Financial literacy has a place in Detroit’s classrooms

Tracy Pierce

As I wrap up my third year of teaching Consumer Math, I believe more than ever that our students deserve to understand how academic concepts will enable life opportunities. As a Teach For America alumna, I’m part of a network working in partnership with schools, communities, and families striving to ensure that all children have access to a quality education.

In my classroom, I have two main goals: to help prepare my students to excel in their college math courses; and to empower them to act as financial advisers and advocates for themselves, their families, and their communities. My class begins with units focused on compensation and tax situations, and later my students complete a comparison project requiring them to build exponential functions and analyze how debt accumulation varies across credit cards. Whenever possible, I root problems and projects in actual financial documents to give students experiences decoding information they are sure to see in the future.

Teaching math through personal finance has proven to be a powerful practice in engaging my students. They often get invested in learning how to manage money — a tangible life skill — and their previous experiences with financial institutions and practices give them background knowledge to launch our discussions and lessons. Activating this interest and prior knowledge can be a powerful bridge to math topics that are absolutely essential to succeeding in college and beyond.

Personal finance coursework also gives students the ability to advocate for themselves and their communities. There are not banks with high quality account options on every corner of Detroit, but there are a huge amount of businesses that profit from financial exploitation. The systemic economic disadvantages Detroiters may face make personal finance knowledge all the more important.

Each time I wrap up a banking unit, I have students tell me that they or another member of their family have decided to open a bank account or other investment. Last winter, a former student reached out to let me know that she had helped several classmates identify what grants and loans they should take for the upcoming semester. Personal finance coursework can set students up for success as they navigate the roads ahead.

But personal finance education is not the silver bullet for math education and itself may not transform the city’s financial landscape. Students need to take rigorous classes that encompass all aspects of math in order to be prepared for college and beyond. They should also be empowered to not only work within our current financial system, but to change it to provide fair financial opportunities for everyone.

As an advocate for equal education, I work to balance all of these concerns as I do my best to prepare my students for college math and their financial futures. By working together, Detroit’s teachers and community leaders can help ensure that our students graduate with the math skills and financial awareness they need. There is no better first step than to begin incorporating personal finance coursework into our classrooms, and there is no better time than now.

Tracy Pierce, a 2013 Teach For America alumna, teaches consumer math at Jalen Rose Leadership Academy.