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Personal Finance Courses Are Booming. Do We Have the Teachers We Need? (Opinion)

The good news is that personal finance education is being embraced in high schools across the country. The big challenge our nation faces is that teaching this subject requires confident and highly trained educators. And right now, there are not enough of them.

As the director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College, I have been observing the growth of personal-finance education for more than a decade, and it’s clear to me that it is increasingly seen as an integral part of a high school education.
We at the center currently project that by the end of the decade, 25 states will have a stand-alone personal-finance-course graduation requirement or its equivalent. That is up from just seven states for the class of 2023.

Personal finance education is close to reaching 50 percent of all high school students nationwide, and most of the states that don’t yet require a course are seriously considering adding this crucial subject to their curricula. Policymakers are responding to the many individuals and families who were without financial safety nets during the pandemic.

Financial literacy is linked to positive outcomes, like wealth accumulation, stock market participation and effective retirement planning, and avoiding high-cost alternative financial services. Further, we know that there are large disparities in financial know-how among different racial, ethnic, and economic groups in the United States.

All too often, students from underprivileged backgrounds enter adulthood with insufficient knowledge of personal finance, which helps to continue the cycle of poverty and inequality. Yet a 2023 study shows that schools with a majority of students of color are less likely to have a stand-alone personal-finance course or the subject matter embedded in another course. Racial equity in personal-finance education has become a high priority for the NAACP, which issued a 2020 resolution to support more financial literacy in K-12 schools in order “to close the financial literacy gap for the African American community.”

Another piece of good news along with the spread of personal-finance education is the expanding array of free online curricular resources offered by state departments of education and nonprofit organizations (for example, the Next Gen Personal Finance curriculum).

However, too few teachers are prepared to teach the subject. The 25 states that will require such a course by 2030 will need a minimum of 18,000 educators to teach 1.8 million students. In most states, too, you can teach a personal finance course despite not having to prove you are expert in the field. We don’t do this with math or foreign languages; we shouldn’t with personal finance, either.

In a 2015 study my center conducted, we found that only 39 of the 100 teachers who received scholarships in order to take a 45-hour financial-literacy training course “agreed” or “strongly agreed” they had the knowledge to effectively teach about personal finance just prior to taking that course. After they completed the course, the teachers who “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with this statement increased to 94 percent.

We also found that students who received personal finance education from trained teachers had “high financial literacy” on par with the levels of adults ages 35 to 49. And the trained teachers reported improved attitudes and behaviors toward their own personal finances six months after they had completed the 45-hour training.

Our results were echoed in a 2021 evaluation by the Financial Literacy Group of a professional development program for high school teachers already teaching a financial-literacy course. The researchers found that substantive training focused on the basics of consumer finance as it related to the teachers’ own lives made those teachers “significantly more effective in enhancing the financial literacy of their students.” The most positive impact was among Black students, students from households with parents having just a high school degree, and students without bank accounts. Training enabled less experienced teachers to attain student outcomes that nearly equaled those produced by more experienced peers.

Our center has offered high school educators a three-credit graduate course called Teach Financial Literacy since 2011. The course requires 135 hours of classwork. It covers career and college exploration, student loans, budgeting, responsible use of credit, saving and investing, retirement and financial planning, insurance and risk management, identity theft and fraud prevention, a review of free curriculum, tools for the classroom, and more.

We believe states with a financial-literacy requirement should require educator training and certification in financial topics prior to teaching a course in the subject. There are many free, high-quality training programs offered by nonprofits like Next Gen Personal Finance; Take Charge Today, the Council for Economic Education, and the JumpStart Coalition (professional development, annual National Educator Conference, and training offered by most state coalitions).

Right now, only a handful of colleges and universities in our nation offer this type of training for K-12 educators. Philanthropists, foundations, and corporations should partner with higher education institutions to ensure that states can provide educators high-quality training at no cost.

Teaching personal finance to high school students is a rewarding experience. Current teachers tell me all the time that their students love the practicality of the subject. Their students also thank them after graduation for giving them—and often their parents—such practical skills as how to maximize a credit score and reduce interest payments on all consumer credit; shop for car loans and mortgages; save for retirement; and generally get the most from their hard-earned money.

We expect our teachers to be highly trained and confident in math, science, language arts, social studies, world languages, and health, sex, and physical education. Personal finance qualifications must be just as robust.

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