Algebra Project Teaches Math Skills That Pay

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Robert Moses, founder of The Algebra Project, talks about his longtime efforts to help low-income students and students of color achieve math skills they need for economic success.


From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Last year, a major study found that almost two-thirds of black eighth graders didn't have a basic understanding of science. In a few minutes, we'll hear from a stellar high school senior. As part of a team, she won a gold medal for an International Space Station experiment. It could maximize the lifespan of future spacecraft. But first, a man who's trying to improve education in math and science.

Robert Moses has spent the past 20 years working to help low-income students and students of color achieve better math and science skills. In turn, he argues, it will increase their economic success. As a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, Moses helped register African-Americans to vote in the 1960s.

Today he heads the Algebra Project, a national math literacy effort. He spoke with NPR's Tony Cox and explained why he believes math education is a civil right.

Mr. ROBERT MOSES (Founder, The Algebra Project): I think that if you go back to 1875, President Grant was president, and he asked the country after the Civil War, he asked Congress in his seventh address to adopt a constitutional amendment making it a constitutional right for the freed slaves and everybody -regardless of gender and, you know, ethnicity - to have a public school education, to have the right to a public school education.

So we never got that amendment, and so right now as we talk there are 45 lawsuits in 45 different states looking at the equity question. But I think it raises the question, because I think most people assume that they actually do have a right to an education. And I think they think of themselves as citizens of the nation, not for purposes of education, just citizens of states.

But I think in fact in our country right now we are citizens of states for purposes of education, citizens of the nation for purposes of going to war. I don't think that this is something that, if we put on the table in front of people, that they would accept.

TONY COX: Let me ask you to talk a little about the Algebra Project. What exactly is it and how did it come about?

Mr. MOSES: It's an effort to use math literacy as an organizing tool to gain economic and educational rights. Again, I go back to the 1960s. I was working with SNCC. We were working on the right to vote. We were using the right to vote as an organizing tool for political access, and we were successful in that. What allows algebra to be an organizing tool is the shift in technology.

So the industrial technologies, which mechanize physical work, those brought in reading and writing literacies as requirements for citizenship. So the information age technology doesn't do that. It doesn't mechanize physical work. It organizes what we think about, right?

And it brings in with it a literacy for quantitative information. So in our society algebra is the place where we ask students to master a quantitative literacy requirement. And so hence, Algebra becomes available as an organizing tool now for educational rights and for economic rights.

COX: Final thing is this. There are several challenges to make something like this successful. But which challenge is the one that you are taking on that you think will make the difference for you to be successful in implementing an understanding of math and science literacy for the young people that you are trying to reach and help?

Mr. MOSES: Well, the main challenge the Algebra Project takes on is what we call the demand side of the problem. That is, in the '60s our challenge was getting sharecroppers to demand their right to vote. And you had to stand with them because it was dangerous, you know, you were being shot at, you were being jailed, you know. There were being reprisals (unintelligible).

So they want to know, are you standing with us? And once they found that out, then they went down and made their demands, because you couldn't change the country without their demands. Well, the same thing is happening now. We're trying to get the students to demand their education.

But it's getting their attention and making them understand that they have a stake in the struggle themselves. That they - the idea I have for them and for the country is that we're a country where, yes, you have rights, but you have to earn them. And so the students have to be part of what I think of as an earned insurgency. There have to be insurgents in this country to demand their right to an education, but they have to earn the right to demand it.

The sit-inners earned that right by letting people beat them over the heads. Right? So the kids have to earn that right by actually going out and demonstrating to enough people that they can do this, they want to do this, right? And to get rid of what I call the Cosby argument - the idea that it's all their fault, they're dysfunctional.

It's the same thing they told us about the sharecroppers, that they were apathetic and that's why they didn't vote. Well, that disappeared when they lined up by the hundreds demanding their rights. The same will happen for the students. But the problem is how do you get in there with the resources and gain their trust and their confidence so that they actually do that.

COX: How do you know that they want to do this? Because it seems to me that children…

Mr. MOSES: Because everybody, Tony, everybody, everybody, every child wants to learn, every child wants to better themselves, every child wants to stand on their two feet, have a dignified life. Everybody wants that. But the other point is that math is not easy. So the idea that the only things that we should do are things that are easy and come right off the bat has got to - we've got to change that culture, right?

We have to have a culture where people understand that, yes, math is not easy. You have to work at it, but it's worth working at it, right? And understanding it. And not only that, it's important, right? In this day and age because of the technology shift, if we don't have it, we will be exactly like the sharecroppers who couldn't read and write. We will be in a position where we're fodder for the criminal justice system.

COX: That's a perfect ending. Bob Moses, thank you very much. I appreciate your coming over.

Mr. MOSES: Thank you, Tony.

CHIDEYA: Robert Moses founded the Algebra Project, which is devoted to teaching and improving minority education in math. He spoke with NPR's Tony Cox.

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