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A Bull Market for Financial Literacy

The Great Recession compels school districts to teach dollars and sense.

In Oshkosh, Wis., second and third graders build houses out of milk crates, the teacher simulates a flood, and they talk about how home insurance works. In Chicago, high-school social studies classes take field trips to places like the Chicago Board of Trade and the Federal Reserve, to learn about markets and banking.

School districts across the country have been taking a harder look at what they're teaching students about financial literacy in the wake of the financial crisis of the past few years, caused in part by excessive credit card and mortgage debt. While economics courses have been common for many years, particularly at the high school level, districts want to take the concepts to a more personal level.

Author Chad Foster, whose book Financial Literacy for Teens attempts to make dry-sounding topics like taxes and budgeting relevant and engaging for high-school and college students, says it's not a moment too soon. "There's no question that it's become a hot topic across the country," Foster says. "This global financial crisis was a wake-up call for everybody to say, 'My goodness, what if we had been teaching all this stuff 20 years ago?' I also contend that this could very well happen again if we don't break this cycle of financial illiteracy."

Kathy Christie, chief of staff at the Education Commission on the States, says that, for the most part, teachers try to work the subject into their course materials, typically social studies or math, wherever they can. "There's a growing demand," she says. "It's going to pick up steam. People are realizing that students aren't well-educated on credit card usage, and what debt looks like, and how you calculate a mortgage, and that sort of thing."

How Big Is the Interest?

A 2009 survey from the Council for Economic Education showed that 15 states require that a course in financial literacy be offered, up from nine in 2007; 13 require that students take the course, up from seven in 2007; and nine require a standardized test, a number that hasn't changed in the past two years.


A survey released in April from The Learning Key found that 80 percent of the 626 teachers and other education professionals who responded said that students receive some type of financial education. More than half, 52 percent, said they felt "very qualified" to teach financial literacy, but fewer than 20 percent feel their students are financially literate at graduation. "Is this due to lack of retention, the curriculum itself, small numbers attending, or perhaps even delivery of the materials?" the report asks. "The data doesn't indicate the reasons why."

Most respondents were members of Business Professionals of America, a program in 23 states that helps students develop career goals and skills; others were members of the New Jersey Coalition for Financial Education, a nonprofit that includes many teachers and other education professionals, and the Pennsylvania Parent Teacher Association.

Vince Shorb, CEO of the National Financial Educators Council, finds that individual teachers, rather than districts, tend to contact his organization in search of materials that help them integrate the topic into existing courses. "That's one of the biggest challenges we face—the time to squeeze financial literacy in with these other courses," he says. "Another key thing is how to deliver it in a way [students] can relate to. We work on shifting the language and putting ourselves in the students' shoes. What would have motivated you to save money?"

The Programs

The educators' council partnered with Mesa County Valley School District 51 in Grand Junction, Colo., to stage an event called "Money Month" in April. More than 150 volunteers went into classrooms to deliver practical financial skills as well as more philosophical discussions about values that Shorb says are essential. "We don't want them striving for the nice purse and the nice pants," he says. Rather, the goal is to lead them to ask questions like: "What truly makes you happy? What role does money play in your life? What tradeoffs are you willing to make? Do you want to work an 80-hour [per week] job so you can have a ton of money? It's about lifestyle design."


District 51 requires a semester course in economics or finance that can be fulfilled within the personal finance or independent living classes, according to Bill Larsen, the district's executive director of high schools. The courses are aimed primarily at juniors and seniors, and the district has mostly implemented them within the social studies department. "There's a feeling right now that we're overloaded in math," Larsen says. "We wanted more mature students, on their way out of high school, so that financial literacy could become life habits as they're closer to driving and making big choices."

Among the more widely used curricula is the free program from the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE). In its 26th year, this program is used in all 50 states and reaches probably 700,000 students per year, says Paul Golden, media relations manager. The seven lessons build upon one another while covering budgeting, spending, credit and insurance and other related topics.

While even toddler-aged children can understand financial literacy concepts like needs versus wants, Golden says, "high school is the big entry point because these kids are thinking about what kinds of jobs they want to have, whether they're going to go to college or into the workforce. They're savvy enough to pay attention to how their parents are managing money."

The Learning Key offers a game called "Wise Money" that can be integrated into other curricula and teaches students how to prioritize what they want out of life financially, says Elizabeth Treher, the company's CEO and president. She advises those in search of curricula for students to do their homework—but not to agonize over it. "I would advise them not to search for the Holy Grail," Treher says. "There are lots of good materials out there. Just get something and use it. Get feedback from students and teachers, and modify if you need to."

Some districts partner with local financial institutions to deliver the curricula. Frisco (Texas) Independent School District has worked closely with the Texas Credit Union, which operates a branch at the district's Career and Technical Education Center and employs students parttime who take courses from among the district's growing list of financial literacy offerings, says Wes Cunningham, career and technical education director for the district. "It hasn't been terribly expensive. Financial institutions are happy to provide [assistance] pro bono," he says. "It's great PR for them, and a write-off."

