A middle school math program utilizing innovative experiential strategies, on-going teacher education, and grassroots community leadership to increase student achievement in math and prepare students to succeed in college-prep math and science courses at the high school level

Equity Pedagogy; Knowledge Construction; Empowering School Culture and Social Structure

Title and Location:
The Algebra Project
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Contact Information:
Robert P. Moses
The Algebra Project, Inc.
99 Bishop Allen Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139


The Algebra Project is a middle school mathematics curriculum created by civil rights activist Robert Moses to help inner-city African American students in the Boston area achieve proficiency in math so that they can successfully enter and complete college preparatory math and science courses in high school. It is founded on the belief that all students can learn algebra if given the proper instructional context, and it utilizes a five-step Transitional Curriculum which Moses developed to help students make the conceptual leap from arithmetic to algebra. The program utilizes experiential strategies, social construction of knowledge, teacher education, and community empowerment. The Algebra Project has continued to target students from under-represented ethnic minority groups as it has expanded to include schools in urban areas around the US as well as rural schools in the Mississippi Delta.

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Program History and Description

The Algebra Project is a mathematics reform curriculum initiated in 1982 in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Robert Moses. Moses, a mathematician and former high school math teacher, was invited by his daughter's teacher to work with four eighth-grade students in the Open Program (magnet school) at Martin Luther King, Jr. School. Three of the students Moses worked with took and passed the city-wide algebra test which allowed them to by-pass ninth-grade Algebra I and enter either Honors Algebra or Honors Geometry (Moses, Kamii, Swap, & Howard, 1989). This was a first for King School.

The following year Moses worked with nine eighth-graders and seven seventh-graders, but it soon became apparent that ability-grouping channeled most of the schools' students of color into the non-algebra track. Moses began to transform the day to day challenges of math instruction into broader political questions and set about creating a new student and adult culture within the Open Program. The Algebra Project was subsequently opened to all students in 1985-86, and Moses began developing a five-step process intended to accelerate sixth-graders' understanding of mathematical concepts. This process became the Transitional Curriculum, an instructional methodology which focuses on the conceptual leap students must make in order to move from the numerical "take away" understanding used in arithmetic to the "comparison" model used in algebra which includes directionality (Moses et al., 1989; Silva, Moses, Rivers, & Johnson, 1990).

Moses argues that access to college-level math and science sequences ultimately rests upon adequate college-preparatory course work in high school, which in turn depends on adequate preparation in middle school math. He therefore sees success in middle school algebra as the key link in the chain, and he believes that all children can learn algebra given the proper context. That context is characterized in terms of four components: (a) a curriculum which addresses the conceptual leap between arithmetic and algebra; (b) experiential processes which link concrete physical events to abstract mathematical concepts; (c) an expectation of achievement that is shared by a community of students, parents, teachers, and administrators; and (d) an effective teacher education program (Silva et al., 1990, p. 375). Offering a new and innovative math curriculum with regard to both content and instructional methods, the Algebra Project also teaches students how to set goals, motivates them to achieve, and mobilizes parents and the community to become active, supportive participants.

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Program Components

Primary Goals

The Algebra Project establishes three goals: (a) to develop highly motivated, mathematically literate middle school students able to succeed in college preparatory courses at the high school level; (b) to reform middle school math instruction so that it is relevant to the students' lived experiences and their socially constructed knowledge-base; and (c) to organize supportive communities which understand "math education as a problem of mathematics literacy" and student capability "as a matter of effective effort" (Silva et al., 1990, p. 379, emphasis in the original).

Instructional Strategies and Materials

To achieve these goals, the Algebra Project follows a four-fold approach: (a) middle school curriculum development; (b) teacher education; (c) expansion and replication of the program; and (d) construction of supportive communities (Silva et al., 1990).

One unique characteristic of the Algebra Project is the Transition Curriculum developed by Robert Moses. Using this procedure, students transition from concrete physical events to abstract understanding and representation through five steps: (a) experiencing or witnessing a physical event as a group; (b) representing that event through drawings or by creating models; (c) describing the event informally and intuitively, using their own natural and idiomatic language; (d) subsequently translating their idiomatic description into formal, edited English; and, finally, (e) creating a symbolic representation of the event using mathematical language. As an example of how this process works, students are initiated into the program by taking a field trip on a Boston subway, after which they reconstruct their journey using a map which serves as a number line and illustrates key concepts such as "how many," "which direction" (positive and negative numbers), and equivalence (Moses et al., 1989; Silva et al., 1990).

