Robert Moses uses the phrase minimum of common conceptual cohesion to describe how blacks in Mississippi mobilized around the importance of voting. He applies the concept to rally parents, educators and students around The Algebra Project.
Finding the minimum of common conceptual cohesion meant leaders had to find that one universally supported point. Moses writes in “Radical Equations,” that black Mississippians focused on voting.
Amzie Moore, Hollis Watkins and Fannie Lou Hamer saw how the white establishment used the process to keep resources from blacks. Injustices such as the acquittal of the men accused of killing Emmett Till showed blacks that fair treatment before the law would only come with the vote.
Moore and others told Moses that he needed to ignore elite opinions that blacks in Mississippi were too apathetic and afraid to vote, Moses and other activists explained the importance of voting to black Mississippians and led them to court houses. There they faced down hostile officials and challenged Jim Crow laws.
The success of that effort convinced Moses that he could use the same strategy to reach a common ground around the importance of teaching algebra to inner-city middle school students. Moses realized that The Algebra Project had one advantage that his fight for voting rights in the south did not – a minimum of common conceptual cohesion already started to form around the belief that all students could learn and that every kid deserved to receive a quality education.
Moses understood that most stakeholders paid lip service to the belief that “all kids could learn.” However, that’s more fealty than leaders in the Jim Crow south paid to the concept of “one man, one vote.” That lip service gave Moses the “crawl space” to develop a program and movement to improve math literacy among working class students in Boston and other cities.
The Algebra Project differed from Moses’ 1960s era voting rights efforts in another respect. Moses had personal skin in the game. The program grew out of efforts by Robert and Janet Moses to ensure that their four children got a good public school education. That meant their children would enter college without needing remediation.
The couple quickly surmised that meeting their goal required that the four children receive a first rate education in math. Moses probably remembered how technological advances in the Mississippi cotton fields gave plantation owners even less incentive to treat sharecroppers fairly. By the 1970s, Moses realized what didn’t become obvious to most people until 2000.
Technology would create winners and losers. The winners would be the students proficient in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Moses set out the make sure his children performed well in math. Moses’ children worked on math even when they were on vacation. They hated it. But the kids knew their math. Most of their classmates did not.
Moses’ oldest daughter was algebra ready in the eighth grade when nearly all of the other students took general math. This presented Moses with a problem and an opportunity. The problem was that the teacher could not teach algebra to her class. The opportunity was that Moses – who had received a McArthur genius grant – had time to volunteer. He taught algebra teacher to his daughter and three other students.
Working with the four students put Moses in contact with other students. He quickly realized that there was an achievement gap. Students from more affluent backgrounds performed better than poorer students. Moses developed The Algebra Project to address the achievement gap.
Yet, Moses didn’t seek to impose his concepts on the school community. He tried to build consensus around the importance of algebra instruction. He listened to educators, parents and students. Moses listened to students because he realized that students had to “buy into” the project in order for it to be successful.
By listening to the students, Moses learned about their struggles and fears. He also learned what motivated them. The project has grown over the years and can be found in schools from coast to coast.