The Algebra Project

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The Algebra Project is an organization helping low-income and minority students achieve math skills they need for economic success. We’ll talk to Robert Moses, civil rights activist, educator and founder of the project about this math literacy effort.

José Cárdenas: Good evening. I'm Jose Cardenas. We'll talk to the founder of an organization helping low-income students achieve the math skills they need for economic success. And a study finds the underinsured rate of Hispanic children hits a record low. Find out where Arizona ranks in the report. All this straight ahead on "Horizonte."

Video: "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

José Cárdenas: The Algebra Project is a national mathematics literacy effort that began in the 1980s to help low-income and minority students to successfully achieve math skills. Joining me now to talk about this organization is Robert Moses, civil rights activist, educator, and founder of the Algebra Project. Dr. Moses, it's a privilege to have you on our show. Thank you for joining us. The Algebra Project itself has its roots in your background. Let's talk about your role.

Robert Moses: So I was the field secretary in charge of the student nonviolent coordinating Mississippi theater of the civil rights movement. Back in the 1960s. Yes, we started in 1961 and I worked there through 1965. And so in that era, the issue of voting was joined with the issue of sharecrop illiteracy. I was actually on the witness stand in 1963 and the courtroom was filled with a sharecrop of some green wood. We were in the Greenville district federal court. And the judge wanted to know why is he taking an illiterate down to the register to vote. The country can't have denied a whole people access to politics through saying that they were illiterate and then turn around -- it can't have denied people access to literacy through its political arrangements and then turned around and said well, you can't do politics because you're illiterate. And we actually won that battle in the enforcement provision of the 1965 voting rights act and it came about through the work that helped push the justice department to file suits not just against individual registrars but against the whole state of Mississippi and the state of Louisiana.

José Cárdenas: You yourself had graduated from Harvard?

Robert Moses: I got a master's from Harvard in 1957, yes. And while I was at Harvard, actually, Harvard, I was in the philosophy department and graduate school and the star of the Harvard philosophy department in the 1950s was the person that initiated the thinking that has led to the process that we use in the Algebra Project, the idea that the languages, the kids' own, the street language, is available as a bridge into the languages of math and science.

José Cárdenas: And even though the algebra project is about 15, 20 years after your experiences in Mississippi that you talked about, there's a connection between those civil rights experiences? In fact, I think you've described this path project as part of the civil rights project?

Robert Moses: I think of it as part of our unfinished business. That is if you think about what we did with the civil rights movement and jim crow, we were able to get jim crow out of public accommodation, we got it out of access to the vote, and we got it out of the national Democratic Party structure when the Mississippi freedom Democratic Party went to the 1964 convention for the Democratic Party. We didn't get it out of education. The idea of sharecrop education, the idea that the education you get is appropriate to the work that you've been preassigned, right? And that's what we were facing with the judge's question, because here a whole people had been preassigned work and so their education had been tailored to that kind of work. They don't need any more work than -- any more education than what would be required for sharecropping.

José Cárdenas: We've got some pictures on the screen. The first one represents that bridge between the civil rights experience of the 60s, and then the Algebra Project. As I understand it this was taken on the occasion of the celebration of what, the 50th anniversary of the freedom summer? And you've got people in here who were very involved in the math project, as well.

Robert Moses: Yes, yeah, the young fellow in the picture, Albert sikes who in the 1990s was a middle school student and got swept up into the Algebra Project, went on and became part of the young people's project, which is a spin-off from the algebra project. In other words, kids who have come up in the Algebra Project have formed their own organization to deal with math literacy in the after-school sessions. And Albert went on to high school, college, and became an organizer for the young people's project in the state of Mississippi.

José Cárdenas: So let's talk about the Algebra Project itself. What is it?

Robert Moses: So what it's doing is working what I think of as the demand side of the problem. That's what we were doing in Mississippi in the 1960s. We were working the demand side of the right to vote. How do you get the people that have problem, the sharecroppers, the day laborers, the domestic workers, to actually demand, right, their rights? In this case the right to vote. How do you get the young people at the bottom of society to demand what everybody says they don't want, right? That they want to demand the education that they need for the 21st century. So we do that by showing the kids how they can actually access the world of mathematics, because once they figure out that this is something that they can do, then you have a chance for them to set expectations for themselves about what they want to do with it.

José Cárdenas: And for you this is not just some theory from academics. You went back to the classroom in Mississippi.

Robert Moses: Yes, I spent 10 years, actually 13 years. For three years I was in the middle school, brinkley middle school, and we got eighth graders there who passed the state test in algebra, right? And I wanted to say a soft landing for them in geometry in high school. I walked over with the principal and the principal there allowed me to teach one class of algebra project students geometry. This was in 1996. And then the next year they asked if I would teach a full load of geometry. So I spent the next 10 years from 1996 to 2006 looking first at the issue of ninth and 10th grade math. When they asked me to do some algebra with the kids and we did and my kids did better on the statewide test, then they asked us to take a wider responsibility and we set up what we thought of as a cohort program, starting the kids in the ninth grade, following them through four years, asking them to set up higher expectations for themselves. Actually, asking them to double up on their math, instead of doing what they called 90 minutes of math every other day, do it every day, right? And actually decide that they were going to set an expectation for themselves that when they left high school, they would be ready to do college math for college credit and we're thinking that this is the standard the country needs for all of its students. What we've been doing is working with the students in the bottom quartile to establish that this is doable.

