As a parent, Robert P. Moses didn’t like the way his children were being taught math in middle school. Too much learning by rote, he complained. So he devised a more creative lesson plan in which students worked collaboratively to solve everyday problems using algebra.
Pleased with the results, Moses founded the Algebra Project in 1982. He wanted the math lessons he gave his own children to be made available to others.
“Just being able to read and write will no longer be enough to make it in this fast-paced knowledge economy,” Moses told me during a telephone interview earlier this year. “Math literacy will be a liberation tool for people trying to get out of poverty and the best hope for people trying not to get left behind.”
Moses, 86, died Sunday after suffering from a heart condition. He’d been a teacher at an elite private high school in New York and taught at a segregated middle school for Black children in Jackson, Miss. He’d been a community organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, and was beaten, arrested and jailed for helping Black people try to register to vote. In 1964, he helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, in which hundreds of volunteers helped register voters despite constant violence by White mobs, including the killings of those fighting for civil rights.
He also served as vice chairman of the SNCC Legacy Project , which is preparing for a belated 60th anniversary conference in October.
I had called Moses to get his take on the rise in attacks on previous civil rights victories, such as voting rights.
Programs aimed at achieving equitable outcomes in math education also were coming under intense criticism, alongside efforts to teach a more truthful history.
Moses said he never expected efforts to help Black people overcome the consequences of racism to go smoothly. Even support for the Algebra Project has not always been as strong as it should be, given what the program has accomplished.
“We have found a way to demystify algebra for Black middle school students and those entering high school, by helping them understand that math itself arises from the language they speak,” Moses told me. “The poorest kids, Black or White, can be taught to turn ordinary language into symbols that they can use to solve complex problems. They will have the means of becoming involved in the nation’s knowledge economy and not get left behind. You’d think everybody would be all over that, lining up to fund and support such an effort. But no.”
Last month, the Virginia Department of Education was criticized for its Mathematics Pathway Initiative, a proposal to take a look at whether the school system could teach mathematics in a way that better prepared students for college and careers. Somehow that proposal was twisted into “Virginia is killing all advanced math classes!”
In the face of the attacks, school officials have had to spend time that could have been used to educate students educating their parents about the dangers of misinformation.
The Oregon Department of Education was similarly criticized for its efforts, as were school systems in California and New York. Seeking equity in education has been touted as critical race theory run amok, even as no one can point to a school system actually teaching critical race theory.
Moses argued that tracking and gifted programs have been used historically to discourage Black students instead of inspire them. Those and other efforts to undereducate Black people have been a deliberate policy choice aimed and leaving them left out and left behind.
“Black people were not allowed to vote if they couldn’t read,” Moses said. “And they couldn’t read because they didn’t have schools. Denying Blacks citizenship was the point from the beginning.”
Moses said that what’s needed for widespread change to math education is for a consensus to emerge that demands change. But, he said, “that probably won’t happen until poor Whites realize that they are also being shortchanged.” Instead of calling for Whitewashed versions of American history, he said, they should be demanding that schools teach critical thinking skills, logic and reasoning.
“As the economy continues to require a better-educated workforce, they’ll be left behind too,” he said.
The Algebra Project turns 39 this year and has helped more than 40,000 students in hundreds of schools nationwide. The students consistently outperform their peers on math tests. Moses spent much of his last years spreading the word about the successes and seeking the funds to expand.
“He was like Willy Loman in ‘Death of a Salesman,’ trying his best to sell an education program that he knew could teach algebra to the rural and urban poor,” said Courtland Cox, a SNCC organizer and longtime friend of Moses.
Charlie Cobb, who was also in SNCC, helped Moses write his 2001 book, “Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights.”
“Bob believed that to make systemic change, you needed a sophisticated understanding of how systems work,” Cobb said. “Teaching algebra to Black middle school students would start them thinking in a deeper way about how systems and symbols operate and how they can be manipulated.”
Moses sometimes referred to the fight for civil rights as a marathon, not a sprint.
“The education challenges that Black people face did not come about overnight,” he said, “and they won’t be solved in one lifetime.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy