How Personal Finance Will Shape the Coming Education Revolution

With average SAT scores down and evidence of widespread cheating in the classroom, it seems obvious that our educational system needs an overhaul. Some bright minds are on it and change is coming.

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With average SAT scores down and evidence of widespread cheating in the classroom, it seems obvious that our educational system needs an overhaul. This may be the perfect environment to look at everything from the absurdly high cost of college to the pitiful dearth of financial education in our schools.

Education revolution is inevitable. U.S. students are slipping in global measurements. The uproar is clear in films like Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere. Some bright minds are exploring a fix. We may be only a few years away from totally free online college courses for credit at major universities like Harvard and Stanford.

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Meanwhile, the drumbeat for personal finance 101 in high schools grows louder. This is seen as a step toward fortifying the next generation against the next financial crisis. Teaching kids about money, though, poses special challenges. Not least is that first we must teach the teachers. A University of Wisconsin study found that just one in five teachers feel qualified to incorporate personal finance lessons into their math, English or other class.

There are plenty other issues, too, like no national standards for financial education (that’s being worked on) and no federal mandate to make it happen (that’s not being worked on). But it’s all just noise anyway if teachers aren’t ready for the mission.

With that in mind, teacher training has become a focal point of financial literacy advocacy groups. The latest to pick up this torch is the Big Four public accounting firm PwC, which in conjunction with Knowledge@Wharton High School has invited 150 educators to a training conference this weekend in Philadelphia. On Saturday, PwC will announce a grant to be awarded in January to the teacher that displays the most creativity and skill in teaching high school kids about money, using PwC’s free online curricula.

“One of the best ways to reach students is through their teachers,” says Shannon Schuyler, PwC’s corporate responsibility leader. “So we are giving teachers access to our people and our resources, so that they walk into their classrooms on Monday better equipped to teach their students how to save, how to invest, how to borrow, and most importantly, how to be successful in the future.”

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In a recent report, PwC asserted that as we push for an overall upgrade to the educational system, “financial literacy must be integrated into the list of core subjects or it will be swept to the side and neglected.”

Numerous surveys have detailed how little young people understand about personal finance, showing, for example, that they don’t understand the high cost of making only minimum monthly payments on a credit card or the difference between a stock and a bond. From the PwC report:

“Unfortunately, these test results are strongly correlated with social status and income levels—meaning those students most in need of financial education and understanding are faring the worst. Without adequately prepared teachers, future generations of students will continue to struggle, and large segments of the population could be permanently left behind.”

And we’ll have done painfully little on the education front to forestall another financial crisis.