Financial Education at School: Is It a Pipe Dream?

Last Updated Nov 11, 2010 9:19 AM EST

Two things have never been clearer: serious financial education in our schools is a pipe dream, for now anyway, and by not throwing more resources behind the blossoming financial literacy movement we're squandering precious teacher goodwill.

These, at least, are the impressions I am left with after spending a weekend at the JumpStart Coalition for Financial Literacy National Educators Conference in Washington D.C.

Let's start with the pipedream. Financial literacy is on the radar like never before; that's not the problem. Celebrities agonize over it. Politicians talk a big game. Financial institutions sponsor lots of feel-good programs. A lot of kids are even eager to learn about money.

Yet the reality is that only 13 states require a personal finance course to graduate from high school, according to the Council for Economic Education. And Matthew Yale, deputy chief of staff to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has said there will be no federal mandate for personal finance study on this administration's watch.

What we have, then, are many banks that are behind financial education for the P.R., politicians who are gutless or toothless and celebrities that just want to whine.

That brings me to the teachers. I had no idea what they were up against. At the JumpStart conference, I spoke with dozens of frustrated educators. All of them echoed the words of Gary Stern, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and chairman of the Council for Economic Education, who told The New York Times, "The adage 'if it isn't tested, it isn't taught' is unfortunately true in this case."

The depressing reality is that teachers must focus on subject areas that show up in standardized tests. Teachers distinguish themselves when their students perform well on the Regents exams -- not when their students know how to open a Roth IRA or stick to a budget. Yet most kids plunge right into the work force after high school; they need to know the basics about credit and saving before they learn the hard way.

Personal finance is a stepchild subject. Thankfully, that doesn't stop a lot of dedicated folks from taking up the torch. I heard many inspiring stories of teachers offering personal finance courses after school hours, with little school or district funding, and occasionally in the homes of students whose parents are financially challenged and invited to sit in.

These teachers are trailblazers, fighting for a sorely needed area of teen education; one that will one day be as central to the learning experience as the three Rs. These teachers are fighting for what I call the Fourth R: Reality. That's their common bond and they show no sign of giving up the good fight.

But we can't afford to squander their passion indefinitely. The financial literacy movement is highly fragmented and inconsistent in its goals and methods, and stretched thin on resources and qualified instructors. One teacher told me of a colleague going through personal bankruptcy while leading a class at school in personal finance. That's a problem.

The Obama administration needs to lead from the top. The newly reconstituted President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability has in hand a strong set of national standards for teen personal financial literacy; these standards are the product of work completed just before this administration took office and they should be the baseline for schools nationwide at once. The new council should also push for a federal mandate on money coursework in our high schools.

We don't have time to rethink everything, lest we exhaust the patience of teachers in the trenches who are plunging ahead anyway, damn the torpedoes.

Photo courtesy Flickr user dorkymum.
  • Dan Kadlec

    Daniel J. Kadlec is an author and journalist whose work appears regularly in Time and Money magazines. He is the former editor of Time’s Generations section, which was written and edited for boomers. Kadlec came to Time from USA Today, where he was the creator and author of the daily column Street Talk, which anchored the newspaper's business coverage. He has co-written three books, including, most recently, With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life. He has won a New York Press Club award and a National Headliner Award for columns on the economy and investing.

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