Regardless of the career path they choose, students need to know how to budget, save, and invest so that they can thrive in adulthood. According to the Council for Economic Education’s “2020 Survey of the States,” all 50 states and the District of Columbia include economic education in their K-12 standards, and 21 states require high school students to take a personal finance course to graduate. Depending on the district, these courses are sometimes taught by the math, business, or social studies department.

Still, the effectiveness of economics and personal finance education can vary widely. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tested 15-year-olds on their financial literacy, and found that in 2015 22 percent of the U.S. teens tested did not reach the baseline level of proficiency in financial literacy. In just a few years, those same teens could be taking out student loans, purchasing a car, or filing their own taxes, making these lessons all the more crucial.

“I don’t think you can graduate career and college ready without having a background in personal finance,” says Mark Fiedorczyk, regional supervisor of curriculum and instruction for New Jersey’s Lenape Valley School District.

“One way to foster post-graduate success is to make sure that students can successfully manage money,” adds Aaron Standish, financial literacy coordinator for the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida.

Start early

Just because your state requires a middle or high school course doesn’t mean students should wait until then to start learning about money. Standish says Palm Beach offers money lessons at every grade level. In grades K-5, that means numeracy skills like sorting and counting money are taught. Students also learn the value of delayed gratification.

In K-2, the financial literacy curriculum is built around children’s books with some sort of money or number component such as Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Saturday and Monster Musical Chairs. “We put together a whole suite of lessons and materials and resources in one big notebook that we train teachers on how to use,” Standish says.

The district also implemented a program called My Classroom Economy. The program is underwritten by an investment management company and can be incorporated into any grade level. Palm Beach uses it in the elementary grades. To simulate the real-world economy, students earn money from their “jobs” and pay “rent” on their desks.

“[My Classroom Economy] works as a good classroom management tool with bonuses and fines,” Standish says. “They have to earn additional bonuses because their salary doesn’t cover their rent, and they have a chance to spend at a classroom auction or in-class store.” Sometimes those purchasing decisions lead to buyer’s remorse, but Standish points out that it’s better for students to regret a purchase made with fake classroom dollars than actual dollars in the real world.

During the 2015-16 school year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Financial Security studied nearly 2,000 third- to fifth-graders in Palm Beach County to examine the impact of My Classroom Economy over a 10-week period. Students showed an increase in financial knowledge and budgeting, and nearly all teachers said they plan to continue using the program.

Tap into available resources

In fall of 2019, New Jersey added a state requirement that middle schools teach financial literacy but didn’t define what should be included. So Fiedorczyk and a math teacher attended a workshop with Next Gen Personal Finance (NGPF), a nonprofit that provides free curriculum and professional development to middle and high school teachers. They implemented NGPF curriculum for sixth- and eighth-graders at the start of the 2019-20 school year.

“It’s rich in things that interest students, like why do celebrities go bankrupt?” Fiedorczyk says. NGPF also has an online arcade where students can play games exploring topics like how to pay for college or manage debt.

After seeing how the NGPF curriculum included timely money topics like Venmo, Fiedorczyk implemented it at the high school level, too. “My concern with our existing curriculum was that it was not being updated,” he says. “It’s a hard course for teachers to teach if you’re not up-to-date on it yourself.”

Fiedorczyk’s district also applied for and received a $10,000 grant through NGPF’s Gold Standard Challenge. The organization is giving away $1 million in grants to high schools in the U.S. and Puerto Rice that as of January 2019 had not yet received school board approval adopting a standalone graduation requirement for personal finance (schools in Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia are not eligible, as they already have a statewide mandate).

Fiedorczyk says adopting the new standard was an easy sell to the board. “It’s something that kids really need to know,” he explains, adding that the teachers will get to decide how best to use the grant money.

Of course, real-world money lessons may prompt students to ask money questions that make some parents uncomfortable, like “How much did we pay for this house?” or “What’s the interest rate on your credit card?”

“I did warn my board, ‘be prepared for your kids to come home and ask tough questions,’” Fiedorczyk says. “When I was growing up, money was a taboo subject. We need to be comfortable answering their questions.”

Make money lessons relevant

Virginia has two versions of its required high school economics of personal finance course: one taught through a social studies lens, and one taught through a business lens. At least half of the schools in Virginia’s Prince William County Public Schools teach it through a business lens, and most students take the class in 11th grade.

One popular activity in the business version is when students think up an idea for a company and watch episodes of TV’s Shark Tank before pitching their ideas. “They go in front of their peers to see if they can get them to support their imaginary company,” says Jeff Girvan, supervisor of history and social science at Prince William County Public Schools. “They really get excited about the entrepreneurship and what do you need to do to start your own business.”

In addition, many teachers in the district use free online financial education materials from EverFi, an educational software company. “Students do those activities at home, and kids like that because it’s at their own pace,” Girvan says.

Some high schoolers in Girvan’s district also participate in the Stock Market Game, a statewide investing simulation. Student teams set up and monitor a virtual online stock portfolio and compete for a trip to Washington, D.C., among other awards.

Meanwhile in New Jersey, one of Fiedorczyk’s favorite activities for middle schoolers is having them read and analyze the fine print from an actual car insurance agreement or a lease agreement, which is part of the NGPF curriculum. “Those are great activities that immerse them in real-world scenarios,” he says.

Support teachers with current information

Tax laws, digital payment options, and other areas of personal finance change over time, so teachers need curriculum that is up-to-date, as well as the tools to teach it effectively. “Professional development for teachers is key to setting them up for success,” Standish says. “A lot of times, if they’re not a businessperson, they may have only taken one economics course, and money may not be their forte when they come into teaching.”

Allocating funds so that teachers can travel to workshops or conferences or connecting them with professional development opportunities are good ways to help keep them current.

Dedicated support staff are another way to support teachers and personal finance education. At Prince William County Public Schools, the board and superintendent recently added a position for a civics and economics coordinator to work under Girvan.

“The new position will enable us to focus more on the economics and personal finance learning targets and implement more focused professional development for teachers, as well as offer more opportunities for students to participate in division-wide events and programs,” he says.

School boards also can champion teachers by ensuring they have access to low-fee retirement accounts. “If I want our teachers to really get passionate and really set them up for success, they have to be comfortable in their personal finances,” Standish says. “I think if school boards could do more to educate teachers on their pension and 403(b) accounts and get them better options in their 403(b), that could make a world of difference in helping our teachers.”

Teachers who are empowered with their personal finances can help students become savvy consumers themselves. “They can be a proactive consumer, one that’s not being taken advantage of,” Standish says. “Being financially capable leads to a higher quality of life down the road.”

Susan Johnston Taylor (www.susan-johnston.com) is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

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