Bob Moses and the students, teachers, parents, researchers, and activists that launched the Algebra Project in the 1980s and 1990s lit a pathway of shared struggle to create educational and economic opportunities for young people that the nation has been too ready to leave behind. The bedrock the Algebra Project is built upon is Bob’s vision for and with young people: that all students, particularly those in underperforming public schools in Black, Latino, and low-income communities, are given the opportunity to empower themselves and to pursue the mathematics literacy required for full participation in the civic life of the nation. On June 2nd I was voted in as Executive Director by the Project’s Board of Directors. I’m grateful for this opportunity to lead the Algebra Project as we work to realize the next phase of our mission.
I met Bob and Janet Moses, and two of their four children, Taba and Malaika, at a civil rights movement history conference at Dartmouth College in April of 1989. Having just returned from six months of study of West African Djimbé drumming at the National Conservatory in Dakar, Senegal, I recognized Bob’s name in the conference agenda – he was presenting about the Algebra Project with Jeff Howard of The Efficacy Institute – as Bob featured prominently in a book by Sally Belfrage, Freedom Summer, that I was reading upon my return to the States. The rich musical and cultural wealth I witnessed in Dakar inspired me to seek a greater understanding of U.S. history and my own history as an African American multiracial adoptee, as a musician, and as an educator.
After that initial meeting, Bob graciously invited me to participate in a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee 25th reunion in Berkeley, CA in June of 1989. Over the next couple of years, while I gave presentations in K-12 schools on the continuities in African Diasporic music from West Africa to the U.S., I also had the opportunity to visit Bob and Janet’s family and meet the team that launched the Algebra Project with him – Bill Crombie, Cynthia Silva Parker, Jacqueline Rivers, Maisha Moses, Alan & Michelle Shaw, Phil Howard, Ceasar McDowell, Alvin Poussaint, Vida Gaynor and folks that were instrumental in the early growth of the Project at the King Open Program at the MLK School on Putnam Avenue: Lynne Godfrey, Lena James, Marshall & Poppy Milner, Liberty Rashad, Les & Shirley Kimbrough, Omo Moses and his friends Khari Milner, Basonge James, Karimu Rashad, Derrick Kimbrough, and many more. Bob and the folks he organized with modeled a commitment to proactively create educational opportunities in which young people would empower themselves, and thereby change their lives, their communities, and the country. Their dedication inspired me. Their tireless devotion to students and their families, teachers, and schools envisioned a world of larger shared purpose, one in which all students are valued and given the resources for full participation in the democratic life of the nation.
In the fall of 1991, Bob asked me to join the Algebra Project team to develop an African Drums & Ratios Curriculum for 4th and 5th-grade students. By ‘93, I met the people who would help grow the Project nationally, such as Dave Dennis and the Positive Innovations/Southern Initiative Algebra Project team who organized in the South. Or, Jim Burruss of McBer/HayGroup who structured our initial Training of Trainers program. And, evaluation researchers Frank Davis and Mary West were crafting groundbreaking research studies of the Project’s work, and at the same time in Baltimore, Chicago, Indianapolis, Jackson and the Mississippi Delta, Los Angeles, Marlboro County in South Carolina, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, Oakland, and in Weldon, North Carolina sites were percolating and maturing. Since that time, the Project has worked in schools around the country, designing math education strategies with teachers, school leaders, parents, and researchers focused on what to teach, how to teach it, and how to assess it so that students are learning and enjoying math.
Across our three-decade history, we and our allies have developed new teaching materials, research collaborations, and professional development programs which have paved the way to a tangible articulation of math literacy: students gaining the ability to read, write, and reason with the symbol systems of mathematics. The Project has demonstrated that all young people CAN succeed in Algebra, take higher-level math and science courses in high school, and be prepared for college-level mathematics without remediation, whether students then choose a post-secondary education or embark in careers.
As we open the third decade of the 21st century, one of the biggest determiners of students’ post-secondary success in college or careers is how much mathematics education students receive in high school. This spring we were disheartened by the results of the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress report, which showed that only 8% to 11%, respectively, of Black and Latino students were proficient in mathematics by Grade 12. Unfortunately, these results have not seen significant change for far too many years, and the COVID-19 pandemic and the additional pressures it brought upon schooling have only exacerbated these challenges. Further, the June 29th U.S. Supreme Court majority ruling that race-conscious affirmative action in the admissions processes of elite state and private colleges and universities is now unconstitutional, thereby reversing more than 40 years of judicial precedent, once again makes plain that a federal guarantee of quality K-12 public school education for all children living in the country is required to level the playing field of opportunity in higher education.
In the face of these persisting and disturbing results, we remain focused on enabling teachers and school leaders to expand the number of students who have access to quality mathematics content and instruction. We have seen the needle move in school districts and have developed robust strategies for how to further increase our impact with schools. The teachers, researchers, and community leaders I speak with each week share that the most basic need in their schools is consistent access to an experiential and job-embedded approach to teacher professional learning and to increase teachers’ capacities for creating productive classroom cultures that maximize opportunities for students to excel in high-level mathematics.
In the months ahead, our small, dedicated team will continue carrying a heavy load to detail pathways for addressing these needs, including the development of technology-enhanced experiential learning tools to reach more students and teachers face-to-face and virtually, as well as the creation of a cadre of professional development specialists to coach teachers in the improvement of their instructional practices. Bill Crombie, who joined the Project in 1990, is the Director of Professional Development and continues to lead our teacher professional learning programs. He also is innovating a new pathway to high school Calculus through our Accessible Calculus Project. Edwige Kenmegne is the Director of Finance and Accounting. She joined the Project in 2011, anchors our fiscal operations, and is centrally involved in our strategic planning for future growth. We are fortunate to have a cadre of specialists consulting with us on research and evaluation, teacher professional learning, curriculum development, and communications, including Frank E Davis and Mary M West, Nell B Cobb, Marian Currell, Sara Weinberg, Greg Budzban, and Aidan Soguero. Our seven-member Board of Directors provides oversight and, with a wide range of expertise and experiences, advises our staff leadership team on our way forward: Khari Milner, Chair; LaDon Love, Vice Chair; Herbert Brown, Treasurer; Margaret A. Burnham, Clerk; Danny Glover, B.J. Walker, and Courtland Cox.
We honor the many people since the early 1980s who have been instrumental in the evolution of the Algebra Project’s mathematics literacy work and upon whose shoulders we now stand. Together with our fantastic team of staff, consultants, and our Board, we are continuing to pursue the path that our founder Bob Moses blazed. We’re collaborating with school communities, students, teachers and school leaders, researchers, activists, and allies to ensure that students in underserved K-12 public schools can make a demand on themselves, their teachers, schools, and the nation to ensure that they gain the mathematics proficiency required for college, careers, and access to full participation in 21st century society.