José Cárdenas: And, in fact, it has been doable. The kids have achieved success beyond what you would otherwise expect.

Robert Moses: Yes, and the Algebra Project we have some track record. It's not to scale any place. It's pockets of students in classrooms and schools around the country who have put their effort and on our part, the issue has been what to teach and how to teach it, so that students who like for eight years in schools have figured out oh, I can't do this, I don't do school, I don't do math, to figure out how to get them to get an expectation oh, you know what? I can actually do this. Right? And so we work really hard on the what to teach and how to teach it, to get the students to buy into the idea that this is something that is doable, it can't be done overnight. You're looking at a couple of years, a couple of summers, if you're -- you have another shot at the kids as they enter into their peer group at the high school level. So as they enter into that peer group at the high school level, if you can get the peer group's culture to work for the kids, right, then you have an important and really powerful engine for getting the kids to figure out that they need to set their own expectation about what to do as they go through high school.

José Cárdenas: Now, we've got another picture we want to put on the screen and this actually reflects the work that you've been doing with the algebra project. You've got some students in this picture. You wrote about these experiences in your book, radical equations. What's the overall message? How do you convince people that this is what they need to do?

Robert Moses: So there are two parts to the convincing. One is that they can do it. Right? I mean, I think the actual convincing is that I'm doing it right? So there's no intellectual convincing that they can do math.

José Cárdenas: That's an uphill battle, isn't it? Because so many people think that if you don't get these kids in elementary school, you've lost them by the time they get to the eighth or ninth grade, which is what you're focused on.

Robert Moses: That's what we're saying that you haven't lost them right? What you have to do is structure the opportunities so that they come back in and you get their attention. I mean, people ask me what do you need to teach algebra? Two things. The kids have to be able to count. You have to be able to get their attention. So that's the hard part. How do you get the attention of the kids? How do you get them to actually internalize that this is something that I can do and also this is something I've decided I'm going to do, right? And they not only have to do it individually; they have to figure out and you have to structure with them how they do it together. Right? So I think the picture we have on the screen is a picture at the national council of teachers of math. We gave a workshop there in Boston and the kids are looking at a problem dealing with numbers. It's a game that we've made up, because you ask yourself well why would a kid -- what would motivate a kid from fourth grade on to actually figure out that I want to learn about all of these numbers, right? Including a number like 51. Now, 51 isn't in anybody's multiplication table because it's three times 17 but it's in this game because it has a certain feature, namely 51 has two prime factors, three and 17. Right? So it's a special kind of number. And in the game, right, it has a color code, right? So numbers are either red, yellow or blue and you have to figure out right for every number, what its color code is, and then you run a maze like you run with a basketball court, you run a maze with your numbers, right? So fourth graders like to run right.

José Cárdenas: That's how you get their attention.

José Cárdenas: Dr. Moses, we've only got a couple of minutes left. I want to talk about why you're here in Arizona.

Robert Moses: Yes.

José Cárdenas: And I understand this is your first trip to Arizona.

Robert Moses: This is my first trip to Arizona and so I was introduced to promise Arizona and at the educational testing service that we held on December 5th, we were raising all of these issues about the structured opportunities for students in the bottom quartile, right?

José Cárdenas: We've got a picture on the screen right now with you and Pedro standing next to you.

Robert Moses: Yes. So at that meeting we also did a we the people induction. The idea that the preamble to the Constitution opens up a constitutional space for undocumented people because it doesn't say we the citizens. It couldn't, right? And so I'm really interested in the idea that everyone who lives in this country and takes it as their home has a right to enter into the constitutional conversation as a part of we the people. And so I asked her if I could come out here and work with her and promise Arizona because we really do need to raise the level of the conversation about education to the level of the Constitution.

José Cárdenas: The core of the conversation you still have the algebra project.

Robert Moses: Yes, because math is available as an organizing tool around this issue of education. Right? The same way as voting was available as an organizing tool for political access, algebra because of computers is available as an organizing tool for educational access.

José Cárdenas: And as I understand it, you're trying to do some of this in Spanish.

Robert Moses: Yes, right? So we've had two workshops with parents and we introduced what we call the height chart, which is anyone event, very simple event, people line up and put their little mark on a straight line that shows where their height is relative to somebody else. And you ask them a simple question: Who's taller, right? But you ask them to translate their question into Spanish, and then answer it in both English and Spanish, right? And at the heart of this is the idea that information about who's taller is encoded some place. So we can say well Jose is taller than bob. And I know we're talking about height because of "taller than" but then if I say construct a feature name like the height of Jose and the height of bob, and then translate that sentence, Jose is taller than bob, what you get is well the height of Jose is greater than the height of bob. Now, it seems like nothing's going on but if you ask yourself where in the sentence is the information about height encoded, in the first sentence, it's encoded in the relation words, "is taller than." It's not encoded in "is greater than." The feature height has been moved into a name.

