This post is sponsored by the Council for Economic Education.
When it comes to fiscal fitness, a good number of Americans are in poor health. According to a 2014 study conducted by The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), only 39% of Americans maintain a budget and keep close track of their spending. Seventy-three percent (73%) of respondents report they could use professional help understanding every day financial questions.
This is a harsh reality. Changing it begins with financial literacy.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) understands this. Two years ago, the district took steps to put their students on the right track by implementing a one-semester course in personal finance for high school juniors and seniors. The course, funded by a $1 million grant from Discover Financial, received curricular support from the Council for Economic Education, the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Economic Education and other local content experts.
The goal of CPS’s new course was to teach students how to make informed financial decisions, according to Martin Moe, social science manager for the Department of Literacy-Social Science Education at Chicago Public School, in an email interview with SmartBrief.
“CPS wanted to expand on the current Illinois State Board of Education mandate on consumer education to allow our students to take a deep look at the critical financial literacy skills that they will need as they prepare to move from high school into the real world and begin to make financial decisions that will impact them for the rest of their lives,” said Moe.
The lessons for the course came from the Council for Economic Education’s curriculum materials. Each unit covers financial issues students can expect to encounter as they head into college and the workforce. The units covered in the course include:
- Economic Way of Thinking (analyzing the world, making complicated decisions, supply/demand, and how households, businesses, and governments are interconnected);
- Career Preparation (the costs/benefits of college and career earnings, job application process, entrepreneurship and taxes);
- Money Management (savings/investment decisions and credit/debt reduction); and,
- Risk Management/Insurance (investment risks, scams/schemes/frauds, insurance and means of protection).
The course was designed to meet multiple learning goals, according to Helen Roberts, director of the Center for Economic Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. In addition to building comprehension economics and personal finance, the course also aimed to enhance general skills (including reading and understanding complex informational texts) and life skills, such as choosing a bank or applying for a bank account.
“Students need to learn more than how to write a check or make a budget, and they need to do more than answer knowledge questions,” explained Roberts. “They need an understanding of how the world works, experience in making decisions in complicated situations and in identifying opportunities and dangers, what to do to protect themselves, and how to weigh the tradeoffs.”
The initiative includes professional development. Teachers receive training in course content and pedagogical practice prior to the course launch as well as ongoing assistance throughout the semester. This is critical since many teachers feel ill-equipped to teach this course.
“While the amount of actual ‘economics’ included in the course was minimal, many educators – and the general public – are not always familiar with this specific set of knowledge,” explained Moe.
To help teachers get over this hurdle, CPS and CEE decided it would be best for teachers begin their training by first examining the final course assessment. This allows them to see the ultimate goal, said Roberts. After that, training sessions are built around individual units and each session begins with an evaluation of the assessment for that unit.
The approach has been highly effective, according to Roberts. She explained that it’s common for new teachers to be overwhelmed when they see the first unit’s assessment – on the topic of economics – and argue that their students can’t do it. But, as training progresses, and teachers walk through the steps of demonstrating how each piece of the unit is built with their students, they gain confidence in themselves and their students.
“In the end, teachers not only see that their students really can do it, but teachers can also see how they can teach it,” Roberts said.
Roberts recalls the story of a teacher who missed the beginning training sessions because he got a late assignment to teach the course. When he attended his first training session and saw the assessment, he stated hotly that his students would not be able to do the work. Before the session trainers had an opportunity to respond, other teachers who had attended the entire training – including some who had originally been skeptical – quickly jumped in to reassure him. They said, “We know they can and if you had been here, you would know it too,” recalls Roberts. “I silently said, ‘Yes!'”
Feedback from students and teachers has been largely favorable. According to the pair, students like the course because it covers an important topic that’s relevant to them. “They were presented with aspects of finance and money that they are actually able to apply to their personal lives,” Moe said.
Teachers concur that the course has had a positive impact on students. They also like the curriculum’s flexible design. Some teachers incorporated real-world news examples into their lesson plans, while others changed the pace of the course to allow students to delve deeper into discussions around specific topics. “Teachers appreciated that the curriculum was developed in a way that allows them to adjust it to meet the specific needs of their students,” said Moe.
This is just the beginning. CPS launched the initiative with 25 schools in spring 2013 and plans to roll out the program to all high schools by 2016. Eventually, the district would like to integrate financial literacy content into the curriculum at every grade level.
“Financial literacy is critical for all our students and it must begin prior to high school,” said Moe. “CPS has developed a K-12 Financial Literacy Guide that provides teachers with guidance on critical knowledge, skills and practices that should be covered at each grade level. This guide will continue to evolve as additional resources are identified. Additionally, we will work to develop and identify professional learning opportunities for K-8 teachers as well.”