Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Algebra Project

After reading the report from the Brown Center, November 16th blog post, I decided to look into the Algebra Project founded by Robert Parris Moses.

I had visited Algebra Project web site previously and upon reviewing it remembered why I had discarded it to the trash bin of my mind. The website piques one's interest with titles such as, "Raising the Floor: Algebra Project National Conference", "Connecting Community and Schools", and "Building Excellence in Teaching", but is disappointing because it doesn't answer many pertinent questions. I wasn't able to find any definitive information, on the site, describing the program for teachers or data showing the Project's outcomes. Since the Project was founded in 1982, isn't it logical to expect to see data on its website to show that it is working? In other words, the site didn't answer any of my questions about what the Project actually DID, and even the blurbs about its philosophy weren't clear.

I found a paper, The Road Coloring Problem, written by Gregory Budzban, Department of Mathematics, Southern Illinois University, that gives a hint to the impetus of the Algebra Project. In the paper, Dr. Budzban describes a project that Dr. Moses did with one of his high school algebra classes based of the Road Coloring Problem.
"Over the next several months, together with other members of the Algebra Project, we put together a proposal to write a new 9th grade curriculum based in part on the RCP (Road Coloring Problem) and also drawing from Moses' and others work on curriculum based on 'mathematically rich' experiences."
I'm skeptical... a curriculum based on the Road Coloring Problem? Dr. Budzban, however,
does answer my question about where I can find information on how the Algebra Project works,
"A detailed explanation of the Algebra Project "Five Step Process" is contained in Radical Equations, and any serious discussion of it would require an article in itself."
There is one important point that I gathered from the Algebra Project's website, and Dr. Budzban's paper: Community involvement is very important in order to change the way we think about mathematics .

I completely agree. To further improve student outcomes in mathematics, in the U.S. we need to change the way we think about math education.

I am not swayed to believe that access to mathematics education is entirely an equal rights issue, in terms of race, as implied on the Algebra Project's website. It may be better argued that mathematics education is a class issue, but that doesn't tell the full story either. Although access to quality education can be argued to be a class issue, availing oneself to math education seems to be a cultural issue.

Children who are born into families inculcated in education will be better prepared to maneuver through the educational system than other children. They will have advantages in understanding the importance of attendance, being able to organize their binders and backpacks, getting help from tutors when needed, preparing for SATs, and slogging through the paperwork for applying to colleges, loans, and grants. For many students, this translates into an advantage in mathematics, but not always.

Mathematics apathy is cultural, specifically American in nature. Just as children born into families that are familiar with the ropes and red-tape of the educational system have an advantage, children inculcated into math-wise families will think of math as a natural part of a comprehensive education. If a parent works in a job that requires mathematics (surveyor, bank clerk, bookkeeper, machinist, chemist, engineer, physicist, actuary, accountant, computer programmer), white collar or blue collar, the child will be more likely to think that mathematics is important. Many highly educated Americans, and frighteningly too many school teachers, don't know a thing about mathematics and many let it be known that they don't care.

Therefore, I agree with Robert Moses that changing the way the community thinks is essential to changing the way math education is viewed in the United States. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel even mentioned the problem in their report published earlier this year.

Gregory Budzban, contributor to the Algebra Project, and who's paper is cited previously, responds to how he views mathematics education in the U.S.:
"Any curriculum process of this sort (referring to his curriculum collaboration with Robert Moses) must be aware of the 'math wars'. Students need both conceptual understanding and the ability to perform (without the aid of technology) the algorithms and procedures that we refer to as symbolic manipulation. Students must be prepared for the various state and national tests that have become increasingly important for their educational careers. There is no other short term option.
"For me, another part of the motivation for the work is to give students a sense of the
creative and aesthetic nature of mathematical research. Much of what passes for math curriculum at the K-12 level is the equivalent of grammar and vocabulary in a natural language. Imagine if, for twelve years, all you were taught was grammar and vocabulary in your native language. Imagine that you never had the opportunity to read anything other than the 'grammar book' and all you did was diagram sentences and write definitions. This is the equivalent of what we do in mathematics education at the K-12 level, in my opinion.
"For a true national mathematical literacy effort an important question is, 'How does one keep students involved and motivated?' For this, it is imperative that we display to students the creative and aesthetic nature of our beautiful subject. Jerry P. King wrote eloquently concerning this in his book, The Art of Mathematics. Yes, I understand students need the basics and a good foundation. My response to those who would emphasize only the basics, only the three 'R's' above all else is, 'Two of the three R's are misspelled.'"
Gregory Budzban's point is beautifully stated and I love Jerry King's metaphor.