And just last month, due to a grant from The New York Life Foundation, The Actuarial Foundation, a nonprofit group, will disseminate 10,000 individual sets of Building Your Future, a financial literacy curriculum, to high school teachers across the country at no cost. The curriculum is designed to help students master the basics of personal finance and prepare them for life after they graduate from high school.


Teacher training remains a challenge for many districts, who have typically looked for teachers with some business or financial background rather than necessarily offering formal training on financial literacy—although that's changing.

In Chicago, Kennedy High School teacher Arlette Harris, standing above, uses free curricula from the National Endowment for Financial Education in her lessons to students on subjects like investing, retirement planning and budgeting.

A report released in 2009 by NEFE, researched by two professors at the University of Wisconsin, shows that while 89 percent of teachers agree or strongly agree that students should take a financial literacy course or pass a test to graduate high school, only 37 percent have taken college courses on the subject.

In addition, less than 20 percent feel very competent to teach any of the six personal finance topics surveyed including: income and careers, planning and money management, credit and debt, financial responsibility and decision making, saving and investment

and risk management and insurance. "As states increasingly call for more attention to curricula and/or testing in personal finance, the data suggest that teacher education curricula need to reflect those additional requirements," the report states.

The report shows that nearly three-quarters of teachers said they would be at least "somewhat likely" to participate in more education on teaching financial literacy.

Resources are out there. The Wisconsin Educational Communications Board (ECB) provides an online video resource called "Teach It!" After receiving recommendations from the state of Wisconsin, the ECB filmed seven elementary, middle and high school lessons in financial literacy, available at, along with resources used with each lesson.

"The purpose is to give people a range of ideas to help them improve their own instruction," says Kristin Leglar, instructional programs developer at ECB. "Most often, we're finding that financial literacy is being taught in high school. We're really hoping it becomes a pre-K12 concept. Most often, it's being taught in business education classes, and family and consumer science classes. Ideally, it would be cross-curricular."

Among the 21 videos on the ECB site is one that features the second- and third-grade class at Carl Traeger Elementary School in Oshkosh, Wis., that learned about the importance of home insurance by having their milk-carton houses flooded. Teacher Marni Pingel asks them how much Pingel Homeowners Insurance they feel they need, based on how near to the "river" they live and other factors. After actual flooding hit real homes in Oshkosh in June of 2008, Pingel says the students had a slew of questions. "The kids were like, 'Oh my gosh, I wonder how much it's going to cost for this person to fix their house?'" she says. "It's important to have that real-world connection to get the kids excited."

For those seeking in-person training, Leglar recommends the National Institute of Financial and Economic Literacy, a Wisconsin state government entity that provides programs to train teachers in personal finance and provides teaching materials and other resources. The institute offers three separate weeks of training each summer for teachers on these topics: paychecks, financial contracts and entrepreneurship; investor education, economics and insurance; and credit and money, according to David Mancl, director of the national institute's Office of Financial Literacy.

Each week costs teachers $600, including room and board. "We're teaching content and then pedagogy," Mancl says. "What are some of the great lessons and classroom-proven methods? Then, we give teachers time to talk with each other about what they do in teaching. We want to help demystify the financial system for teachers, so they become advocates" of financial education courses, he says.

Pilots in Chicago

NEFE held a three-day training session in July for about 200-300 teachers in Chicago Public Schools, which is ramping up a program that CPS piloted in a dozen schools this past spring. "Hopefully, we'll train these teachers, and they'll go back and be ready to integrate a personal finance curriculum based on what they learned over the summer," Golden says.


The district has developed a high school-level course but hopes to circle back to the K8 schools and provide curricula to the middle school students as well, says Marty Moe, co-director of social science and service learning for CPS. Chicago Public Schools has worked with NEFE, the Council for Economic Education, Junior Achievement, the state treasurer's office, and the Illinois Credit Union League and has received funding through the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust.

To double the length and intensify the content of the program—from a nine- to 10-week generic consumer education program into an 18- to 20-week intensive financial education curriculum—Kennedy High School history teacher Arlette Harris says her biggest challenge was figuring out how to integrate enough planning time.

The reoriented and beefed-up material, delivered last spring for the first time to high school students provides significantly greater depth on subjects like investing, retirement planning and budgeting, with additional time for field trips to places like the Board of Trade and Federal Reserve, says Harris. "We definitely had more than enough information," she says, adding that the program was drawn primarily from NEFE's materials. "We're teaching them things like how to calculate what your savings need to look like if you want to have a given amount at retirement."

"Wherever it's implemented, it needs to get into the hands of every student," author Chad Foster says. "It's just as important for the kid going to med school as for the kid going into a blue-collar job right out of high school. The number of zeroes [in their salaries] may change, but the concepts don't."

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer in Evanston,Ill.