In the Information Age, civil rights activist promotes mathematics education to foster national citizenship

By Dwight A. Weingarten

Medill Reports

Activist Bob Moses hearkened back to the Civil Rights Movement when describing his inspiration for The Algebra Project, which seeks to raise the floor of math literacy for students in the bottom quartile of state standardized exams across the U.S.

In the spring of 1963, Bob Moses found himself on the witness stand in federal district court after field secretaries of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were arrested for registering people to vote in Mississippi.

“Why is SNCC taking illiterates down to register to vote?,” Judge Claude F. Clayton asked Moses.

The judge wasn’t asking about quantitative literacy, Moses recalled 56 years later, just the 20th century literacy requirements of reading and writing that were necessary for economic and democratic participation at that time.

“The Information Age has an added literacy of mathematics,” says Ben Moynihan, the director of operations for The Algebra Project. Gleaning pedagogical insight from the community meetings held during the 1960s, The Algebra Project model looks to tap into the inner strength of students.

The project’s model is designed to accelerate low performing students through a collaborative learning process, “changing the dynamic in the classroom from the teacher as the primary, if not sole resource for knowledge and insight into the math,” said Moses, “to students and asking them and allowing them to demonstrate what they bring to the mathematical table.”

In 2016, when the National Science Foundation sent out a request for proposals to broaden participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, the 34-year-old Algebra Project responded with a proposal.

“We wanted to work on this problem through the lens of the bottom quartile and the math they needed for the 21st century,” said Moses, who helped spread The Algebra Project across the county through workshops and professional development institutes.

After receiving NSF funding, The Algebra Project has spent the last several years drawing on contacts developed over the past decades to grow the alliance of people across the country working on the problem of representation in STEM.

The “We the People-Math Literacy for All” Alliance, an outgrowth of The Algebra Project’s work, develops local leadership to address students in the bottom quartile’s readiness to do college mathematics without remediation.

Moses, founded The Algebra Project in 1982, asserting that technological advances brought about by the computer created the need for additional literacies.

“In that context, in this country, algebra became a gatekeeper and math literacy, including algebra, was added to the reading and writing literacies,” said Moses.

For Moses, his work today is a continuation of the same theme to which he dedicated himself in Mississippi during the 1960s –  “What is the meaning of national citizenship?”

As government officials discuss immigration and trade and as the World Wide Web turns 30 years old, “the reality is as machine intelligence gets better and better, the economic position of lots of people doing routine jobs steadily erodes,” said Ted Dintersmith, author and education philanthropist living in Virginia.

Like the vote during the 1960s, said Moses, algebra and mathematics education are “an organizing tool for educational, economic, and political participation.”

“We are a country that lurches forward and back,” said Moses, who ties math literacy for the students at the bottom with national citizenship.

Moses, acknowledging one of the challenges of working and organizing in any movement, concluded, “It’s a little different for people to think about their individual lives and paths as part of a larger era which is shaping what the fundamental quest is in that era.”

Photo at top: In the Information Age, The Algebra Project looks to use mathematics education as an organizing tool. Bob Moses worked as an organizer in Mississippi during the 1960s and continues the work using mathematics education to foster citizenship. (Photo: Image left by: Oberholster Venita from Pixabay, Image right by: Boston Harborfest, Flickr )