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Equity and Mathematics: An Interview with Deborah Ball and Bob Moses

*[From the Phi Delta Kappan, October 2009, Volume 91,
Number 2, pp. 54-59]*

When Algebra Project creator Bob Moses and math researcher Deborah Ball
talk, their conversation is less about the mechanics of math and more about
issues of equity and education.

By Joan Richardson [Editor-in-chief of Phi Delta Kappan magazine]

KAPPAN:

on it is language.

Then, I became an elementary school teacher because I thought I would find
teaching very intellectually interesting work, and that was true. After five
or six years of teaching elementary school, I found my students were not
learning math. I wasn't teaching it very well. On Friday, they would know
how to do something and on Monday, they wouldn't remember.

That year, I was teaching 5th grade. I began to take more seriously what it
would take for me to be better at reaching my students. So I began to study
mathematics. I thought part of the clue was that I hadn't really studied
much math myself and that maybe it would help if I did. So I began taking
college-level math. I found it pretty interesting.

I did well in those classes, but it wasn't quite clear to me how this was
going to help me teach school better. Then I took number theory, which
electrified me. I just loved it. I learned much more about how to think
mathematically and about proof.

Meanwhile, I was teaching 1st grade. I began experimenting a lot more with
what I was doing with my students. I began to notice that the math I was
taking was influencing what I could hear and what my students said. I
noticed them saying things that I had never noticed before. I realized that
the kids were doing all kinds of mathematical things that teachers were
missing, which, to me, had everything to do with kids' failure in math. Kids
would say interesting things and their teachers would say, "No, don't do it
that way" or "We're not talking about that" or "That has nothing to do with
what we're talking about." Then, it would be pretty easy to explain why lots
of kids would end up thinking, "This is a dumb subject and I'm checking out
of this," because they were thinking things that were mathematically viable
but most primary teachers couldn't hear it.

The mathematical foundation in the elementary grades has everything to do
with what comes later. Having a very different early experience, even from
before entering school, would make a very big difference. Kids would come to
high school with different expectations about what they do. We're working in
a repair mode right now because they come to high school already completely
harmed by what school does with math. So it's a huge repair job. So I'm not
really a math person is the basic story.

WHY ALGEBRA?

When I was in Mississippi [in the 1960s], I saw very graphically how
literacy mattered. Sharecroppers weren't literate, so they were outside the
economic arrangement. That's what's happening now in the inner cities. We're
growing young people who are outside the economic arrangements for the
information-age technologies. It's not that they don't need reading and
writing. They need higher levels of reading and writing because they have to
communicate. But they also need the ability to encode and decode
information, which is partially encoded with quantitative information.
That's just one piece of why algebra is important.

When I watched my own kids going through junior high and high school, they
were just suddenly using symbols, but nobody was really explaining very much
at all about it. It's not explicitly taught. Yet it's pretty fundamental to
doing mathematical things later. I don't think we're really teaching it to
anybody. Kids who are learning it are mostly just picking it up.

I'm making a career out of the fact that I'm not good at math because I'm so
bent on figuring out what it would look like if all kids in this country
actually had the foundation that mathematics would provide. By the way, I
hope you notice that we don't ask this question about poetry. When I taught
1st grade, we studied poems and we didn't ask, "why is that going to be
useful?" We also made sure people could learn to read and write. Some parts
of math are just really interesting, and we aren't really exposing kids to
that.

I'm on something of a mission of having this say, basically, either we're
going to do this and do it well for everybody or we shouldn't be trying to
do it at all. And if not, let's stop pretending math deserves to be one of
the main school subjects. Let's take philosophy and art and teach it to
everybody. We're not really teaching mathematics to most people in this
country anyway. That's not completely answering your question, but I'm sort
of asking why should math be there at all? If there is a good answer to
that, it has to be a good answer for everyone.

There's no question that algebra is necessary. It's necessary given the
political configuration of the country. There's no choice for them.
Middleclass kids don't want the requirement; upper-middle-class kids have
outs. They can go to colleges that don't require it. You can pay $40,000 a
year and go to a small liberal arts college for which there is no really
effective math requirement.

It's a hard conversation to have in this country. As Bob just said, kids who
are very privileged manage to do without it, and so do lots of other people.
But, for many kids, math will be the key thing for their life chances.

The question of a national agreement about what's important to learn is
related. Imagine wanting to build a system where you supply teachers who
actually know what they're doing. That's pretty hard to do when you can't
agree on what they're going to teach when they get out there.

If we really wanted to build a system that couldn't work, we almost couldn't
have done it better than we have.

I agree that it's about political will. It's about changing the
conversation. It would involve cutting through these polarities about
whether it's standards or whether it's federal or whether it's Teach for
America or whether it's the ed schools or whether it's preservice or
inservice. The problem is located in something much more fundamental. If we
can get those things off the table, and actually work on the thing we have
in front of us - which is to get ordinary adults who are really committed to
having kids become skilled - we could do it. There's no shortage of people
who want to try to do that, but we're not equipping them at all. It's like
sending people out into a very

difficult environment with almost no skills or tools to do it. No wonder
they leave the profession.

That's the story in Michigan right now. We have hugely escalated standards,
but we're going to have big waves of additional failure because we don't
have enough in place to help those kids actually reach those standards.

We need a system that supplies teachers with the skills. My own view of
this, and I think that of my colleagues, is that it's not a worthwhile
argument to argue who will get the teachers ready. So, if Teach for America
could do that or we could do that or you could learn that in an intensive
four-week program, I really don't care. I care much more about making sure
that nobody's in a classroom who's not safe to teach kids. One way to do
that would be to spend more time worrying about the standards for good
practices in teaching and finding ways to establish that people who enter
classrooms can do those things. Then, I think we could build it. Recruit a
lot of people who want to be teachers in different ways. Let it vary. That's
fine. We actually need a diverse teaching population, so people need to be
able to enter through different routes. But the important thing is that they
need to be prepared for the work of teaching and skilled in helping all
their students learn.

We shouldn't think it's okay to put people in classrooms who don't know what
they're doing. You don't think it's okay to have a plumber come to your
house who might completely wreck your drain when your drain isn't working,
or your toilet. We don't think it's okay if you go to get your hair cut and
the person buzzes half your hair off. You don't go back. We're doing kind of
the analog of that. We're having people who don't know what they're doing
with our kids, and we somehow think that's okay. We think it's okay to let
people who lack the skills to teach try to figure them out at the expense of
the students in front of them.

MAKE MATH INTERESTING

There are tons of problems that are fascinating to little kids, so you need
to give them a diet of those things. They have to be able to see that math
is something much broader than what school is causing them to think math is.
Math needs to be defined more broadly. When I taught 1st grade, I discovered
that it was much smarter to spend the early months on geometry because it
broadened their sense right away of what the subject was. "Oh, that's math
too? Well, if that's math, I kind of like that. And guess what, I'm actually
pretty of good at it." So, that interplay of what it is and what it means to
be good at it is important.

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Robert P. Moses

The Algebra Project has developed curricular materials and provided
intensive teacher professional development institutes and ongoing support,
as well as community involvement activities, to schools seeking to achieve a
systemic change in mathematics education. The Algebra Project reaches about
10,000 students and 200 teachers each year through work in 15 locations in
11 states.

In 2005, the Algebra Project initiated Quality Education as a Civil Right
(QECR), a ground breaking national organizing effort to establish a federal
constitutional guarantee for quality public education for all youth.

======================

Deborah Loewenberg Ball

Position:

mathematical knowledge, the quality of their teaching, and their students'
performance.