ASEE Prism Magazine Online - December 2001
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- By Alvin P. Sanoff

Two recent books, including one written by lifelong civil rights activist Robert P. Moses, examine how math is taught. Moses focuses on a program he developed that targets African-American and other minority students.

Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights by Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr. (Beacon Press, hard cover) $21; paperback (February 2002) $15.

Multiple Perspectives on Mathematics Teaching and Learning edited by Jo Boaler (Ablex Publishing, paperback) $24.95

It is well documented that American middle and high school students are not as accomplished in mathematics as their peers in more than a dozen nations. This has generated much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and the establishment of a series of blue-ribbon commissions that have come up with numerous recommendations for national action.

But while attention has focused on the national level, Robert Moses has quietly worked at the grassroots level to make young people more proficient in math. Moses, a legendary leader of the voting rights movement in Mississippi in the 1960s, launched the Algebra Project almost 20 years ago in one school in Cambridge, Mass. Since then, the program has expanded into schools in 25 cities and now serves more than 40,000 youngsters.

In starting the Algebra Project, Moses was not driven by worries that America is falling behind other nations in math and science. His concern was much more focused, but no less intense. Moses, who holds a doctorate in the philosophy of mathematics from Harvard University, was worried that too many minority students, especially African-Americans, were not mathematically literate at a time when math literacy is every bit as important to the success of today's young people as the ability to read and write at a high level was for their parents and grandparents.

In “Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights,” co-authored with journalist Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Moses argues that “the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout the country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered black voters in Mississippi was in 1961.” If minority youngsters do not become literate in math, he says, they are doomed to be “the designated serfs of the information age, just as the people we worked with in the 1960s on the plantations were Mississippi serfs then.”

To achieve the goal of math literacy, Moses and his disciples teach algebra to minority middle school students so that they enter high school ready to tackle college prep math. “Our aim,” he says, “is to change the situation that currently exists in which large percentages of minority students who get through a high school and get admitted to college have to take remedial math in order to get to the place where they can even get college credit mathematics courses.”

In the book, Moses writes about the development of the Algebra Project in the face of obstacles thrown in his way by school officials unwilling to try something new. Many prefer the comfort of traditional methods in which the teacher lectures and relies heavily on a textbook, even though this approach has not proven successful in many urban schools.

Moses advocates a five-step method in opposition to widely practiced educational techniques. The five stages include physical events, usually a trip on the local transit system; pictorial representation as students begin to move through a series of progressively abstracted representations of the trip; intuitive language/“people talk” as students discuss and write about the physical event in their own language; structural language/“feature talk”—features of the trip around which the mathematics will be built; and symbolic representation. “If students have not explicitly tagged them,” Moses says, “the teacher introduces four fundamental and recurring mathematical features of trips—start, finish, direction and distance.”

“When middle school students use the five-step process to construct symbolic representations of physical events—representations that they themselves make up—they forge, through direct experience, their own platform for mathematical truths,” says Moses. Outside evaluations and test results show that Moses's approach works. At a middle school in San Francisco that uses the Moses method, 56 percent of the black graduates in 1997 took college-prep math courses in the ninth grade, compared with 24 percent of a demographically similar group from the same school district.

To carry the Algebra Project forward, Moses is drawing on the talent of youthful foot soldiers, including his own children. He uses alumni of the project to reach and help teach middle school students. Moses believes that youngsters are more likely to be persuaded that math literacy is something they need when the message is communicated by those close to them in age and experience.

“Radical Equations” provides a good general overview of the Algebra Project and lays out the links Moses sees between the project and his earlier voting rights work. In fact, almost half the book is devoted to a recounting of Moses' civil rights work in Mississippi. But the book falls short in explaining in detail the specifics of the math that is used. An appendix helps. But those with a deep interest in math education will want to know more than the book offers.

It is useful to read the book in tandem with an essay collection, “Multiple Perspectives on Mathematics Teaching and Learning,” edited by Jo Boaler of Stanford University. The collection, while wildly uneven—the subject matter ranges from the useful to esoteric fare likely to appeal only to those with narrow specialized interests—helps puts what Moses is doing in the larger context of an ongoing debate over how math should be taught. On one side of the debate stand those who are “process oriented” or, in colloquial terms, the traditionalists. They rely on a combination of lectures and textbook lessons for their pedagogy. On the other side stand the “constructivists,” who take a more flexible approach. A friend of mine who is a professor of math and is a member of the constructivist camp says that, unlike those who are process-oriented, constructivists “pay attention to what kids are learning and whether they understand it or not.”

There is no disputing that Moses falls squarely into the constructivist camp. He draws heavily on experiential learning and on the need for students to understand what lies behind math symbols; he is not content simply to dispense concepts and formulas with the expectation that students will learn what they are presented with, no questions asked.

A strong case can be made that the failure of so much math instruction to link the abstractions of math with the realities of everyday life helps explain why American students fare so poorly in math. “Mathematics,” says Moses, “must be seen as relevant to gaining control over your life, as connected to change for the better. If math has no relevance to a student's life, the student will not learn it.” Math educators would do well to heed his words.


Alvin P. Sanoff is a writer and higher-education consultant in suburban Washington, D.C. He can be reached at