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Forget algebra, what about a life math class?

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POSTED February 10, 2013 9:23 p.m.

Not making algebra a mandatory eighth grade subject in California schools has all the usual suspects in a tizzy.

Students - they warn - will not get the math skills they need soon enough to lay the foundation for college. And if they can’t succeed in college, they’re doomed in life.

Sorry, but not getting P = Q or comprehending algebraic equations isn’t a universal barometer of success in life. What really is needed is a mandatory class dealing with real numbers and non-abstract situations that matter to everyone: personal budgeting, the financial and opportunity cost of debt, the real cost of payday loans, price comparisons by unit and volume, how taxes are interwoven in everything we buy, and the high cost of not embracing delayed gratification. At the same time the course could add value judgments, which isn’t new territory for schools these days. They could cover such areas as the cost of prepared food, the price of frozen food versus fresh food, the cost and value per calorie, how to stretch food dollars, and the economics of preparing food from scratch.

You could even toss in simple things like how to check oil levels in a car and why it is important , or examine value comparisons for basic needs such as tennis shoes. Besides making clear the cost differential between Michael Jordans and a nondescript pair of basketball shoes, such a course could touch on the actual cost of manufacturing and selling such shoes and the markup that we pay for hype. The class could include how to do your own taxes and figure withholding. It could also touch on insurance policies including those for appliances, cell phones, and even add-ons for new vehicle purchases such as undercoating.

Before you scoff at the concept of a “life math” class requirement consider a few things:

•A growing number of college students are getting into credit card debt they can’t handle.

•Tens of thousands of college students are saddled with long-term student debt each year that they may never get out from under.

•Despite the fact food in all forms now consumes less than 9.5 percent of annual income as compared to 24.2 percent in 1930, according to the department of Agriculture, more and more people can’t afford to pay for food.

•Even with the decline in personal debt due to the Great Recession, the average American household is more than $101,000 in debt based on Federal Reserve numbers. Of that $6,000-plus is credit card debt and $9,000 is revolving mortgage credit lines.

•Health insurance options are not only costly but are becoming increasingly confusing.

•A high percentage of Americans who have simple taxes are paying others to prepare their 1040 forms and even giving way part of their return just to get a return a few days sooner.

American consumers - whether they have college degrees or never even finished high school - make decisions every day that cut into their ability to maximize their money when it comes to meeting needs.

Yes, there are more and more things that are wants as opposed to true necessities. But that needs to be pointed out just like the fact bullying isn’t cool.

We have thrust public education into a lot of areas that were once the domain of parents to teach whether it is personal responsibility, sex education, or the consequences of risky behavior.

Yet we have yet to involve public education in equipping students with the skills they need to understand not the value of money as much as how to make it work as hard - or harder - than they do.

The cost of smoking is high and underscores the rationale for schools to tackle the issue. But the financial impact is minuscule compared to how we as individuals and families manage money.

Mastering algebra doesn’t have a universal impact on students. Mastering the math situations and value judgments that accompany them in our everyday lives do impact people from the day they are old enough to get an allowance until the day they die.


This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at or 209-249-3519.

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