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.
Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights by Robert P. Moses and
Charles E. Cobb, Jr. (Beacon Press, hard cover) $21; paperback (February
Perspectives on Mathematics Teaching and Learning edited by Jo Boaler
(Ablex Publishing, paperback) $24.95
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 talkfeatures 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 tripsstart, finish, direction and distance.
middle school students use the five-step process to construct symbolic
representations of physical eventsrepresentations that they themselves
make upthey 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
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.
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.
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 uneventhe
subject matter ranges from the useful to esoteric fare likely to appeal
only to those with narrow specialized interestshelps 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.
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.
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.
P. Sanoff is a writer and higher-education consultant in suburban Washington,
D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.