October 20, 1990|By Sara Engram

SEVERAL MINUTES into a demonstration last weekend of a new way to teach algebra, this observer suddenly realized that something was different -- really different:

If this was algebra, why was it so much fun?

That question suggests another: If learning the concepts behind algebra and the rest of higher math and science can be such a lively, absorbing exercise, why are schoolchildren still approaching algebra with dread -- or, in the case of too many minority and inner-city children -- never approaching it at all?

If Robert Moses has his way, that dread will disappear -- and, along with it, the subtle obstacles that stand between too many inner-city children and enrollment in algebra classes. As Mr. Moses points out, algebra is the crucial "switch" that determines who will be eligible for higher math and science courses in high school. Algebra begins the track to college and professional careers.

Mr. Moses, who conducted the algebra workshops last Saturday at Bethel A.M.E. Church, is the civil rights worker whose quiet courage in helping blacks learn to read and register to vote in Mississippi during the 1960s made him a something of a legend in the civil rights movement.

Registering to vote is an important way of participating in this society. But in itself, it is not enough. Schoolchildren now face a world where success depends on their mastery of the analytical skills that are prized in a post-industrial society. That's why in recent years Mr. Moses has been devoting his time to developing a new way to teach middle school students the concepts they need to succeed in algebra, and thus in higher math and science.

Even disadvantaged students easily grasp the notion behind arithmetic -- that adding and subtracting are ways of counting things, of answering the simple question "how many?" Algebraic thinking is concerned not with quantities, but with relationships. There is an important conceptual leap from "how many?" to the question that is basic to algebra -- "which way?"

Yet too many inner city children aren't shown how to make the leap. Not only do they lack the support other students usually get in mastering conceptual thinking, they often fall victim to low expectations -- their own as well as their teachers'.

The Algebra Project offers inner-city children a door into algebraic thinking by making use of something most are familiar with -- the mass transit system. In Baltimore, for instance, middle school students would get their introduction to algebra through an outing on the subway.

That trip would become the basis for classroom exercises demonstrating concepts like negative and positive numbers. For instance, if their departure point is zero, the stops on their trip would correspond to positive numbers, while those in the opposite direction would be negative numbers. That's how math becomes something more to a child than an abstract method of torture.

The Algebra Project springs from the belief that, with the right kind of teaching, disadvantaged youngsters can easily master subject matter usually considered beyond their reach. It's the same assumption behind the grant awarded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation to public schools in Baltimore and four other cities to provide a more challenging curriculum for disadvantaged students in grades six through nine, the crucial middle school years.

The foundation also provides these five school systems with opportunities to sign onto other innovative projects, including this one. But unlike the other four cities receiving Clark funds, Baltimore school officials chose not to participate in the Algebra Project.

From the warm reception the workshops got at Bethel, that decision may be one the schools should reconsider. In the meantime, Baltimore youngsters may yet get a chance for their transit rides into the world of higher math. Bethel's energetic community outreach program is planning its own after-school algebra project. It's one the schools could learn from.