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The Mass Media

11/27/23 pdf
November 27, 2023

The Mathematics of Social Justice

There are any number of tools that have been used in the fight for social justice and racial equality in this country, whether the civil disobedience tactics practiced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the law itself in the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. In the hands of Robert P. Moses, founder of the Algebra Project, education has proven to be the device to bring about necessary changes in our society.

The Algebra Project, founded in 1982, is a national non-profit organization that strives to provide children in under-privileged communities for success in college and beyond by arming them with a quality public school education. Dr. Moses set up the organization in the hopes of using the teaching of math as a focal point for organizing a curriculum that would allow students to participate as full citizens in a world that is increasing technology-driven. The program was first piloted in Cambridge public middle schools in the mid-eighties and since has spread to more than 200 middle schools across the country, blazing a trail of success in not only the classrooms where the programs were implement, but also the surrounding communities.

Moses, an African America born in Harlem, NY in 1935 is a firm believer that education can empower individuals to change the status quo. After teaching mathematics at the Horace Mann School in New York, Moses went to the South to work full-time in the civil rights movement. He was the field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a committee that played a major role in the sit-ins and freedom rides. In 1964 he directed the Freedom Summer Campaign, the main objective of which was to try to end the political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the Deep South. The campaign concentrated in Mississippi, a state that had the lowest percentage of African Americans registered to vote. He believed that it was necessary to aid local blacks in overcoming years of intimidation and enforced segregation. The campaign’s efforts led to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Party. 80,000 people joined the party and 68 delegates attended the 1964 Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, challenging the attendance of the all-white Mississippi representation.

Years later, Moses would apply what he learned in the civil rights movement years and apply it to the field of mathematics education. In the early eighties while he was completing his PhD studies in philosophy at Harvard he increasingly grew concerned that the children of minorities were failing to achieve the mathematical skills that were necessary for college entrance and future job placement. He became a volunteer at his daughter’s middle school in Cambridge where he noticed that seventh and eighth grade students were not being offered algebra. He considered that algebra should be taught at an earlier age to prepare students and enable them to pursue further studies in mathematics and the natural sciences. He noticed in particular that math placement in the middle school where he was volunteering was skewed along racial and social lines. In 1982, using funds from a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, he established the Algebra Project.

The approach presented by Moses is one that sees math literacy as a civil rights struggle. Moses’ own experience with the civil rights movement guided his thinking and training and mathematics and allowed him to come up with the Algebra Project. This approach is one that seeks to close the gap between universal free public education and universal completion of a college preparatory math sequence in high school. The approach is one that works to build a consensus and organize a movement within the community, involving students, parents and teachers. In this approach students learn through experiential learning methods, they learn about the process of human development and connect it to mathematics, and thus ”building identity, character, analytical and operational capability, and self-confidence.” Moses acknowledged that it is important for teachers to recognize social factors and the youth culture when approaching their students and that it is important to gain an insight into the minds of the young people they are trying to reach.