A Step Backwards in Spreading Financial Literacy

A new report shows the that financial education movement is losing momentum. Fewer states are requiring coursework. In some, they've stopped teaching economics at a time when economics is on the front page almost daily.

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Even as the financial literacy movement gains steam oversees, it may be losing momentum in the U.S. In its most recent Survey of the States report, the Council for Economic Education found that since 2009, three fewer states require schools to test in the area of economics and one fewer state requires schools to offer a personal finance course. States requiring that students be tested on personal finance concepts fell by almost half.

This backtracking comes after a decade of growth in financial education programs in schools. In 1998, just 16 states required that a course in economics be offered to high school students and just 13 made it a requirement. Today, 25 states require an economics class and 22 make it a requirement. Both of those numbers rose again in the latest report.

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But there was a significant drop in key areas. The number of states that test students on economic concepts fell to 16 from 19. That number stood at 27 in 2002. This mind-boggling retreat comes amid the worst economic downturn in several generations. Presumably, strapped school budgets had something to do with the fall off. But can you imagine a worse time to downplay economics courses in school than during the depths of a recession?

Meanwhile, states that require a personal finance class fell to 14 from 15. That number was just one in 1998. States that require student testing in personal finance fell to five last year, from nine in 2009. That number also was just one in 1998. More states are adopting personal finance teaching standards—46, up from 44 last year and just 21 in 1998. But no more are requiring that high school students take a personal finance class to graduate; the number held at 13 in the latest survey. That number is up from one in 1998.

These numbers suggest the financial education movement may stall long before it reaches critical mass. They also reflect recent criticisms that have surfaced in the U.S., where academics disagree as to what works as it relates to teaching kids about money. Some think kids don’t retain enough to make the financial education effort worthwhile. Indeed, a series of JumpStart student evaluations has shown that kids, on average, aren’t getting any smarter about budgets and debt. The JumpStart test is now being re-evaluated and recently missed its cycle.

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At the same time, the prominent financial education booster Lewis Mandell, a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, even argues that such simple time-honored teaching tools as paying kids a weekly allowance may do more harm than good. He and others would prefer scarce resources be spent on financial education programs aimed at adults and in support of regulations that dictate things like clearer mortgage documents and credit card statements. This is largely what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is all about.

This is not the preferred approach in the 25 other countries that the OECD lists as having or developing a formal national strategy for financial literacy. Some, like Australia and Singapore, have well rounded programs designed to reach adults at work or in the community as well as kids in school. But Flore-Anne Messy, who heads the financial literacy movement at the OECD, told me that reaching kids in school is hands-down the priority in virtually all countries that are tackling this problem. Reaching kids remains a goal in the states as well—but one that may be becoming more elusive.