Working the Demand Side: An Interview with the Algebra Project’s Robert Moses

In January 2004, Victor Cary, Program Director at the Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools, talked with Robert P. Moses, longtime civil rights activist. Known for his voter registration work in the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s and his subsequent math education efforts, Moses founded the Algebra Project in the 1980s as a grassroots efforts to improve math literacy among African-American middle and high school students. Along the way, Moses has earned a constellation of awards and recognitions for his multifaceted civil rights achievements. The co-author of Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, Moses is currently the President of the Algebra Project and a math teacher at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi.

Victor Cary: When you look at the work you’re doing and what you see happening in education today, where do you think we are now, especially in terms of the impact on African American kids, kids of color, and poor kids? I’m thinking about things like No Child Left Behind, high school exit exams, and all that we have to deal with as we try to work.

Robert Moses: Broadly speaking, the country is running what I call a legacy of sharecropper education in the public school system. When we were registering sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1960s, we went before the federal district judge in Greenville after we had taken hundreds of sharecroppers to register to vote. The judge asked me on the stand why we were taking illiterates. “Don’t you know that Mississippi has illiteracy tests? So why bother?” The answer was that the country couldn’t have its cake and eat it too. It couldn’t, through its political decisions and institutions, deny people an education and then turn around and say they couldn’t access politics because they weren’t educated.

In the 1940s, the Hopson plantation, outside of Clarksdale, first demonstrated machines to pick cotton. Richard Hopson, the plantation manager, wrote a letter to all of the plantation owners in the Delta urging them to mechanize the picking of cotton as rapidly as possible to alleviate “the Negro situation,” as he called it. That started a wave of migration that lasted almost twenty years. About five million sharecroppers were refugeed, in my way of thinking, into every urban area of the country. What nobody paid any attention to was that an urban version of sharecropper education went with them.

As for No Child Left Behind, this is a country not really willing to discuss what it would take to fix the schools, so it’s setting a way of measuring what’s actually being accomplished according to certain standards. But there’s no stomach at the moment for discussion about the national policies that would have to be in place to put a floor under every child’s education and opportunities. That’s where I think we are nationally on the policy level. I think that the country just hasn’t got what it takes to face the history. You know, I think of Strom Thurmond and that case as a metaphor. For large political reasons, Strom Thurmond and his family, while he was alive, weren’t going to recognize Essie [Mae Washington-Williams], his child, publicly. From slavery through sharecropping down to today, this country does not recognize all of the children in its school system. This puts the onus on the individual child and says, “Well, you’ve got to measure up and these are some of the things you have to do.” But no one is saying, “Look, these are children that we, in effect, gave birth to but that we ignored and really didn’t treat as our children, and now we need to figure out what we’re going to do to rectify that.” So there’s no drive to put in the additional resources that are needed to try to make a dent in the problem.

Cary: That’s a great transition to talk about the work and the practices within the Algebra Project itself.

Moses One really successful outcome of the project has been the growth of a fairly vibrant group of young people who have grown up in the project. They have their own organization and call themselves the Young Peoples Project.

Cary: How long has that been in existence?

Moses: It first came into being in 1996. They now have a network of math literacy workers that are in college and high school. They run math literacy workshops in school or after school. In terms of the strategy of the project, it fits with what we learned about trying to change these big, broad issues during the ’60s with the right to vote. We had to get the sharecroppers themselves in the mix, making the demand for their rights before you could shake the power structure that was vested in the system that kept them as sharecroppers. I think there’s a similar strategy here: the young people who are the target population have to get involved in working the demand side, making the demands. The Young Peoples Project has found a way to stimulate that idea. The young people make some demand on themselves to master mathematical material to the extent that they can present and discuss and run workshops. Embedded in that is looking at how to get these young people to think about the broader policy issues. But the most important thing is getting them functionally involved in spreading math literacy and making a cultural change as they do it.

Cary: Was this something that came out of students’ own experience and energy?

Moses: They actually did this on their own. In their early twenties, they are role models, which is extremely effective and important with the middle school students. People in their early twenties who are really engaged in working with students and helping them to move into a public space – this is an entry-level introduction to knowledge work. What’s missing for the kids is some way to be introduced to knowledge work, as opposed to the mechanical work at McDonald’s or the other kinds of jobs that young people from the grassroots get pushed into.

The Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project has also had some real success with professional development activities with elementary school teachers that emphasize mathematical processes. They’re having impact in some areas of Arkansas and elsewhere. The teachers are really looking at how to take ideas about experiential learning and ideas about regimenting language and discourse to produce mathematical representations into areas that trouble teachers in elementary school math. I think these teachers want to teach and feel they have to teach but have trouble figuring out how to teach.

Cary: Could I ask you more about the demographics of these teachers who you’re working with?

Moses: They’re primarily African American schools and teachers in the delta of Arkansas – it’s on the western bank of the Mississippi River across from the Mississippi delta.

Cary: Have you had any experience bringing this work to urban settings where the school’s faculties are mostly white?

Moses: Not too much. The Southern Initiative has focused on the rural South. Efforts to do the project at the middle school level in the urban systems didn’t take root. We weren’t able to really solve the kinds of political and institutional problems in the major urban centers. So the only project that’s trying to get off the ground again is in Chicago, where the Young Peoples Project is. It’s returned to an area where the Algebra Project wasn’t able to take root, and they are having some initial success in working with other players in the math reform movement in Chicago.

