Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights is not like the other books that I read for Nonfiction November, in that it is not narrative nonfiction. Though he is telling a story, Robert P. Moses (with writing partner Cobb) is not trying to delight the readers with a suspenseful “plot” or a novel-like structure. For most readers, this will resemble the informative nonfiction you have to read for school.
However, this is an important book to revisit for people who are interested in public school reform. Most of us who read about school change or school problems have read journalistic accounts of public schools. Most of the authors are white. And, even more importantly, white people are mobilizing most of the reform efforts chronicled in these modern accounts (think: Teach for America; No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top….)
Activist and MacArthur Genius Moses situates his reform effort – The Algebra Project – not as “school reform” but as a civil rights movement. Drawing on his own history as an African American activist in the fight for voting rights in the South, he positions educational opportunity in math and science as a new access point for freedom. And he discusses how change in the educational system needs to come from the inside (minority and low-income communities) rather than from the outside (corporate reform).
The Algebra Project emerged in the late-1980s as a way to introduce algebra to middle school kids who were likely to be funneled off the college-prep track. Moses found that algebra was a gate keeper that prevented otherwise promising students from being prepared to take college-level math. He notes that schools often prepare students for the status-quo, meaning a world in which the power structure remains the same. And if kids are systemically kept out of the pathways to power (by being routed away from certain math classes, or being given access later than their white peers), they will not have the tools to make their communities powerful.
This book was published in 2001, and Moses is looking backward to make sense of how the program grew over a couple of decades. It’s worth noting that the wide-ranging, progressive curricular reform that he is promoting does not feel particularly viable in today’s test-driven, back-to-basics, top-down era. The political pendulum about curriculum sat in a different place when the project originated, favoring community-controlled schooling and more autonomous decision-making. However, the specifics of the curriculum (though important) do not interest me as much as the way that the author conceives of the change process, with community members running the show. According to Moses, school change needs to be a “family” project – meaning that the ideas need to be owned and promoted by community members engaged in a struggle for freedom. And the very idea of freedom as a purpose and an anchor of the movement is significant – the reason for engaging in this school change project is not merely for kids to become workers in another man’s business; it’s to change the opportunity structure altogether.
If you’re interested in reading further about the insider/outsider dynamic in modern school reform, I highly recommend Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children. Carr, like Moses, also addresses the tension in civil rights activism between mobilization for economic power and mobilization for political power. Moses’ project appears to be trying to bridge the two approaches to transformation.