a subway ride during which the teacher asks questions that
focus their attention on their shifting environment. They
then draw pictures, construct models, or in some other way
create a representation of the event. The following step is
to write a description of the event in their own language.
Next, each class member translates their description into
"regimented English," highly compact language which moves
them into a mathematical mode, and from which they finally
render the event as a mathematical expression. This
five-step process helps students gain a firm grasp of
mathematical ideas, connect math to everyday life, and
become comfortable communicating in the language of
mathematics. Similar classroom practices in geometry and
algebra courses encourage students to debate mathematical
problems and actively construct their own understanding of
math concepts.

The Algebra Project's pedagogy is not unique. It resonates
with the experiential, inquiry-based approach advocated by
the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and
resembles intellectually robust math instruction that can be
found in some classrooms around the country. But the
grassroots organizing philosophy of the program offers a
dramatic departure from many mainstream reform efforts.

Moses believes that math education innovations are often
implemented by university researchers whose primary frame of
reference is their own discipline and academic community,
and the modus operandi is to offer pre-packaged programs to
schools. In contrast, the Algebra Project works on the
premise that oppressed people can only win just schools
through political organizing. To emphasize this perspective,
the early part of the book describes how Moses and other
civil rights activists built the Mississippi movement during
the 1960s. With the guidance of Ella Baker, an experienced
veteran of the Black freedom struggle, Moses and his
companions learned to develop the capacity of "ordinary
people" to act as leaders and collaborate to bring about
fundamental social change. Their approach, with its patient
emphasis on democracy and nurturing the talents of poor
people, has come to be known among civil rights historians
as the "organizing tradition" of the movement. It is often
contrasted with the "mobilizing tradition" of Martin Luther
King, Jr. and other charismatic leaders, which is successful
at turning out large numbers at demonstrations but often
neglects the day-to-day work that builds powerful and
sustained grassroots involvement.

For the Algebra Project, "organizing in the spirit of Ella"
rests on three principles:

1) The centrality of families to the work of organizing.

When Moses and other young organizers reached the
Mississippi Delta, they connected with strong local leaders.
Often, these leaders would involve family members in the
movement, helping to create crucial networks of political
activists. The Algebra Project seeks to involve the families
of students and other community members in committees which
run the local projects.

2) Organizing in the context of the community in which one
lives and works.

The young civil rights workers were absorbed into local
families, who fed, housed, and protected them from hostile
whites. This helped the activists "sink deep roots into the
community." The Algebra Project also operates on the idea
that staff members should be fully immersed in the
communities which host local projects.

3) Young people need to be empowered to fight for their own

Moses points out that high school- and college-age young
people provided some of the crucial leadership of the civil
rights movement. He believes that the reforms necessary for
young Black people to achieve deep math literacy will only
come about when they become ardent and savvy advocates for
their own education. Through the program's Young People's
Project, for example, students tutor their peers, lead
workshops for students and adults, and help plan and run
math youth camps during the summer.


One of the book's core arguments is that students must
master algebra to succeed in the workplace of the future.
They cite Labor Department statistics that 70 percent of
current jobs require "technology literacy" and that by 2010
all jobs will require "significant technical skills."
Increasingly, essential technological expertise has come to
mean relatively sophisticated understanding of how to use
computers to perform a multitude of vocational tasks. To
fully master computers, they argue, students need to be
comfortable manipulating symbolic repre- sentations which
represent "underlying mathematical concepts." They further
argue that our society has designated algebra as the place
where young people acquire such skills.

This cornerstone argument needs further documentation to be
fully creditable. The phrases "technology literacy" and
"significant technical skills" are quite general. We need to
know if such literacy and skills specifically include
algebraic thinking. Another issue is the varied impact of
increased computer use on different occupations. The
computerization of a job does not always bring the need for
more sophisticated intellectual skills. Many low-paying
service jobs have incorporated computer use which require
learning some new procedures, but not mastering
substantially more demanding cognitive tasks. The authors
would have been more persuasive if they had offered concrete
examples of how algebraic skills are used in particular
jobs, and evidence that such jobs are or will become a major
part of our evolving economy.

