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Teaching Kids About You Know What
June 21, 2010

I totally get that it's not comfortable to talk about. As a parent, it's even more difficult. But if we truly want to ensure a bright future for our kids, it's critical that they do not repeat our mistakes. And it's critical that we speak frankly with them, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. I am, of course, talking about the rampant unprotected financial transactions far too many children engage in and will continue to engage in. And where did they learn this risky behavior? Us. You know what I'm talking about: the one-night stands (property flipping), the orgies (of debt), and the multiple (credit card) partners.

In all seriousness, if the Great Recession has taught us anything, it's that we are not a very financially literate society. Part of it, I believe, has to do with the fundamental shift in retirement management responsibility from the employer (via pension plans) to the employee (via 401(k) and 403(b) type investments). In effect, the individual is being asked to shoulder the burden of not only choosing the correct retirement plan investments, but ensuring these assets last until death. That's no small task; especially when most of us lack the financial acumen to do so.

While researching the history of financial education in the United States, I learned that personal finance curriculum began to exit the schools shortly after the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I in 1957. This perceived national security threat led to a dramatic shift in educational priorities away from so-called "life skills" classes and to math and science. The result? We don't know much about money. But at least we rock at math and science. Err, maybe not. But that's another discussion.

The good news is that a host of well meaning folks from the government to local legislatures have been encouraging and mandating the teaching of financial literacy. To date, 44 states have developed personal finance standards; 34 require these standards to be implemented; and 13 states require students to take a specific personal finance course, according to the Council for Economic Education (CEE).

The bad news is that we don't seem to be involving classroom teachers in this effort. Why might that be a problem? Research is pretty clear that the single biggest factor on student success is the classroom teacher. Research also suggests a link between effective policy implementation and classroom teacher involvement in this effort. Teacher attitude and belief about a policy seems particularly important to its success. With this in mind I teamed with the California Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS), an organization that provides benefits and services to public school and community college teachers in California, to conduct a survey on teacher attitudes and beliefs about teaching financial literacy. Thanks to CalSTRS's generous help, I was able to survey more than 2,700 classroom teachers. The results were encouraging (strong support for the teaching of financial literacy in the K-12 curriculum), discouraging (teachers don't believe time exists in the crowded school day to effectively teach financial literacy), and surprising (teachers believe financial literacy should begin in kindergarten). Read Teacher Attitudes and Beliefs About Teaching Financial Literacy: A Survey of California Teachers.

Teaching the Teachers

The California study along with my doctoral dissertation showed support for professional development that in addition to teaching strategies for teaching financial literacy sought to improve teacher financial literacy. This notion (combing learning how to teach financial literacy with improving teacher financial literacy) is the impetus behind my new initiative Pollinate, the Teacher Financial Literacy Project. The goal is to fund workshops that bring teachers together to improve teacher financial literacy and the teaching of personal finance concepts. To learn more check out Pollinate, the Teacher Financial Literacy Project.


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