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What the Baltimore Algebra Project Can Teach Us About Education Reform

By Monica Fuglei February 25, 2015
Baltimore Algebra Project as Education Reform

In his 1968 book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Paulo Friere addressed the complex relationship among education, race, and poverty. He identified the myriad ways traditional education systems failed to meet the needs of students of color, families living in poverty and students struggling in other ways.

Friere opposed top-down directives of what was or was not important in learning. Since his groundbreaking book was released, educators have struggled with liberatory pedagogy and what it means to provide the best possible educational opportunities for students in at-risk schools.

The unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind

Although No Child Left Behind legislation was intended to help students in high-needs schools, the law’s effects include high-stakes testing and a widened learning gap between poor and wealthy schools. This learning gap appears in kindergarten, and educators have not been able to narrow it over time. Because learning grows exponentially, the learning gap continues to widen throughout a child’s education.

Much of the reform in No Child Left Behind was designed to address and narrow these gaps, but educator Jay Gillen, author of “Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty,” argues that education policy’s intention doesn’t always match the reality in schools. When students resist top-down directives, their failure to invest in learning is perceived as indifference to their future when it is often an expression of powerlessness and frustration.

How do schools serve all students and eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline?

Recent studies show that for students of color, resistant behavior in the classroom results in suspension at alarmingly early ages and high rates, entering the most at-risk children into what has been called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Researchers and policymakers have suggested a variety of top-down interventions to try to decrease the learning gap and intervene on behalf of students. However, these fail to acknowledge the importance of student investment as a piece of the solution.

Gillen proposes to reframe student resistance in these schools and harness student energy in a way that empowers students while educating them. Rather than seeing rebellious students as defiant, he suggests we understand their behavior as a communication of discontent within a system that, increasingly, appears to judge rather than support them.

Baltimore Algebra Project: using discontent as a context for learning

One example of reframing resistance in Gillen’s book is the non-profit Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP). The BAP’s slogan is simple: “No Education, No Life.” BAP provides tutoring services to struggling students at several different sites in Baltimore. As students progress in their studies, they have the opportunity to work as paid BAP tutors.

For once-struggling students, this can result in reliable employment; BAP has paid more than $2 million in wages to student employees. Students who participate in BAP tutoring see a path to empowerment: Learn the material, become a tutor yourself, earn an income, and establish a voice for yourself and others in your area.

As a youth-led program, the Baltimore Algebra Project creates context and relevance for student learning and has targeted tutoring programs for at-risk youth. The BAP also has its finger on the pulse of education decisions that would affect their neighborhood and the students they tutor.

Youth-led advocacy in action: effecting change through training, leadership and community organization

Advocacy is a central component of the BAP philosophy. Because Heritage High School, one of the schools that houses part of their tutoring program, is slated to close at the end of the 2015-16 school year, BAP representatives attend school board meetings and show support for the school in an effort to change the district’s mind about the closing. December’s school board meeting takeover earned significant local press coverage and increased attention to the issue of Heritage closing.

Because tutors in the Baltimore Algebra Project are called to participate as community organizers and youth leaders, they also offer their services as trainers to engage and inspire other youth to take on positions of leadership in their communities. With tutorship, community activism, and their leadership training, the BAP acts as an important example of engaged student school and community improvement.

Engagement increases with student-led learning

The efficacy of Baltimore Algebra Project’s structure is supported by current research that suggests problem-based or project-based learning as a best-case scenario for student engagement. When a tutoring center is run for and by young people, it acts as an inspiration to all involved.

The BAP is also an excellent example of locally invested, democratized educational reform that echoes the community organizers in American history who consistently targeted hierarchies in pursuit of justice and freedom. Today, this freedom is intransigently linked with educational and economic opportunity and success.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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