OPINION: Solving America’s financial-literacy crisis starts with teachers, not laws

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There are numerous reports, including this one, showing how many American adults lack the skills to make good decisions about their money. For the benefit of individuals, families and this nation, we must help young Americans develop into financially capable citizens.

One way to do this is to teach personal finance in high school. A study done this year by my organization shows that we don’t have nearly enough such courses across the nation.

In recent years, states have passed laws requiring schools to teach financial literacy, but we also need to develop more high school personal finance teachers. As important as legislation is, even more important is a national push for curriculum and teacher professional development.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in trying to bring personal finance education to every high school student in America, it’s that high school teachers are the ones who will make it happen.

Don’t miss: This is the most innovative financial literacy program in the U.S. — it gives students paychecks and helps them open bank accounts

This study from Rand shows that “teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.” I agree. We need to develop a corps of qualified, confident teachers. In fact, laws requiring financial education should incorporate the requisite investment in teacher development to ensure they have their intended, positive impact.

Most high school educators have backgrounds teaching subjects other than personal finance, so it’s no surprise that studies like this one at the University of Wisconsin show the majority of teachers lack the confidence to teach the subject, even though most endorse financial education.

The best high school educators see that their students need financial knowledge and skills, and our team has met thousands of dedicated educators in all 50 states with great ideas and a passion to help the cause.

Courtney Poquette, a business teacher at Winooski High School in Vermont, starts her personal finance course by asking her students what they would do with $1 million. Most students think about buying things, but at the end of the course, they also think about investing at least some of that money. Some of the lessons learned are in this video.

‘If there is one thing I’ve learned in trying to bring personal finance education to every high school student in America, it’s that high school teachers are the ones who will make it happen.’

— Tim Ranzetta, co-founder of Next Gen Personal Finance

Courtney, who has attended professional development sessions and now leads them, often has students thank her for teaching them how to budget, handle credit and make other financial decisions. We know other outstanding Vermont teachers, but they are not reaching all students because Vermont is one of many states that does not require personal finance courses in high school.

Kayla Bousum, who also has participated in and led personal finance education seminars, teaches a required personal finance course in Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. The course had such an effect on one student that he asked if she would help him open a Roth IRA.

Educators like Courtney and Kayla see that their students who are going on to college need to be financially capable to think critically about this decision. They also see high school graduates entering the workforce who need to think about emergency funds, paying taxes and raising their credit scores.

They are the kind of teachers who will drive seven hours through the night to attend one of our personal finance workshops. They are like the hundreds of teachers who gave up between 20 and 40 hours or more of their summer so they could attend our professional development sessions to improve their craft.

We need a national army of math, economics, business, family and consumer science — you name the subject — teachers with the drive to take on this new challenge. We need to invest in them to improve their financial capability, and then we need to give them the tools and methods that are most effective in personal finance education.

There are some who question whether personal finance education actually works — whether the students end up using what they learn to become truly financially capable. There are several studies addressing these concerns, and this one addresses such doubt directly, showing conclusively in a survey of nearly 16,000 college students that well-educated students exhibit positive financial behaviors.

Give schools confident, knowledgeable teachers, and pair that with a relevant curriculum, and there is no question that it works. There are many organizations — financial institutions and others — who should consider supporting this critically important challenge. We believe change will happen at the grassroots level.

We have met so many teachers committed to the belief that all students should receive a personal finance course prior to graduation. We also know that students, parents, principals, business owners and school board members have cared enough to push for this in over 800 communities throughout the U.S.

To inspire some of them, we are offering $1 million in grants to 100 high schools — $10,000 each — whose school boards decide by January 2021 that every student deserves and should receive a semester-long personal finance course before they graduate.

Known as the NGPF Gold Standard Challenge, this initiative has already awarded four grants to high schools in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maryland. Over the next decade, we will be increasing our financial support significantly.

I challenge other organizations to invest in teachers so that together we can achieve what we term Mission 2030 — having every high school student in the U.S. take a personal finance course before graduation.

Tim Ranzetta is co-founder of Next Gen Personal Finance, a Palo Alto, Calif. based nonprofit that provides free personal finance curriculum and teacher professional development.

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