Nevertheless, Cobb and Moses are not wrong to assert that
algebra functions as a crucial gatekeeper to full economic
opportunity. Even if a young person is not drawn toward a
highly technical vocation, high school algebra is usually
required for college entry. In addition, algebra provides
knowledge necessary for advanced math which prepares
students for a number of technical and scientific careers.
Too many students of color lose these options through poor
math performance before they reach high school. As Cobb and
Moses note, part of this problem is reflected in Ph.D.
statistics for technical fields. In 1995, Blacks were 15
percent of the U.S. population but earned "only 1.8 percent
of the Ph.D.s in computer science, 2.1 percent of those in
engineering, 1.5 percent in the physical sciences, and 0.6%
in mathematics." Finally, even though the authors could have
presented stronger evidence regarding the relevance of
algebra to adult employment, the technological evolution of
many occupations does support their case. An understanding
of algebraic concepts can help workers become more adept at
working with spreadsheets, graphs, and databases. Our
computer-based economy increasingly calls for such skills,
even outside of highly technical fields.


In assessing initiatives such as Algebra Project, a crucial
question is whether the program is meeting its stated goals.

In Bessemer, Ala., teachers at Hart Elementary, a school of
mostly poor, Black children, started participating in the
Algebra Project in the fall of 1991 while teachers at the
predominantly white West Hills, one of the "top elementary
schools" in the district, continued with traditional math
instruction. During a three-year study initiated in 1995,
Hart moved from trailing West Hills on standardized math
tests by several points to exceeding it by a few points,
compiling the highest scores in the district.

Radical Equations and other Algebra Project reports are
filled with similar success stories. They also document
instances in which Algebra Project students register in
greater numbers than their peers in higher-level math
courses. As Cobb and Moses tell the Algebra Project story,
they weave into their narrative extended testimonials from
parents, teachers, and students which provide both
penetrating explanations of the reform process and many
examples of how the program has helped students learn more.

While the vignettes and overall narrative thread give us a
persuasive picture of an effective reform movement, the book
would have been strengthened by more systematic
documentation and analysis of the program's impact on
student achievement. We need to learn more about the extent
of the program's success in strengthening students' math
abilities, and the classroom dynamics which make such
success possible. In-depth case histories of Algebra Project
classrooms would be helpful, as would comparisons between
the learning experience of students within the program and
the learning experience of similar students in traditional
math classes. Research on the project should not fall victim
to the popular and crude trend in American education to
judge programs mostly by narrow quantitative measures. Cobb
and Moses cite increased standardized test scores to
document the program's success, but realize that such
numbers only tell a small part of the story. They examine
the Algebra Project's impact on student motivation and work
habits, teacher attitudes and behaviors, and community
involvement. Future research should build upon and extend
this holistic approach.


In a review of school reform during the past century,
educational historians Larry Cuban and David Tyack note that
innovations often falter because their advocates fail to win
political support. Radical Equations does a good job of
teasing out insights from the kind of political work which
builds durable support for substantive changes in how
schools function. It offers a refreshing contrast to glib
and self-congratulatory recipes for fixing up schools.

Even after nearly two decades of nurturing the program,
Moses writes, "I have thought of the Algebra Project as a
young child who is trying to stand up and teetering and
falling down a little, then getting back up." The book pays
careful attention to this teetering up and down of small
groups of people trying to make their schools better. Cobb
and Moses glean insights into the often contentious dynamics
of school change from battles with the constraints of rigid
standardized testing, uneasy administrators, and
bureaucratic fear of innovation. The challenges faced by the
Algebra Project affirm what they learned in Mississippi:
people have to be willing to change themselves if they are
to develop the strengths they will need to change the

Beyond the issue of math instruction, the Algebra Project
offers compelling lessons on how determined networks of
educators, parents, and students can build a program which
advances educational equity. Such democratic renewal
promises the obvious rewards of promoting academic and
vocational success for young people. But perhaps just as
important, it also affirms local people's cultural values
and capacity to deepen community life through shaping the
public institution most likely to have a profound impact on
their children. "Organizing in the spirit of Ella" means
school reform which enriches the lives of teachers,
community members, and students.

In contrast to top-down reform initiatives which demean the
expertise and professional pride of teachers, Moses and his
colleagues have developed training programs which build upon
their strengths. A Cambridge, Mass., teacher comments, "Bob
was affirming what we were doing while he was helping us
change. He didn't come in and say, 'We're throwing this out,
it's junk.' He came in and said, 'You guys are great. Wanna
try something different?' When we asked, 'How will it work?'
he turned around and asked, 'Well, how do think it should
work? What do you want to have happen?'" By posing problems
rather than solutions, Moses invites teachers to confront
and work through the frustration and anxiety of
experimenting with new ways of teaching.