José Cárdenas: And that's how you're reaching these parents, even though they don't speak English?

Robert Moses: Yes.

Robert Moses: And so the idea that there's something going on with this language so they were able to see in that Spanish as well as English, and what gets symbolized, this is what regimented language.

José Cárdenas: Back in jersey.

Robert Moses: You never heard anybody say you know what? The height of Jose is greater than the height of bob. You've never heard anybody say that. They might say Jose is taller than bob but you've never heard anybody speak feature talk, right? And so it's the feature talk that gets represented in the mathematics.

José Cárdenas: A way of communicating.

Robert Moses: Yes.

José Cárdenas: Well, Dr. Moses thank you so much for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about this. I assume we'll see you back in Arizona sometime soon. I look forward to it.

Robert Moses: Thank you.

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José Cárdenas: Arizona had the 10th highest percentage of uninsured Hispanic children in the nation in 2014. A recent study released by Georgetown University's health policy institutes center for children and families and the national council of La Raza says that 12.7% of Hispanic children in Arizona do not have health insurance, a statistic greater than the national average. Joining me to talk about this is Joe Fu, health policy director for the Children's Action Alliance. Joe, welcome to "Horizonte."

Joe Fu: Thank you.

José Cárdenas: So I guess good news bad news, right? The good news is it's gone down for everybody including Hispanic children. The bad news is it's still pretty high for Hispanic kids, particularly in Arizona.

Joe Fu: Yeah, that's right. So the story really is I think that while uninsured kids have dawn down in every state in the country, Arizona is lagging behind its peers for all kids but especially for Hispanic children and to put it in some context we're talking about around 160,000 uninsured kids in Arizona in 2014 and if I may use a Super Bowl analogy, that's about 2 ½ stadiums of our Super Bowl l that's upcoming.

José Cárdenas: We do have a chart. I want to put it on the screen, it gives the overall picture first and the comparison between Hispanic and non-hispanic children and as you can see, they remain the percentage is actually greater of uninsured children being Hispanic.

Joe Fu: That's right. So even though Hispanic children overall make up about a quarter of all U.S. kids, they account for around 40% of the uninsured children population in the U.S. and in Arizona, that proportion is actually more significantly pronounced. In Arizona, 60% of the uninsured kids are Hispanic children.

José Cárdenas: And the next chart we have shows the drop for children overall and Hispanic children specifically and again, there is a wide disparity here.

Joe Fu: This chart really illustrates that uninsured rates disproportionately affect Hispanic kids. If we parse that out and look at the Hispanic population on its own, we see that the uninsured rate is higher. While it's critical to look at insurance rates what we're really talking about here are child health outcomes because health insurance is really the key in which children are able to access healthcare. And numerous studies have shown time and time again that children who are insured are more healthy, have better mental health services, and are actually better producers and engagers in the economy in the long run. So health insurance really is that critical portal for kids to participate and have an equal opportunity at being a productive adult.

José Cárdenas: We've got one more chart we want to put up on the screen and this is kind of comparing the different states and the changes recently and Nevada, our neighbor to the north, with a significant Hispanic population, tremendous improvement.

Joe Fu: That's right. We're looking at two tales right now. Unfortunately, right now Arizona is lagging and I want to point out that because Nevada has really astronomically reduced its number of uninsured kids because of a critical factor, which is their support of a children's health insurance program. It's a block grant, federal block grant from the department of health and human services that allows states to really cover and provide insurance for its kids and working families that make just a little bit over the threshold for programs, such as access or Medicaid but might not be able to afford the significant costs of plans on the Affordable Care Act marketplaces.

José Cárdenas: I take it that's a program we do not have in Arizona?

Joe Fu: That's right. So Arizona, unfortunately, is the only state in the country currently without a children's health insurance program.

José Cárdenas: And why is that?

Joe Fu: So I think there were a lot of factors but most significantly was in about 2010 or so, the state made the decision during the big budget deficit cuts to cut the program and it was swept in with a lot of other measures because of just the emergency of the situation. But I'm pleased to report that there is significant momentum right now to restore the program.

José Cárdenas: Is it in the governor's proposed budget?

Joe Fu: Currently, it is not in the budget but we are very encouraged by the prospects of the governor adopting this as part of his overall health strategy. I think that there are a number of factors that are working in our favor first and foremost, you know, it is an opportunity to make a significant dent in the number of uninsured kids in Arizona and that in and of itself is a good thing when you think about the health outcomes for our kids but second this program is now 100% federally fund and comes at no cost to our state budget.

José Cárdenas: We'll see what happens in the legislative session but thanks for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about it.

Joe Fu: Thank you.

José Cárdenas: And that's our show for tonight. Thank you for watching. From all of us here at "Horizonte" and your Arizona PBS station. I'm Jose Cardenas. Have a good evening.

Video: "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

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