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'Checkbook Math' Increasingly Rare

Blake High students Karim Mosleh, 17, left, Nicholas Sturdivant, 17, Mario Saenz, 18, and Amber Rountree, 17, work together in a consumer math class.
Blake High students Karim Mosleh, 17, left, Nicholas Sturdivant, 17, Mario Saenz, 18, and Amber Rountree, 17, work together in a consumer math class. "We learn how to balance checkbooks, which is a life need. . . . Consumer math is, I think, the one class that has actually helped me," Rountree said. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

In her final year at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, Amber Rountree chose to take consumer math, a course designed to teach students how to balance a checkbook and shop for a home loan. She rates it the easiest math class she has taken in high school but also the most useful.

Once a common course offering, consumer math is being phased out as school systems raise their expectations of how much math students should know when they graduate. Twenty or 30 years ago, Algebra I might have sufficed. Today, that course is regarded as an absolute minimum, a gateway to Advanced Placement study and college. Students routinely take it in middle school.

That leaves consumer math and other "checkbook math" classes relegated to a handful of schools, mostly in poor communities. College-bound students generally avoid the class, reasoning that it would look bad on a transcript.

"In a lot of places, this course has been a dead-end street," said Francis "Skip" Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Reston.

The gradual elimination of the course from high schools comes as lawmakers, corporate leaders and many parents are decrying the financial illiteracy of the young. Fourteen states, including Virginia, have created new mandates for personal finance education since 1998, bringing the number of states with such requirements to 28, according to the National Council on Economic Education.

Montgomery County parents have pushed for financial literacy education. Fairfax County schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale said this year that the issue had come up "at 40 or 50 different public hearings" about what students should know by the time they graduate. One day last April, a group of business leaders, including Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, visited 17 D.C. high schools to teach a one-day lesson on the basics of budgeting, credit and identity theft.

Virginia lawmakers mandated personal finance education as an academic subject in 2005, three years after the state education department ceased to recognize consumer math as a course, deeming its content below the minimum standard for high school.

"Students were getting out of calculus, and they didn't have these basic consumer skills," said Frank Atchison, coordinator of mathematics in Fairfax schools.

Schools in Prince George's County haven't offered consumer math in at least a decade. Montgomery educators were considering dropping the course in 2009, but math department chairs unanimously favored keeping it, at least in spirit.

Montgomery education officials opted to create a more rigorous class, tentatively titled quantitative literacy. Leah Quinn, county mathematics supervisor, said her concern was that high school seniors learn "a higher level of math than arithmetic."

Although much of the math in the consumer math class at Blake High School is pre-algebraic, the exercises are uniquely suited to students nearing graduation. These students are discovering the world of online banking, used cars, revolving credit and taxation.

"This is actually the one class I think is realistic toward becoming an adult," said Rountree, 17. "We learn how to balance checkbooks, which is a life need. We've learned how to purchase a car on kelleybluebook.com. Consumer math is, I think, the one class that has actually helped me."


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