From Mississippi to Miami
Florida International University recruits legendary civil rights activist Bob Moses and his nationally recognized math literacy project
By Ronald Roach
Few historic episodes in American history have imparted a more potent plea for social justice and inclusion than the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In the past two decades, legendary activist Bob Moses has channeled the best of the civil rights tradition into a campaign of school reform and curriculum development with the nationally acclaimed Algebra Project.
Yet for all the national recognition it has attained and its deep roots in the civil rights movement, the Algebra Project has only recently secured a formal affiliation with a major university. Earlier this year, the project, which has been based in Cambridge, Mass., gained an academic home at the Center for Urban Education and Innovation at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, and made Moses an eminent scholar at the center.
The move to FIU represents for both the Center for Urban Education and Innovation and Moses a win-win situation, according to officials.
“We’re pleased to have Bob Moses and the Algebra Project at the center. The work that he does is transforming instruction for kids who have not been served well by the education system,” says Dr. Lisa Delpit, the executive director of the Center for Urban Education and Innovation.
Since joining as executive director in 2002, Delpit, a winner of a MacArthur “Genius” award, has been pushing the center, which was launched in 1997, to a position of national prominence and influence on the improvement of the education of minority and disadvantaged schoolchildren. The recruitment of Moses and the development of ties to pre-eminent education scholars such as Dr. Asa Hilliard III, Dr. Pedro Noguera, Dr. Theresa Perry, and Dr. Charles Payne is generating attention for the center.
“I wasn’t looking to go anywhere. The opportunity came out of the blue,” Moses says about Delpit recruiting him to join the center.
Delpit says she had known Moses for many years and believed the Algebra Project was a good fit for the center. Already, the center has begun supporting a teaching fellow from the FIU College of Education who’s working at an Algebra Project site in Jackson, Miss. The student will eventually return to FIU to pursue his doctorate in education. Another part of the goal in bringing Moses to FIU will be the establishment of an Algebra Project initiative in the Miami-Dade County schools with whom the center is currently developing a partnership that will focus on improving the system’s lowest performing schools. Moses will also teach courses in the FIU College of Education.
Moses, who attained legendary status for his heroic leadership and courage during the Mississippi voting rights campaigns of the 1960s, has used civil rights strategies to organize and motivate middle school children to study mathematics. Reaching about 10,000 students annually at 28 sites around the nation, the Algebra Project is one of the nation’s best recognized school reform efforts to focus on math literacy. A study of Algebra Project graduates in Cambridge, Mass., found 92 percent of graduates went on to upper-level mathematics courses in ninth grade, twice the rate of students not in the project.
“Math literacy is the key to 21st-century citizenship,” Moses says.
The belief in that credo and the work of the Algebra Project recently earned Moses a 2004 Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, which honors “educators dedicated to closing the achievement gap between Black and Hispanic students and their White and Asian-American counterparts.” The prize is one of several national awards, including a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award, that Moses has collected over the years for his work with the Algebra Project.
“(Moses) created the Algebra Project to help middle school students make the conceptual shift from arithmetic to algebra so they can be prepared for algebra in the eighth grade, and thus a college preparatory math sequence in high school,” wrote U.S. Congressman Michael Capuano, D-Mass., in the Congressional Record in late September following the McGraw prize ceremony.
MISSISSIPPI to MIAMI
For Moses, the move to FIU came at a propitious time in his life. For years, he has split his time between working in Mississippi and other southern locations and maintaining a home as well as the Algebra Project’s headquarters in the Boston area. Relocation to Miami has given Moses and his wife, Janet, a recently retired pediatrician, a place upon which they mutually agreed as a suitable base.
“The move to Miami resolved a mix of family and professional issues,” Moses says, adding that his wife was not interested in moving to Mississippi upon her retirement.
Though Moses has established an adult math literacy project in Miami and is consulting on a school reform project with the Miami-Dade county schools, he has spent much of his time this year working at Lanier High School in Jackson, Miss., where he’s been teaching algebra and geometry full-time. He also serves as director of the Algebra Project’s curriculum development program.
In his early life, it was in Mississippi that Moses became a well-known activist. Moses proved a key organizer as a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and served as director of SNCC’s Mississippi Project. He was a co-director of the Council of Federated Organizations, a group that coordinated the major civil rights organizations working in Mississippi during the 1960s. As an activist in Mississippi, Moses came to be recognized as a driving force behind the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964 and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
During the 1980s when he was a MacArthur fellow, Moses developed the ideas for the Algebra Project and worked with concerned parents, teachers, educators and activists in Cambridge to implement them. One of the key ideas in the Algebra Project is to get students and their parents demanding changes in math education in their community schools.
“The Algebra Project is first and foremost an organizing project — a community organizing project — rather than a traditional program of school reform. It draws its inspiration and its methods from the organizing tradition of the civil rights movement. … The lessons of the movement in Mississippi are exactly the lessons we need to learn and put into practice in order to transform the education of our children and their prospects for the future,” according to Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, a book authored by Moses and Charles E. Cobb Jr.
The paradigm offered by Moses functions as a compelling critique of American education policy and a call for self-analysis and community organizing around the culture of education by Blacks and others. Moses has contended that schools in the rural South and later in the urban Midwest and North were not established to seriously educate Blacks. Minorities and poor students have long been relegated to second-class schools, he has argued.
“The traditional role of science and math education has been to train an elite, create a priesthood, find a few bright students and bring them into university research. It hasn’t been a literacy effort,” according to Radical Equations.
While getting people to organize around education has been a fundamental priority of the Algebra Project, the program has also scored on the curriculum development front. The project has been funded by the National Science Foundation to develop algebra curriculum modules. Ever the activist, Moses believes that one of the most significant accomplishments of the Algebra Project has been the spin off of the Young People’s Project (YPP), which is a network of young people who have participated in the Algebra Project and consequently have become math tutors and ambassadors for math literacy.
“The point of the math literacy work is to get these young people involved strategically in school reform. It’s part of what I describe as building the demand side as young people get active to put pressure on the system for better education,” Moses says, likening the YPP student network to the equivalent of the SNCC voter registration workers in the 1960s.
In fact, Omo Moses, a son of Bob Moses, is working with FIU’s Center for Urban Education and Innovation to possibly launch a YPP effort in south Florida. Omo currently directs the Young People’s Project in Chicago.
Education experts might describe the Algebra Project as an example of “critical pedagogy,” which is “enabling students to think critically as they reconstruct the structure and meaning of conceptual frameworks and grounds students’ learning experiences in problems relevant to their (students’) lives,” according to Dr. Beatrice Bridglall, a research scientist at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Columbia University.
“Moses’ work is in the service of emancipation and social justice by virtue of his requiring that African American students become familiar not only with their current environment but also the influence of an intergenerational struggle for civil rights in American society and how both relate to the growing significance of math literacy and economic access,” Bridglall says.
Moses says it’s disappointing that there hasn’t been more of an uproar on the part of Americans with regard to the dismal state of public education in the United States. Only until there’s real demand by average citizens for better education can there be the possibility for better schools, he contends. “There’s been no ground swell and no consensus on education. We’re dealing with the same issues (as) with sharecroppers and the right to vote. What changed things was when people made the demand,” he says.
Next month, the Center for Urban Education and Innovation convenes its national Urban Education Expo 2004, whose theme is “Getting Results: Expo of Best Practices in Urban Education.” The expo will feature “two days of dialogue and demonstrations showcasing the best practices of teachers, administrators and schools that have produced results in leading disenfranchised children toward academic excellence.”
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