The Algebra Project – a model for education reform and community engagement

I spent the past weekend with pioneers – high school students, educators, community  activists and policy makers associated with the Algebra Project, the innovative initiative founded by Civil Rights icon Bob Moses that combines culturally responsive pedagogy with the grassroots organizing tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. Moses is best known for his role in “Freedom Summer,” a 1964 voting rights movement that played a significant role in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. One of key components of Freedom Summer was the creation of Freedom Schools, which brought literacy to thousands of sharecroppers so that they would be equipped to exercise their rights to vote and to participate more fully in American life. (This site archives the Freedom Schools curriculum.)

I came away profoundly impressed by the results that that Moses and his small team have achieved over the last 30 years, both in terms of research data and the testimonies of the young people whose lives have been transformed by their participation in the program. The Project’s own studies, testimonials from students and teachers, and independent research all confirm that Algebra Project participants achieve higher test scores, and are more likely to take advanced math classes in high school and college. What is most remarkable about all of this is that the project targets students who are in the bottom quartile of their 8th-grade math class. (See the “More Information” section below for links to  evaluation studies and related research.)

Dr. Erica N. Walker, Columbia Teacher's College

In a presentation of her research on the Algebra Project site in Mansfield, Ohio, Erica N. Walker, Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at Columbia Teachers’ College, found it to be an effective model for building math learning communities.  These learning communities are especially critical non-Asian students of color, who rarely see images of people who look like them who are successful at math. In fact, as Walker wrote in her essay, “Challenging Limiting Assumptions: Higher-Quality Mathematics for Underserved Students (.pdf),” all too often,  teachers and school leaders assume that low-income students and students of color are incapable of learning higher level math. As a result they pass along students with credits in say, geometry who have never been asked to solve a proof.

Walker delves into these issues in more detail in her new book, “Buliding Mathematics Learning Communities: Improving Outcomes in Urban High Schools” from Teachers’ College Press.

What the Algebra Project does

The Algebra Project and its spin-off, the Young People’s Project, develop culturally responsive curricula, train teachers and organizes communities around math literacy. The implementation of Algebra Project pedagogy and curricula varies according the resources of the particular sites in which it takes place, at its center is the “cohort model.” Its components include:

  • Students take math together from 9-12th grade, in 90-minute classes.
  • They participate in after school and summer programs created and conducted with the support of community organizations.
  • Algebra Project curricular materials are used.
  • Group and/or individual psychosocial support is provided as needed.

One of the many remarkable features of the Algebra Project model is that in many instances, the project’s youth workers actually teach classes, with the classroom teacher as a resource person. In addition, high-school students might be pressed into service to teach middle-school students, and middle-schoolers might be expected to teacher elementary-schoolers.

In addition to the Algebra Project site, a separate, youth-run spin-off, the Baltimore Algebra Project, adds political advocacy for education funding to education program. In addition their in-school and after-school activities, they have, in the past, held sit-ins and hunger strikes to demand better funding for public education.

David Henderson, a Cornell University math professor who is part of a team working with the Algebra Project on curriculum development, sums up its fundamental mission succinctly in this summary(.pdf) of an National Science Foundation-funded program to further develop and evaluate its educational model:

“The Algebra Project seeks to stimulate a demand for math literacy in those most affected by its absence — the young people themselves. It stresses the importance of peer culture, using lessons learned from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, as well as the emergence of project graduates into a group with their own perspectives and initiatives.”

Here’s how one of the leaders of the Baltimore Algebra Project, Ralikh Hayes, put it:

“We want to see Algebra Project pedagogy implemented in every school in this country — because it works.”

The Algebra Project in Action

Some of the students, professors and teachers I met this weekend are in these videos. (I wasn’t there as a journalist, so I didn’t record my conversations, but a number of the people in these videos were part of this weekend’s meeting.)

First, this video documents the participation of students from Mansfield Ohio, and Eduardo, Illinois in a 2010 summer institute with staff from the Algebra Project, Young People’s Project, Southern Illinois University and Ohio State University:

YPP SIU Summer Institute from gregory wendt on Vimeo

Students from the Miami Algebra Project:

Teacher training in Yuma, Arizona:

YPP students in Mississippi sing their rap theme song (Dirty South-style, of course):

Albert Sykes and Marquise Lowe are Algebra Project alumni, college students, and organizers with the Young People’s Project in Mississippi. They participated in this weekend’s meeting.


More information


When two or three are gathered in the name of journalism and user experience design….

I was pleased to see that my post on user experience design in journalism education attracted the attention of a blogger who is pursuing graduate studies in Interactive Media with a focus in precisely this area. (Can’t find the blogger’s name, I’m afraid, but the blog is called UX+JX, which is catchy and cute in a geeky way.) I’ll be looking forward to the progress of this new colleague’s dissertation research. I’m also grateful for the pointer to Cindy Royal’s fascinating 2010 ethnography  (.pdf) of the New York Times Interactive desk. Perusing her site, I also came across this May, 2009 Online Journalism Review article on News as User Experience, which serves as a decent general introduction to the concept for news organizations.