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WASHINGTON – Inside a high school classroom, Bryan Martinez jots down several purchases that would require a short-term savings plan: shoes, phone, headphones, clothes, and food.

His medium-term financial goals take a little more thought, but he settles on a car — he doesn’t have one yet — and vacations. Peering way into his future, the 18-year-old also imagines saving money to buy a house, start his own business, retire, and perhaps provide any children with a college fund. 

Martinez’s friend next to him writes a different long-term goal: Buy a private jet.

“You have to be a millionaire to save up for that,” Martinez said with a chuckle.

Bryan Martinez, a senior at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., mulls over his financial goals, Sept. 12, 2023. He’s taking a course called Advanced Algebra with Financial Applications.   Credit: Jackie Valley/The Christian Science Monitor

Call it a reality check or an introduction to a critical life skill, this exercise occurred in a course called Advanced Algebra with Financial Applications. The elective math class has been a mainstay in Capital City Public Charter School’s offerings for more than a decade, giving students a foundation in money management while they hone math skills. Conversations about credit, investments, and loans, for instance, intersect with lessons on compound interest, matrices, and exponential equations.

The Washington, D.C., charter school may be a front-runner in providing financial education, but in recent years, many others have followed suit. Since 2020, nine U.S. states have adopted laws or policies requiring personal finance education before students graduate from high school, bringing the total number to 30 states, according to the Council for Economic Education.

The Math Problem 

Sluggish growth in math scores for U.S. students began long before the pandemic, but the problem has snowballed into an education crisis. This back-to-school season, the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms, will be documenting the enormous challenge facing our schools and highlighting examples of progress. The three-year-old Reporting Collaborative includes AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.

The surge comes as educators are scrambling to bolster students’ math skills, which plummeted during the pandemic and haven’t fully recovered. At the same time, a general dislike for math remains an obstacle among young people.

Related: Teachers conquering their math anxiety 

But do topics like high interest rates translate to higher interest among students? Tonica Tatum-Gormes, who teaches the course, says yes. She attributes better student engagement to them seeing the connection between math and their future financial well-being.

Students begin to understand that “yes, I need to learn decimals, and I need to learn fractions, and I need to learn percentages because I have to manage my money and I have to take out a loan,” Tatum-Gormes said.

Advocates say personal finance courses could pay dividends if students learn how to make wiser money decisions and avoid financial hazards. In the process, they may also develop an interest in math because of its practical applications. 

The K-12 standards for personal finance education, as recommended by the Council for Economic Education, include topics such as earning income, budgeting, saving, investing, and managing credit and financial risk. Experts say it’s a course that doesn’t necessarily have to be taught by a traditional math teacher.

Since 2020, nine U.S. states have adopted laws or policies requiring personal finance education before students graduate from high school, bringing the total number to 30 states, according to the Council for Economic Education. 

“The more math you add to financial literacy, frankly, the better it is,” said Annamaria Lusardi, founder and academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center. “In many cases, to make a decision, you have to do calculations, so I think math is a very powerful tool. … Having said that, financial literacy is more than math.”

Idaho is one of the states where a new financial literacy curriculum is hitting classrooms. The state legislature this year approved the course as a graduation requirement.

The new course will give students the chance to apply skills from their algebra, calculus, and economics classes to their real lives — computing their future student loans, rent payments, and income requirements.

“This was such a priority out of the gate because I heard from so many people during the campaign last year that our young people weren’t prepared with the basic financial skills they need to succeed in life,” said Debbie Critchfield, Idaho’s state superintendent of public instruction, who spearheaded the effort.

Related: College students are still struggling with basic math. Professors blame the pandemic  

Experts say the subprime mortgage crisis that helped spark the Great Recession in 2007, followed by pandemic economic uncertainty and today’s inflationary period, may have heightened Americans’ desire for a solid financial understanding. Less than a quarter, or 24 percent, of millennials demonstrate basic financial literacy, according to the Council for Economic Education.

Advocates say that left untaught, teens and young adults may turn to questionable sources, such as TikTok or YouTube videos. Plus, children whose parents aren’t financially savvy can’t rely on learning at home, making it an equity issue.

In 2020, the NAACP issued a resolution calling for more financial literacy programs in K-12 schools.

In schools with predominantly Black and Hispanic student populations, where there are no state-mandated requirements, only 7 percent of students have guaranteed access to at least a semester-long personal finance course, according to an analysis by Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit that advocates for financial literacy education. That figure rises to 14.2 percent for schools with less than a quarter of students identifying as Black or Hispanic.

In 2020, the NAACP issued a resolution calling for more financial literacy programs in K-12 schools. 

The equity consideration has been a driving force behind the financial literacy course at Capital City Public Charter School, which serves a student body that is 64 percent Latino and 25 percent Black.

“It’s an empowering course,” said Laina Cox, head of the school. “I think it gives our young people the language that they need and the voice when they’re in certain rooms and at certain tables.”

In Tatum-Gormes’ classroom, the conversation about savings goals turns into a math problem on the whiteboard. She’s asking students to calculate how much someone would need to save to create an emergency fund covering three months’ worth of expenses. 

At her nudging, students piece together an equation, which she scrawls on the board. It’s early in the school year, but for students, the value of the dollar is already becoming apparent.

Martinez, who’s one of nine children, says he signed up for the course because he watched his parents struggle to make ends meet. He hopes that he walks away with knowledge about when to spend — and not spend — money.

“I just want to prepare myself for the things that are coming toward me,” he said.

Sadie Dittenber from Idaho Education News contributed to this report. 

This piece on financial literacy education is part of The Math Problem, an ongoing series documenting challenges and highlighting progress, from the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms: AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times. To read more of the collaborative’s work, visit its website.  

© 2023 The Christian Science Monitor     

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