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March 26, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 14

Financial Literacy Today for Career Success Tomorrow

When preparing students today for the foundational skills they will need, such as math and reading, it's crucial that we don't forget another important competency: financial education. Students today face a financial marketplace that is increasingly sophisticated, digital, and dynamic, so it doesn't make sense for financial information in the classroom to remain static. As a high school business education teacher, I see it as my mission to prepare students for what awaits them after graduation. Whether students are heading to college, entering the workforce, or joining the military, they need sound financial literacy skills.
According to a 2018 report from the Council for Economic Education, only 17 states have a requirement that students take a financial education course to graduate. Previous approaches to financial education have been limited in their effectiveness, and there's research to back it. A 2014 meta-analysis explored the efficacy of financial education interventions and found that cursory approaches have little to no benefit. Financial education must address more than discrete skills, such as how to write a check. Instead, it should delve into concepts that impact student behaviors—financial systems, the workplace, and students' communities.
Inadequate financial education can have effects on students long after they graduate. In one study by the Society for Human Resource Management, 83 percent of HR professionals reported that personal financial challenges have an impact on overall employee performance. These statistics highlight a disconnect: Historically, adults have been navigating through work (and life) without a solid financial education.

Skills for Success

In Illinois, where I teach, consumer education—which covers topics including home ownership, loans, banking, credit and investing—is a requirement to finish high school. While these skills are all important to know, they don't mean much to a student who doesn't know how to apply the knowledge.
After taking a step back and evaluating my classes, I saw a gap between the "traditional" textbook curriculum that I've been teaching for the past 20 years and a financial education for the 21st century. One outdated textbook section showed students how to complete a 1040EZ—a tax form that no longer exists. I mainly focused on topics such as buying a car, budgeting, and maintaining a checking and savings account. I wasn't getting to the core of how and why we make those decisions. I also wasn't considering that students each have a unique financial reality, and it's up to us to provide opportunities to help navigate through students' unique situations.
After trying out a few lessons in her classroom, a colleague referred me to finEDge, a financial education program created by the Magnetar Capital University of Chicago Financial Education Initiative. Together, she and I enrolled in a semester-long pilot of the curriculum (which does have a cost—about $20 per student). The curriculum has research-based lessons taught by consumer education, business, economics, social science/studies, and financial algebra teachers. Each student receives a workbook, and a teacher's guide provides lesson notes, differentiation suggestions, and assessment tips, and a digital version of the program has lesson slide decks.
The modules work to develop decision-making competencies and influence productive attitudes about finance. In tandem, I've embraced individualized instruction, assigning projects that build on life experiences and cultural differences.

Breaking Tradition

At the start of every semester, my students create a financial well-being map, which they will use throughout the year to reflect on their evolving knowledge, decision-making skills, and attitudes about personal finance. I emphasize that open-mindedness and respect are key to healthy discussions about financial well-being.
In one activity, students explore how family or home environment influences how we think about money. Students are introduced to the idea of financial self-efficacy and how it can help us to own our financial well-being without the influence of others. Other assignments have students ask questions to their parents or caregivers about their attitudes toward money, financial decisions, and advice they'd give to their younger selves. At first, most of my students were hesitant to have such conversations, but when parent-teacher conferences rolled around, I heard parents were happy to have financial dialogues and become more involved with what we were learning in the classroom.
My students also enjoy playing "Credit Conundrum," a board game activity that covers borrowing and building credit. The game has students talk about potentially difficult or awkward borrowing situations. Activities like this offer opportunities for rich conversation and critical thinking and allow students to have fun.
The skills I'm teaching extend beyond personal finance to college and career, consumer rights, and student empowerment. Students become well-versed in the "4 Cs" of 21st century skills—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity—which our students need to thrive in college and career, according to the National Educational Association.

Looking Ahead

To prepare future-ready students, we educators also need to collectively examine whole financial systems to see what's working and what's not. The Brookings Institution's "Recommendations for Improving Youth Financial Literacy Education" is a great foundation, highlighting three priorities:
  • Treating financial literacy as a complex, dynamic construct;
  • Using research-based avenues for designing and deploying financial education initiatives;
  • Having a robust framework in place for evaluating financial literacy skills.
Educators are supposed to ensure that students are prepared to face the age of artificial intelligence, automation, globalization, and an ever-changing economy. Let's empower them to take ownership of their futures through effective, high-quality, equitable financial literacy.

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