Cary: Could you characterize those obstacles that prevented the Algebra Project from taking root, given the success that you’ve had and a powerful curriculum that you’ve developed?

Moses: One obstacle in the urban areas in schools with the target populations that the Algebra Project is trying to reach is the teachers’ level of real mathematical training, their level of cognitive flexibility which is needed to run a classroom in math using a more coaching, hands-on model. And then there’s the overcrowding and the lack of real opportunity for daily professional development.

Cary: Boy, that’s true.

Moses: One way of thinking about it is the model we have put in microcosm here at Lanier. There are three of us who are doing the teaching here at Lanier High School; this is my eighth year at Lanier. If we’re really going to try to put a floor under the students, then the students have to agree to take math every day on a block schedule for their four years of high school. Now, that raises issues. One of the issues is that the classes have to be smaller. You have to have more teachers, so we try to raise [the funds for] our own salaries. We finally worked out with the school system that we are extra resources in the school so we can have fewer students; this also lightens the student load some for other teachers. We have a total of six classes between the three of us, and we have a common period off every day, the same period so we can sit and talk about what the issues are and do the professional development work among ourselves.

Cary: That’s why we’re trying to create small schools here in Oakland. We’re trying to create those conditions that you’re describing.

Moses: The other question, of course, is getting the students to agree to take math every day for four years. We have roughly eighty sophomores that have agreed to stay on with us from a cohort of about a hundred freshmen. The question is, will we get a significant percent of them to agree to keep doing math every day? The goal is that they finish four years of college prep math – this enables them to be credible on either the ACT or SAT. Then they have the option to go to college, and once they get into college they won’t have to remediate math. Then math shouldn’t be an obstacle for any particular area that they want to study. The whole college curriculum should be open to them and math shouldn’t be a barrier. The students we are trying to put the floor under really will have to agree to do math every day. This raises the question of what is taught and how do you teach it so that they want to keep studying. Those are things that we are wrestling with.

Cary: What are some of the practices that you’re employing to motivate students to want to keep learning mathematics and feel comfortable and supported so they hang in there?

Moses: I think that what we are working on is a synthesis of two research traditions that have come down in this country. One is well known: experiential learning, coming through Piaget, Dewey, and Lewin. The other is a question I ran into as a graduate student: what is evidence for math? We ask students to accept a lot of things. So what kind of evidence do we offer? What are they pursuing to accept various statements? The person from whom I really picked up these issues and questions and framing of the discussion was [Willard Van Orman] Quine, the head of the philosophy department at Harvard when I was there in the ’50s and again in the late ’70s. Quine synthesizes one path in this research tradition that says that initial forays into elementary math come through a progressive sharpening of ordinary language. We’ve embedded that concept in the experiential learning model, welding these two research traditions together. In experiential learning, when there’s reflection about some event or activity, there’s a conceptualization of it. That’s where our real work is, to look at how to substantiate those two traditions in classrooms. There are a lot of activities that the students do and then ways in which they’re asked to reflect on them and think about them.

Cary: When I think about that, I think of how there’s a lot of research on the notion of cultural competency that teachers need to have in order to meet their students where they are. I wonder about this in relationship to the work that you do. You are largely African American instructors working with African American kids; there’s a certain cultural competence that you’re bringing into the discourse, I’m assuming.

Moses: Another cultural issue is, and this is apart from content and pedagogy, the willingness to be relational with the students. How that’s done and how it’s not exploited by the students to just have everything disintegrate into talk and mere frittering away is one of the key issues in classroom management. For many African American students from grassroots or poor neighborhoods, their schools feel like everything has to be disciplined and rigid. Otherwise it will break down into chaos. And so there’s a lot of “drill and kill” going on. How do students who have been exposed to that take to loosening up the classroom and figuring out how to work? That is the issue for which you want to gain real competence and understanding and respect.

We have a group of over-age ninth graders that we agreed to take this year. As middle school students, the system didn’t know what to do with them, and it piled up a whole bunch of them. And then after they reached a certain age, it just pushed them on into high school. We at the Algebra Project agreed to take the group that was coming to Lanier this year. It’s been really instructive watching them begin to figure out how to work together as a class to commit more and more to their learning, to gain confidence that they really can learn this stuff as they work through levels of various issues – anger, pregnancy, whatever. It’s something we’re trying to learn about. I think that the country needs to put real resources into this combination: students making a commitment to doing this every day for a longer period of time and the system making a commitment to providing more teachers with less dense class ratios, to having the teachers really professionalize their work and take more responsibility for the creation and the deployment of materials. We need to be able to say that if we do this and this, then these are the kinds of results we can get, and this is what it costs.

Cary: It’s a hard argument to make.

Moses: You can’t make it in the abstract. It’ll only work if there are places where it’s actually happening and you can demonstrate some of the results. And one result is that it begins to work the demand side of the problem and you begin to create demand.

Related Resources:

For more on the Hopson letter: The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America, Nicholas Lemann (Vintage 1992)

For more on Robert Moses’ 19602 voting rights work: Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Junior (Beacon, 2001). Also: “SNCC 1960-1966” at

For more on The Algebra Project and its related efforts, including the Young Peoples Project and the Southern Initiatve of the Algebra Project: the Algebra Project web site at

Horace 18.2, book review of Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights,

For more on the work of experiential learning theorists John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Karl Lewins as analyzed by David Kolb:

For more on the work of Willard Van Orman Quine: the Willard Van Orman Quine home page at