COMMENTARY: And what of the Pythagorean Theorem

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Joshua Dean

By Joshua Dean

As I approach my 30s, I feel the weight of the prophecy so many of my high school peers made: we will never use this math in life. Ironically, they were correct; I never  had an opportunity to use the Pythagorean theorem or the Quadratic formula beyond the four walls of my math class. Though my interest beyond high school lay primarily with the humanities, I feel I am not an anomaly. While many scholars leave school with various mathematical theories burned into their memory from countless hours of study and practice, they usually have little to no knowledge of creating financial freedom. 

The irony of this truth is that grappling with formulas is much more difficult than understanding the math of investing. Yes, completing a financial analysis to understand if a business will continue to be profitably is a bit more difficult, but the math of stocks is consistent: buy low, sell high. Why then, are students not exposed to math that could be helpful and relevant to their lives? It’s baffling to say the least. 

Startups like Robinhood, whose mission is to democratize investing, recognize how many people are woefully undereducated on how to invest. Their entire value proposition is to make investing accessible to the masses. Accessible in this case means helping people to understand how to trade efficiently and without fees. If we are hoping to engage students, our content should be relevant and reflective of the world we live in. If we truly care about marginalized communities, who are two or three times more likely to be consumers all their lives rather than acquirers of assets, we should reconsider what is deemed important in math classes. 

Unfortunately, I learned about investing later than I would have liked. When I was 24, I was introduced to the stock market by a friend. He is a bank manager, and knows the ins and outs of investing. He helped me to understand that the Apple stocks he purchased back in 2013, had matured beautifully over the course of five years. In fact, he was likely able to sell them for over 30k if he chose to. He told me he would never sell his shares because Apple continued to beat predictions, which meant more easy money for him. 

When I asked him to teach me how to invest, he laughed a bit and asked me to gather $1,000 to begin: we were not playing the same game. At the time, I did not have the funds, so I never asked him for financial advice again if it would come at the expense of humiliation. 

He helped me to understand the significant difference of our education. While I could rattle off the Quadratic formula, he could judge between good investment opportunities that could generate 10k-100k over the course of 10 years. When DogeCoin exploded in the beginning of 2021, he shared that his brother made 6k when the coin became popular. 

Sure, it was a calculated gamble, but the greater gamble lies in students being uneducated in these matters. It is easy to understand why his education is more valuable than mine. While I was immersed in acquiring rote knowledge to regurgitate facts, Ryan and his siblings were able to learn theory and practice of investing. While the stock market is often demonized as a virtual casino, it is alive and has a pulse. It is the very opposite of the math books full of theories of mathematicians that are now deceased. 

Let me be clear, mathematical theories are incredibly important. I could not imagine a world without the contributions of so many dedicated mathematicians. However, if students’ mathematical education is limited to theories that do little for them outside of the classroom, we have failed them. If there is any community that could benefit from financial literacy being melded into math and ELA, it is urban schools. Students of urban schools have the most to gain from learning about investment tools such as the stock market, Roth IRA, and real estate. Ironically, they also have the most to lose. These students need to begin investing earlier to be on an even playing field with the rest of the world that is able to leverage resources students from urban communities often don’t have. 

I encourage students to see the logic of asking for stocks for Christmas and birthdays, but few students seem to care. I especially make this case for students who grace hallways with a large array of expensive shoes like Jordans and Yeezys. I tell them that stocks like Nike, owner of  the Jordan brand, are cheaper than the shoes they wear. These suggestions fall on deaf ears. Maybe if financial literacy was reflected in our curriculum, they would grow to appreciate information regarding investing. Only if they were able to see the value in math and understand how learning the content could lead to a financially secure future, would they begin to care. 

Joshua Dean is an educator and catalyst for social justice in the school system. He is most concerned with how curriculum propels or anchors students, particularly those from marginalized communities.

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What would you add to public school information, and at what grade level, to increase the students knowledge and expectation of Black wealth?

The number one element I would add to Urban schools would be more Black male teachers at the primary level. Other elements would consist of African study courses, financial literacy courses, citizenship courses, how to write a check, how to do your taxes, just how to conduct yourself as a citizen in this country. There should be some sort of mandate that children are required to graduate with a trade of some sort. But I do believe that they should start at the primary level, because we have to deconstruct the mindset that’s already established when Black children are born.

Askia Brown, 8th grade science teacher, Maryland.

Lots of studies show that fourth grade is when the opportunity gap or achievement gap or whatever you want to call it, starts to exponentially grow and so I do believe, just really having heavy support starting at that fourth grade level, start incorporating these ideas would help us bring up adolescents who are capable of turning into well producing adults.

  • Askia Brown, 8th grade science teacher, Maryland

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Juawn Jackson, Member of Bibb County Board of Education, Macon, Ga.

I believe truly that our schools, especially urban public schools, should be providing wrap around services for our students. It’s hard to study when your stomach is growling. It’s hard to sit in the front of the classroom and participate, when you’re afraid to be noticed because you don’t clean clothes to wear. The first step in laying the foundation for Black wealth is ensuring our PreK-12 students have a personalized service plan that would cover a broad scope of needed areas for them to be successful.

  • Juawn Jackson, Member of Bibb County Board of Education, Macon, Ga.

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Willie Batts, assistant principal, Macon, Ga.

I would add trade vocational programs at the building level for 9th-12th grades along with diverse cultural themes to improve their cultural experience. To encourage rebuilding of Black wealth I would increase literacy by implementing school wide reading initiatives for 9th-12 grades. I would implant fine arts standards that encourage project base and portfolio performance skills.

  • Willie Batts, assistant principal, Macon, Ga.

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Birth-5: Add: universal childcare and early nurturing education, particularly pre-literacy for all children. Add phonics and science-driven literacy instruction and intervention in preK and Kindergarten.

Remove: GT (gifted/talented) Tracking for elementary school. Segregated public school programs.

K-5: Add: Affirming grade-level instruction in math and ELA for all students that is meaningful for all students. Add teachers and role models who represent and embody excellence in the community.

Remove: GT programming and acceleration that disproportionately segregates and tracts students before middle school. Remove the coded language of meritocracy. Mastery based grading for math. Access to affirming STEM instruction and role models.

David MalbinRemote, Yale graduate, founder of Integral Ed Services LLC.

6-12: Add: Clear-eyed instruction on the role of race and caste in US politics and economics throughout history and the influences on the present. Affirming postsecondary advising, personalized career exploration and career planning. Mastery based grading for math. Access to affirming STEM instruction and role models.

Remove: Test-based admissions, meritocratic messaging about American history.

  • David Malbin-Remote, Yale graduate, founder of Integral Ed Services LLC, Integral Ed supports schools and nonprofits with expertise in curriculum design, learning design, and e-learning design. David partners with stakeholders concerned with policy as well as curriculum design. 

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I would add:

Dr. Shawn Ashworth
  1. Financial literacy as a mandatory course
  2. Some type of grassroots course that really explains community engagement and empowerment
  3. A course that teaches about Black Wall Street and other notable history on Black wealth
  4. A course on how to increase generational wealth and investment
  • Dr. Shawn Ashworth, program specialist at the District level, has experience working with policy.