TOPICS > Education

Algebra Project

June 9, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It looks like a bunch of kids doing a rap number, but they are actually learning their prime numbers for a middle school math class in Jackson Mississippi. And this may look just like a relay game, but these Jackson High School students are learning Algebra concepts. First, the kids throw color- coded dice, then translate the color combination into Algebraic form. Away from the textbooks, variables and frequently abstract and often complicated formulas become a lot less intimidating. It’s all part of something called the Algebra Project, now in more than 100 schools in 22 states. Both publicly and privately funded, it has one aim: To make thousands of poor minority children math literate before they leave high school. Bob Moses is creator and director of the Algebra project. He teaches math at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi.

ROBERT MOSES, Founder, Algebra Project: It’s a literacy requirement that we haven’t quite grasped, that it’s important the same way reading and writing was during the transition into an industrial economy. I think it’s going to have the same impact: Those who get it will be the citizens; those who don’t will be the serfs.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The idea for the Algebra Project grew out of Moses’ experiences as a civil rights worker in Mississippi in the 1960’s. Moses first came to the state as -year-old Harvard graduate, determined to help thousands of blacks register to vote.

ROBERT MOSES: We hope to send in to Mississippi this summer upwards of 1,000 teachers, ministers, lawyers, and students.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Moses recruited young students to help him register black people to vote. They formed a Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. Many of them were beaten and arrested for their activities.

ROBERT MOSES: Let’s see what it says.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today Moses believes math literacy is a civil right, as important to young people as what he tried to accomplish 30 years ago.

ROBERT MOSES: In Mississippi that’s what we saw in the sharecropping system. When we arrived in the 1960’s, there were people who were literally serfs, and so they were outside of the money economy of that time. So the question for us is, can we put a floor out here under everybody in the country so everybody can be citizens now?

STUDENT: Put a line going through point "b."

ROBERT MOSES: Well, you need your point "c" first.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Moses developed the concept for the Algebra project in 1982 while teaching in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

ROBERT MOSES: I want to make your line "a-b" now. You see another team that doesn’t agree. I want to go talk to…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ten years later, he returned to the scene of his civil rights work to set up the Delta Algebra Project. Mississippi has the lowest student test scores in the country; it is also a state that is almost at the bottom in the amount of money it spends to educate its children; but those facts don’t seem to faze this group of Lanier students we spoke to who participated in the Algebra project.

KATRINA ARNOLD: It’s a lot of people who think that, because you’re black, that you can’t amount to anything, you can’t do math, you’re not going to be nothing in life; and what the Algebra Project does is it uplifts you to let you know that you can be anything that you want to be.

JOHNNY BROWE: Teach you posture, how to carry yourself around people. Like if you want to go and get a job, they’ll tell you how to go… how to present yourself and carry yourself around. You wouldn’t like to go to a job with that big old Afro, baggy pants, pants hanging all the way down to your legs and stuff.

JESSIE SAMS: Tell you the truth, I feel overwhelmingly good about myself, because growing up I liked to draw, and I want to become a landscaping engineer. I know that it takes a lot of math to be a landscaping engineer, so right now I’m struggling in math to become what I want to be.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The core of the Algebra Project is field trips, which introduce math concepts to the students by relating them to everyday activities.

TEACHER: How much time did you spend at the fire station? In order to answer that question, you need to know what time it was when you arrived, and what time it was when you left.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In Mississippi, the Algebra Project often takes kids on field trips to various civil rights landmarks. That way they can become familiar with the history of their area as well as learn how the number of locations on the trip can later be applied to learn Algebra concepts. Here the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers was explained to students in front of his House.

TEACHER: You guys are in a movie world right now. Get out of it. Get out of the movie world and step into what really happened in the past.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That was teacher Lyn Moss explaining that Evers’ murder was a serious tragedy.

LYN MOSS: We took the trip, and the kids began to understand that there’s a lot of meaning and a lot of depth to the civil rights movement in this area, a lot of history that they needed to understand. Then we come back to the classroom, and we actually began to use that trip in formulating what we first call a trip line.


LYN MOSS: Which is to show the location of numbers on a number line.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And that’s an early concept you have to get.

LYN MOSS: That’s an early concept you have to get.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: To go and do Algebra.


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Making abstract ideas something you can see and touch is what the Algebra Project is all about. This game called Flag Way shows students how to factor numbers. Lanier Senior James Roach is one of Moses’ students, in the first class to graduate from the Algebra Project in June. Like the others, he now instructs younger students, passing on what he’s learned, and gaining self-confidence as well.

JAMES ROACH: Six times two.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: This is James in the sixth grade. Back then he wore glasses and struggled with math. He also was angry and withdrawn after a family tragedy.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today James is the president of the senior class, assistant drum major, and going to college in the fall.

JAMES ROACH: The only thing I want to do is get a good education, get a high school diploma, get a college diploma, own my own business some day, raise a good family, maybe take care of my own family some day.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: James’ mother, Barbara Roach, believes her son got those values from being in the Algebra Project and being around Bob Moses.

BARBARA ROACH: He has been there for him, you know, like he said, talking to him. He probably could talk to things with him that I couldn’t talk or reach him. I think he feels comfortable enough with Dr. Moses where he could go to him and talk to him probably about pretty much anything, not only the Algebra Project, but probably any problem he might have had.

ROBERT MOSES: I watched him gradually unfold – been very slow, I think, but then all of a sudden it made a leap coming into his junior and senior year. And he really has kind of blossomed out in his last year here in school.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s too early, of course, to tell how Roach and Moses’ other students will fare in adult life. And Moses says real change is a long, difficult process, often emotionally exhausting, but test results are not what he’s looking for. Lyn Moss says that’s unusual in an era of high-stakes testing and calls for accountability.

LYN MOSS: It’s so refreshing to see someone who’s bold enough to step out and say, "I’m going to do what’s right for the kids, and if the statistics, you know, are there, fine; if not, we’re fine." What we’re trying to do is give everybody a chance, and we should. It’s wrong to cream kids. That’s not right — and to shut the door on the others.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Analysis of schools using the Algebra Project shows some improvement in test scores, but supporters of the project say the more important point is that the perception that inner-city kids are neither interested or proficient in math has been shot down.

BILL COSBY: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the 1994 "Essence" Award recipient, Robert Moses.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Moses has been the recipient of numerous public service awards– here at the "Essence" Magazine awards several years ago. Recently he received a Heinz Award in the category of the human condition for his work in the Algebra Project. Typically he said few words himself. Instead, he had his kids come up on stage and perform the rap song for primary numbers.