Ask students whether they like math. Now ask the same question about money.

Usually their reactions are pretty distinct!

Since finances boil down to numbers, couldn’t they be used to teach math?

Of course, the answer is yes. Teaching about money is just one way innovative educators are picking up the slack on the country's dismal state of mathematics.

To get an idea of how bad the state of math education is in the U.S., out of 79 countries we ranked 31 in an international exam given to teens according to a report cited by USA Today last February. Additionally, the country’s share of high performing math students is less than the world average.

COVID-19 related school closures and distance learning have made the situation even worse, especially for students from marginalized communities.

Starting with mindset transformation

One possible reason is the focus on formulas and procedures that predominates in our nation’s math education. This is opposed to encouraging students to think creatively about solving complex problems, note the experts cited in the USA Today article. Jo Boaler, a mathematics professor at Stanford University, is one of those experts who is pushing to remake America's math curriculum to make it more reflective of what children in higher-performing countries learn.

How students think about math is key to their success. This is why Boaler has been so adamant about mindset in her development of a better way to teach math to make it more exciting, practical and inclusive. To begin with, she urges teachers to examine how they approach math with their students — and parents with their children.

“There’s a lot of research that shows when you teach math in a different way, kids do better, including on test scores,” said Boaler.

Boaler’s larger goal goes beyond changing classroom tactics to transforming the mindset that dictates our expectations about learning math. She sees this stereotype revealed every time someone says, “I don’t do math,” or “I’m not good at math.”

Boaler’s “How to Learn Math” workshop is the first online math training course for teachers that has been endorsed by districts. Since being launched in 2013 it has reached over 60,000 educators, with 95% have changed their teaching and 96% say they are enjoying the process more. The online portal YouCubed also supports independent student learners and parents.

Entrepreneurship skills teach money and practical math

Teaching youth math through planning their own startup business is the concept behind a new entrepreneurship class offered by California non-profit Calculus Roundtable. Through cost modeling, scaling and profit margin students are engaging in and learning math concepts like statistics and probability.

“Kids need more than a curriculum,” says Calculus Roundtable’s director, Jim Hollis. “They need access to the tools, the mindset, and other people’s experiences, so that academic success becomes a process.”

Financial literacy deep dive for entrepreneurial math class students with guest Tanya Van Court, CEO of Goalsetter. Photo credit: Calculus Roundtable

The program integrates game-based learning, savings accounts and teachers/mentors of color. A recent guest teacher was fintech leader Tanya Van Court, who is dedicated to improving financial literacy for kids and families in the U.S. through her money app Goalsetter.

More resources for students and teachers can be found at the Biz Kids portal and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Financial literacy goes hand in hand with math literacy

Just because kids light up when you talk about money (especially giving them opportunities to earn some) doesn’t necessarily mean they’re learning what they need about finance. According to Freakonomics co-author Stephen Levitt, studies show that 70% of college students and even adults are illiterate when it comes to finances.

Van Court who notes that only 27% of 15-year-olds know what inflation is and can do simple interest rate calculations, says, “Not knowing financial language in America is like not knowing English in America.”

To shift the odds especially for students of color, she started a movement in honor of Juneteenth to get a million Black kids saving, which she's accelerated for Black History Month. Along with partnering with schools and education programs like Calculus Roundtable, she's enlisting NBA stars to help tackle the wealth divide with financial literacy tools and savings accounts for young people and families.

Examining bias to eliminate racist teaching methods

Another deep inequity affecting the country's most vulnerable students is what Dr. Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of The Education Trust–West, calls the math and science deficit. She urges educators to integrate anti-racist teaching methods to address this pervasive and insidious problem.

With its focus on educational justice and supporting the high achievement of all California students, the research and advocacy organization has created a toolkit for supporting equitable access to math standards for English Language Learners, Black and Latinx students, called “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction.”

Here’s an example from one video in the toolkit. Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction helps teachers examine underlying bias in how they teach math. It points out the danger in things that commonly occur in classrooms like valuing individual work over collaboration and teamwork.

“An overemphasis on individualism fosters conditions for competition and individual success, and perpetuates the message that if a student is failing it’s because they aren’t trying hard enough or they don’t care.”

Mitigating bias in mathematics teaching and diversifying the STEM teacher workforce are two necessary steps to reducing the nation's math education deficit. By transforming our curriculum so it empowers ALL students’ math, entrepreneurial and financial mindsets — we can instill a healthy relationship with money and math!