Another unique characteristic of the program is its community involvement. Besides mobilizing parents into the Algebra Project, African American college students are utilized as tutors in before-school algebra study halls, open to all students at King School. The tutors come from various colleges in the Boston area and serve as role models for middle school students, helping create an atmosphere of academic success and achievement. Finally, the classroom teachers who work with the Algebra Project are a critical link. They act both as facilitators and as models of learning in the classroom.


As a former civil rights activist involved in voter registration in the South during the 1960s, Robert Moses associates problems in school mathematics with problems in the larger society which still need to be addressed. Historically, he argues, the struggle for freedom and equality in this country has pivoted around literacy as a tool and as a requirement for citizenship (Moses, 1994). Today, as the US becomes increasingly characterized by changing technologies and an information-based economy, proficiency in math and science has become a critical requirement for literacy and citizenship as well as for career and economic advancement. Moses and his colleagues in the Algebra Project fear the possibility that the poor and inner-city segments of the population, with less access to the skills and technology, stand to become a permanent underclass (Silva et al., 1990).

While the instructional and organizational reforms addressed by the Algebra Project are intended to improve math achievement for all students, the program has continued to target students from ethnic minority groups who remain under-represented in the fields of mathematics and science. Thus, students in the program generally come from inner-city schools in urban areas such as Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago. In addition, the Algebra Project is also implemented in thirty-one schools in rural Mississippi (Appalachian Educational Laboratory, Inc., n.d.).

Teacher education is also an important aspect of the program. Participating teachers receive instruction in both what to teach and how to teach it, and they model learning as they work with their students. In addition, many teachers also attend intensive training sessions in which they study Jeffrey Howard's Efficacy Model of intellectual development, based on motivation and self-development.

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Program Success

Student Achievement

The Algebra Project does not use standarized tests. Instead it encourages alternative assessment strategies such as student portfolios and recording student performance on tasks completed at work stations. As of 1990, the program had worked with over 80 students. Prior to the Algebra Project, no student from King School had ever passed the ninth grade placement test. However, during the Algebra Project's first five years (1982-1987) more than half the program's students took the exam and 79% of these passed. Some of these students also qualified for advanced placement into geometry or honors algebra.

Program Attributes

  1. 1. The Transition Curriculum allows students to use their local environment and prior knowledge as a base from which to build an understanding of the mathematical concepts which are critical to success in algebra. Future success in college-preparatory math and science courses builds on the students' algebraic understanding.
  2. 2. Teachers learn successful techniques for teaching algebra. They also collaborate with other teachers, Algebra Project staff, parents, and community members.
  3. 3. According to Moses, a bottom-up approach, used successfully in the South during the civil rights movement, builds consensus with regard to identifying problems and goals. The local community is empowered and grassroots leadership is developed. Potentially, a culture and a climate of change is created.
  4. 4. The Algebra Project presents a model for middle school curriculum reform based on "working 'both sides of the street at the same time'-getting into classrooms and showing success in order to work one's way into the community, then utilizing the community's acceptance and political clout to get the reforms into the rest of the classrooms" (Moses, 1994, p. 110).

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Program Replication

While its headquarters remain in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Algebra Project is being implemented in schools in Atlanta and Chicago as well as in thirty-one rural schools in the Mississippi Delta.

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Appalachia Educational Laboratory, Inc. (n.d.) Algebra Project. Available: http://aelliot.ael.org:80/~eric/pulling/cabstr37.html

Hoover, R. (1996, January 16). Activist uses math to keep kids ahead of the game. The Detroit News.

Moses, R. P. (1994, March). Remarks on the struggle for citizenship and math/science literacy. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 13 (1), 107-111.

Moses, R. P., Kamii, M., Swap, S. M., & Howard, J. (1989, November). The Algebra Project: Organizing in the spirit of Ella. Harvard Educational Review, 59(4), 423-443. Available: http://www.cpn.org/sections/topics/youth/stories-studies/algebra_project.html

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. The Algebra Project. Available: http://www.ncrel.org:80/skrs/areas/issues/content/cntareas/math/ma1algeb.htm

Residential Intensive Math and Science Academy, California State University, Los Angeles. The Algebra Project. Availablehttp://www.calstatela.edu:80/univ/access/algebra.htm

Silva, C. M., Moses, R. P., Rivers, J., & Johnson, P. (1990). The Algebra Project: Making middle school mathematics count. Journal of Negro Education, 59, (3), 375-391.