Henry Ford famously said that if ordinary people understood how banking actually works “there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.” That’s more or less the idea behind Rico Gutstein’s critical math curriculum at Chicago’s Social Justice High School (“Sojo”). Infusing advanced math with concepts like subprime lending and outsourcing, Gutstein hopes to not only prepare students for college, but also give them the necessary tools to become effective agents for change.
Living in Chicago’s impoverished Lawndale neighborhood, Sojo’s students were already deeply familiar with concepts like gentrification and displacement. In recent years high rents and new construction have displaced many African American families in North Lawndale, while South Lawndale’s Latino community has been hit hard by deportations. But while students experienced social injustice like this on a daily basis, understanding the economic realities behind it is a different story.
That’s where advanced math comes in, says Gutstein. Writing in Rethinking Schools (Spring 2013), Gutstein describes how precalculus, algebra, and statistical analysis helped his students makes sense of the displacement taking place in their community. From the real cost of a subprime mortgage to the economics of immigration policy, Gutstein’s students learned how to explore the raw numbers behind the displacement they saw and experienced.
One of the cornerstones of Gutstein’s curriculum involved calculating how much of a typical family’s mortgage payment actually reduces their principal using an equation called a discrete dynamical system. Assuming a $150,000 loan at 6 percent annualized interest, students found that for every $808 monthly payment (the highest a typical family could afford in Lawndale), only $58 went toward paying down the loan. What this meant was that after 30 years of payments, a family could still wind up owing more than $90,000. Not only that, when students compared these terms with new $285,000 condos being built in North Lawndale, it was clear how working class families were being priced out.
Astonished by findings like this, students were eager to share them in the class’ final unit. Toward the end of the year, students held public forums to discuss what they had learned about subprime mortgages, gentrification, and immigration with their families and neighbors. The presentations, titled “Our People, Our Issues: Math As Our Weapon” argued that while Lawndale’s Latino and African American communities are exploited in different ways, they “have common enemies and a common struggle.”