The concept of Algebra for all 8th grade students, the impetus of my last post, was not addressed in any of the information I found regarding the Algebra Project.


MT said...

Thank you for your comment on my blog. Even if we still disagree. If you can possibly tell me any way calculus fits into my day to day medical school experience, I will be more than happy to listen.

I hear your complaint within this blog that some people within US culture are comfortable with mathematical ignorance. Even coming from a family with an engineer father, I still have no taste for the topic. And mostly, I'm okay with that. As much as I can't believe I'd ever say such a thing, I'm comfortable within my ignorance.

For all the declarative and functional knowledge I had to ram up into my head during undergraduate education - I never missed math. Argue that is because I was never taught to love it. Argue that it has some implication in my ability to use scientific information. For my particular arm of scientific practice, I completely disagree about the relevance of Calculus. No calculus is going to help me diagnose appendicitis faster.

As you wrote on my blog, there is logarithmic relevance in microbial growth. And such equations can contribute to determining antibiotic dosing or antibiotic development. Fine for academic medicine and research. Not a calculation I make on the clinical level.

I agree with this particular Gregory Budzban quote from your post: "Imagine if, for twelve years, all you were taught was grammar and vocabulary in your native language. Imagine that you never had the opportunity to read anything other than the 'grammar book' and all you did was diagram sentences and write definitions. This is the equivalent of what we do in mathematics education at the K-12 level, in my opinion."

And maybe if math were made more relevant and artful more children would sign on to it easier and longer. But I still think at more advanced levels math is a matter of personal inclination. I love puzzles, figuring something "hard" out and many tasks that involve spatial reasoning when relevant to "getting something done". I even like certain parts of programming.

But math in college felt pointless. And beyond feeling pointless, it didn't involve people. And beyond all that, the professors had obvious, serious, psychological issues. I know as a matter of my own personal inclinations, I have no taste for tasks that do not involve animal (human or otherwise) interaction. Some people do. And that's fine for them. That's not the way I'm wired. And it never handicapped me in any way beyond being something teachers whined to me about over the years. And later on, something medical school admissions boards inquired about with puzzled expressions. "You have an A in Physics but a C in Calculus, how did that happen?" And the answers 1) physics had context, college calc didn't, it failed to hold my interest. 2) I've never met a math professor who didn't have serious psychological issues and more-arbitrary-than-usual grading systems. Maybe if I had been applying to a research oriented medical school program I could see your point about calculus being relevant. But as it stands there is no compassion test for physicians and compassion is absolutely necessary. So, it seems ridiculous to me that a math which will never be used again by your PCP is used a divining rod to determine a candidates strength. It stands as a requirement for determining who is tolerant enough to put up with something boring and unnecessary. And the answer in my case, as indicated by my grade in calculus, is I am only marginally interested in putting up with an institution wasting my time. And I know math is your area, so you are probably going to take my saying that as offensive. It’s not intended that way. I just don’t think math is an appropriate requirement on the college level. I’m competent enough to add my bills, determine tip off of a bill and mentally calculate dosage based on weight. Anything else should be left to people with the desire to learn it. I’m sick of “math guilt”. The “Oh you should want to learn this because it’s what the smartest people learn”. Or the “language of science is math”. Chemistry, fine. Engineering, fine. Patterns within biology, fine. Statistical determinants of error in the emergency room on a dark and rainy night, fine. But do complex math calculations have to enter into anything that I personally have to do – not so much. I have enough work. I am more than happy to leave the math to someone else. And I refuse to see that as a weakness. I know what I like and what I don’t like. I’m an adult, despite being stubborn like a child on this issue. Even teachers and medical students (as much as you don’t like it) are allowed to want nothing to do with complex math. I’m sorry. I’m sure there are subjects within the world you have no desire to learn.

Anonymous said...

Just a thought but aren't clinical trials, pathological studies, pharmaceutical dosages, accounting, investing, and shopping all things a doctor runs into at some point? Don't all these things involve understanding mathematical concepts?

A 'C' in college calculus is not too shabby. I'm an engineer and got lots of them in calculus. I didn't really get calculus until I had to apply it in my career. Not sayin' you'll ever love it but I think any doctor needs a passing knowledge in math beyond high school.

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