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Teach Money to Kids -- or More A.P. Classes?

We might have more success teaching kids about money in high school if parents and educators were less concerned with putting together a gaudy college resume. Really. Most kids don't even go to college.

Yet the competition among schools and parents alike is such that we load up students with Advanced Placement and Honors courses, internships, educational travel and community service. It all looks great on a college or job app. But odds are the kids will fail in either place if they don't know how to handle their credit-card debt and wind up in consuming financial distress.

This is a theme I've heard repeatedly from teachers in the trenches, where it's understood that money problems among young adults are a leading cause of stress, missed opportunity and crime. An outstanding college resume is fantastic for a small percentage of the population. Working knowledge of credit scores and Roth IRAs would be great for just about everyone.

That's not the direction we are headed, though. The number of students taking AP courses rose nearly 50% to 1.7 million from 2004 to 2009. Meanwhile, in a survey of AP teachers, more than half said "too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads" and that "parents push their children into AP classes when they really don't belong there."

We need to adjust our competitive instincts, and put them to work where they will be more productive. Let me share a few teacher comments that I heard at the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy National Educator's Conference:

  • "Lower income kids are more open to learning about money because they know where they are going next, and it's not to college." In other words: Many kids want a practical education for their practical life. How can we deny them?
  • "When we get into the kids' houses to teach them about money we find that they often know more than their parents." In other words: They are not learning this stuff at home.
  • "A lot of kids come from homes where their families have maxed out credit cards; they pawn their stuff for income and when they get paid they go back and claim it. This cycle repeats every month." This debilitating cycle will repeat every generation too, unless someone intervenes.
  • "We see kids who are so poor they wear flip-flops through the snow, but they still have the latest cell phone." This is a classic misplaced priority; if kids don't learn to differentiate between wants and needs they have no shot at financial security as an adult.
"Not so long ago it was people who were reading illiterate that were taken advantage of in our society," says Segun Eubanks, National Education Association director of teacher quality. Now it is those who are financially illiterate.

Yet we keep ratcheting up the focus on Honors students. God bless 'em. Maybe you've got one or two of your own. They deserve the opportunity to excel -- but not at the expense of kids who need a basic understanding of money before going forth.

"The fix is going to take a generation," says Laura Levine, executive director of JumpStart. "We have to start teaching personal finance to a generation that hasn't done this wrong yet." That means starting in elementary school, now.

Photo courtesy Flickr user mrtomlong