Almost anyone who has sat in an algebra class can recall thinking, “Why do I need to learn this?”
Kendall Deas knows the answer. But the postdoctoral researcher in the Department of African American Studies also knows that for too many students, math doesn’t add up. He is leading an effort to connect algebra concepts to K-12 learners’ lives with the help of The Algebra Project.
Founded by Robert P. Moses, The Algebra Project teaches abstract mathematical concepts through concrete experiences, such as taking a bus trip, that relate to everyday life. According to Moses, giving students a solid foundation in algebra could be "an organizing tool for educational and economic rights.”
Deas agrees. He has devoted nearly a decade to examining the structures of inequity in education and finding methods to create equitable learning opportunities. His research examines the achievement gap between students of color and other groups to find alternative teaching models that bolster mathematics learning for underrepresented students.
He points to his own educational experience to underscore the transformative potential of a robust education.
“I had a quality education,” says Deas, who grew up in the Sumter County public school system.
“When I entered the Ivy League, it was intimidating, but I succeeded because I came out of a solid public school system that gave me the capacity to compete.”
A new approach
His current research effort, Mentoring for Math Proficiency (M4MP), looks at how to improve teaching models in math education. By using a culturally relevant teaching approach, educators can help students understand the value of learning complex math.
“Their success or failure in future educational opportunities depends on having a foundation in math,” Deas says.
The Algebra Project “aims to bring students to a deeper understanding of the abstract concepts and procedures of the mathematics they are learning.”
Additionally, children work with after-school and summer programs created with the support of community organizations.
“It’s about reaching children where they are, so they can understand the concepts better and apply them,” Deas says.
The Southern initiative of The Algebra Project trains K-12 educators in the program model, who also benefit from reconceptualizing mathematical concepts.
“The M4MP research has the capacity to transform teacher education programs in the state in terms of math education,” Deas says.
With support from an ASPIRE grant, Deas hopes to be able to offer stipends to cover training costs and as an incentive for teachers.
Deas will pilot this new approach through his M4MP study at Johnakin Middle School in Marion County, SC, which historically has reported low scores in standardized math testing. After helping to implement the program there, he will track students’ math test scores to gauge the program’s success.
He will use the data he gathers from the M4MP project to apply for a National Science Foundation grant. Deas says additional support from the university's Propel Research Mentorship Program, which guides faculty through applying for competitive federal grants, will allow him to continue his work.
Connecting to the community
To build support to sustain the program, Deas is collaborating with the Quality Education Project, which he co-founded in 2015, to educate the broader community and policymakers about research-backed approaches to making education more equitable.
Through the project, Deas has advocated for policies that promote educational equity, including increasing access to quality teachers, improving curriculum and providing extra support for struggling students.
Together with his work with the Quality Education Project, for which he received the 2023 MLK Social Justice Award, Deas's goal remains clear: to ensure that all students receive an education that is both high-quality and accessible.
And he’s confident that it will happen in his home state.
“I made the decision to anchor myself in SC to do my research, because I can attest that a strong public education benefitted me,” Deas says.
“I want other children to have that same experience, to come out of public school with a strong education in order to succeed in any capacity.”
Deas has written about his experience as a community leader with QEP in a forthcoming article that will appear in a special publication of Currents: Journal of Diversity Scholarship for Social Change (University of Michigan Press), scheduled for August 2023.