Such collaborative processes within the classroom are
buttressed by efforts to involve community members. Although
the dynamics of community involvement differ from site to
site, the project is deeply committed to encouraging local
control. During a 1998 visit to Jackson, Miss., Algebra
Project, I talked with Kathy Sykes, who served as a project
staff member and representative on the local Site Planning
Committee. This group reviewed the program budget, helped
plan such activities as student retreats, and encouraged
parents to serve as chaperones for program activities. The
committee also encouraged parents to sit in on classes, and
eventually hoped to train parents as classroom assistants.
Sykes told me, "I feel this is sort of like a crusade ... I
think that the work which is going on here will make a
difference in the lives of our people and that's why I want
to do what I can to see that it continues."

The program seeks to instill this spirit of personal
responsibility through pedagogy which encourages students to
break out of their own passivity and take charge of their
own learning. Mary Lou Mehring recounts how 12-year-old
student Andrea Harvey asserted, "I'm going to do four
lessons a week because I want to finish such-and-such by the
seventh grade, so that I can finish the book by the eighth
grade, so I can be in honors geometry in the ninth grade."
Andrea went on to work with the Algebra Project and
eventually become certified to teach math in the Boston

As a continuation of the civil rights movement, the Algebra
Project places itself firmly in the tradition of education
aimed at racial equality. At the same time, Moses
conceptualizes the goal of the endeavor almost exclusively
as improved job opportunities. The program does not appear
to directly use math instruction to help young people see
full citizenship as the opportunity to use their math skills
to promote social justice. As indicated by middle school
teacher Eric Gutstein's article in the Spring 2001 issue of
Rethinking Schools, math can be used to analyze social
inequities within our society -- such topics as the
disparities between rich and poor school districts, the
mathematics of sweatshop economics and the quantitative
injustices built into the wealth and income structure of our
society. Such themes might represent a fruitful direction as
the program's curriculum evolves.

However, the absence of political math content hardly means
the program is apolitical. The authors persuasively echo
Ella Baker's assertion that demanding something which is
essential to your life which you are systematically deprived
of is an inherently radical act. Moses approvingly cites
instances when young people agitate that their schools
dramatically improve math instruction.

For African Americans, the struggle for education has always
been entwined within the struggle for freedom. This intimate
historical relationship is underscored when the authors
quote Mississippi school desegregation activist Mae Bertha
Carter: "The way to control Black people or anybody is to
keep them dumb. Back in slave time they catch you reading
and they would whip you. Education, that's the goal. These
[present day] school systems ain't doing nothing but
handicapping these children."

In a society so afflicted with faulty historical memory, the
Algebra Project demonstrates the necessity of learning from
our past to fashion our future. In doing so, it puts history
to its most honorable and practical use.


David Levine, an editorial associate of Rethinking Schools,
teaches in the School of Education at the University of
North Carolina - Chapel Hill. He would like to thank Bill
Bigelow, Beverly Cross, Mark Ellis, Susan Friel, Rick
Kitchen, Howard Machtinger, and Carol Malloy for advice on
this review.


To get in touch with the Algebra Project contact: Algebra
Project National Headquarters, 99 Bishop Richard Allen
Drive, Cambridge, MA 02139. 617- 491-0200. Web site:
<>; David J. Dennis Sr., Director of
the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project, c/o Positive
Innovations, 5135 Galaxie Drive, Bldg. A, Jackson, MS 39206.

Copyright (c) 2001 Rethinking Schools. All Rights Reserved.

Our World


Why Does Louisiana Democracy Project Care About Environmental Justice


Louisiana is a state rich with natural resources.  These resources are turned into products which multi-national corporations sell all over the world.

Segments of the Louisiana population receive a disproportionately high number of toxins and industrial pollutants while receiving very little benefit.  These Louisiana citizens have special health and quality of life concerns brought on by living so close to these facilities.  They are usually poor and unlike their multi-billion dollar neighbors they  trouble having their voices heard at the decision making tables that deeply effect their lives.

        While their health, land, air and water are being polluted, big dollars are drowning out their voices for fairness and humanity.  The high cost of campaigning makes it virtually impossible for them to elect enough members of the legislature and congress to change their condition.  All of the stockholders of these large corporations live well away from their facilities however most contribute substantially to the candidates of their choice in the  Louisiana states legislature and in the United States Congress.

        The plight of environmental justice victims is one of access to the democratic system.