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Low math scores reflect organizing issue, not student, teacher problem

Maryland student achievement in math has long lagged behind reading, and this year’s test results show not much has changed.

Math scores have stagnated — not only in Maryland, but across the country. Scores for Baltimore, as for African-American students in many cities, are trending down: 9% proficiency on the Algebra 1 test, compared to 14% three years ago. Policy makers wring their hands, but the problem is more complicated than most of us want to face.

To get a handle on the complexity, we should pay attention to Bob Moses, a MacArthur Genius Award winner who grew up in Harlem, in New York City. Mr. Moses was doing graduate work at Harvard when the student sit-ins jumped off in 1960. He went south and found himself at the center of the Mississippi voting rights movement as a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Working with Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, Mr. Moses developed Freedom Summer in 1964 and was instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The historian Taylor Branch calls Mr. Moses a figure as important in the civil rights movement as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Since 1982, Mr. Moses, now 84, has led the Algebra Project, a classroom-by-classroom, community-by-community organizing effort to raise the issue of math literacy to national awareness. Mr. Moses believes that math literacy is to freedom in places like Baltimore what voting rights was to freedom in Mississippi.

The racists in Mississippi said black people didn’t care about politics, didn’t want to get involved, were too illiterate to register to vote. To combat this racism, the young organizers of SNCC persuaded ordinary people to act like heroes and line up to register despite beatings and murders and being thrown out of work, so that it would be clear that access, not apathy, was the problem.

Today people of all races say that the students in Baltimore don’t care about their math, don’t pay attention in class or even come to class, that their teachers don’t care enough or don’t believe in them, and that their parents don’t value education. The authorities buy this story and say, “We’re going to make them care.” They institute punitive teacher evaluations tied to test scores and try to intimidate students and families by saying that graduation will be contingent on high-stakes tests.

Fourth grade students at Marley Elementary School demonstrate how to take a sample version of the PARCC assessment test in January.
Fourth grade students at Marley Elementary School demonstrate how to take a sample version of the PARCC assessment test in January. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

That approach hasn’t worked.

As with voting rights, the problem of math literacy is not apathy, but access. Young people want to learn, and their families care deeply. But in a class of 30, children don’t get their questions answered. Teachers rushing through a “world-class” curriculum have to pretend that the students “mastered” what they have only just begun to understand. Test scores come in, telling a fragile child in 3rd grade that they’re behind, and that they have to try harder, when they are already trying as hard as they can. Generations of students conclude that they’re stupid or bad at math. Mr. Moses describes this as the long-term success of the Mississippi racists; racist ideas have gotten inside the children’s heads. The students tell themselves that they’re not good enough.

Mr. Moses and the Algebra Project are now leading a national “We the People” Alliance for Math Literacy that promotes access to mathematics as a constitutional right. The “We the People” Alliance has all kinds of strategies: active, culturally dynamic, fun and engaging curriculum; small classes; paid near-peer teaching; community organizing to address broader needs for housing, food and economic security; bottom-up decision-making structures, just like Fannie Lou Hamer and SNCC used in Mississippi. Young people begin to feel that they can do math, that they are doing math, and that they want to do math. They begin to teach each other, to present mathematics in public and to use mathematics as both a tool and a language. The immediate goal isn’t test scores. It’s energy, deep mathematical understanding, engagement and a sense of purpose and freedom. And it costs money — money currently tied up in testing, policing and incarceration.

Most people in positions of authority, however, don’t understand that mathematics scores reveal an organizing problem, a problem of not hearing what the children and their families are truly asking for. An organizing approach says that the people at the bottom, not the people at the top, have the solutions. We should get started right away figuring out how children can get their questions answered. All they want, as everyone does, is to live full and joyous lives. We must believe in them and pay attention to what they, their families and their teachers say they need. Starting now.

Jay Gillen (gillen.jay@gmail.com) teaches within the Juvenile Services Education System of the Maryland State Department of Education. He was a facilitator for the Algebra Project in Baltimore schools for many years. His book, The Power in the Room: Radical Education through Youth Organizing and Employment” is due out Sept. 24 (Beacon Press).

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