Radical Equations

By David Levine

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

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 students.

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 allAfrica.com) 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 liberation.

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 system.

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 schools.

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.