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Closing the Gap in Economic Education: Financial Literacy Begins in the Classroom

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Closing the Gap in Economic Education: Financial Literacy Begins in the Classroom

Nan J. Morrison, President & CEO, Council for Economic Education

Huffington Post Blog 04/30/2012

Like most young adults fresh out of college, saving for the future wasn't my top priority when I landed my first job. Left to my own devices, I can't say for certain I wouldn't have spent almost every cent of those paychecks, if not for my father reminding me once a week, every week, to contribute to my 401(k). He never missed a call -- and I never missed a payment.

But not everyone is so lucky to have a mentor like I did.

Parents are Lacking in Financial Know-How

If there's one lesson we've learned from the recent recession and its painful fallout, it's that an alarming number of Americans lack the basic dollars-and-cents understanding they need to navigate today's global economy. The gap between what people know and what they need to know is widening every day.

Just consider these stats:

Only 49.7 percent of U.S. adults can define a "budget deficit."

9 million households have neither a checking nor a savings account.

29 percent of Americans have no savings at all.

It would seem that an overwhelming number of American adults are ill-equipped to instruct their children in economics and personal finance. But they're not the only ones.

Teachers and Schools Come up Short on Economic Education

Many teachers are also woefully under-educated when it comes to financial literacy. In a recent survey, 20 percent of teachers stated that they do not feel competent to teach basic personal finance. And those who actually teach economics to high school students have often received minimal college instruction in the subject.

That said, some schools have ramped up financial education requirements in the years since my organization, the Council for Economic Education, has been tracking their progress. In the year 2000, only seven states required a high school personal finance course to be offered; by 2011 that number had doubled to 14. But our most recent Survey of the States shows that in the past two years, that momentum has slowed, and in some cases even come to a halt.

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Remarks made by CFPB Director Richard Cordray at Jump$tart's 2012 Annual Awards Dinner.

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Remarks by Richard Cordray, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
at the Jump$tart Annual Awards Dinner in Washington, DC on April 18, 2012

Thank you for inviting me tonight. From my work with Jump$tart over the years, I know you to be a leader in improving financial literacy from kindergarten to college. So I am glad to be here with so many who share the same objectives as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

My own history with your organization has been very positive. Back when I served as a county treasurer in Ohio, my primary initiative was to collect more unpaid delinquent property taxes. And let me tell you: That kind of project really makes a person popular! Reflecting back, I can now see how actually doing that hard work brought my team and me face to face with very different categories of people. Some resisted paying their share because they had gotten away with ducking us before. Some would not prioritize payment until they were sure we were serious about pursuing them. But many people were simply "down on their luck," to borrow a quaint but apt phrase – with the adversity consisting of unplanned and unwelcome events such as disease, divorce, job loss, or a death in their family.

People's troubles were often magnified by their incomprehension of financial matters. Difficult situations led to bad decisions. That experience led me to form a local committee on personal finance education. We gathered information about school programs for young people and community programs for adults, such as there were, and looked to match people up with those available resources. Eventually, we became more ambitious and set a goal to pass legislation that would require every student to receive personal finance education before graduating from high school. It is not easy to change anything about the high school curriculum, but we managed to do it, with the help of a broad coalition that included Jump$tart. And what we found next was that there was so much more work to do. By this time, I was serving as State Treasurer, and we worked with the same broad coalition to develop curricula and organize teacher training in hundreds of school districts. It was hard work, but we believed deeply in it and the difference it could make for people, which made it all feel enjoyable and worthwhile.

Full Speech

Survey of the States 2011: The State of Economic and Personal Finance Education

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The Survey of the States is a biennial report that brings attention to the critical importance of economics and personal finance education by documenting its status in the fifty states and the District of Columbia.

The recent economic downturn has brought nationwide attention to the dangers of a financially illiterate society. The 2011 Survey shows that while there has clearly been progress since the first Survey in 1998, that over the last two years, the trend is slowing and in some cases moving backwards.

The survey can facilitate an important dialogue that must take place between those who recognize that this knowledge is critical for young people and the decision makers that can effect change.

Key Findings

The number of states that now require students to take an economics course as a high school graduation requirement increased from 21 in 2009 to 22 in 2011.
However, only 16 states require the testing of student knowledge in economics, 3 fewer than in 2009.
No improvement has been seen in the area of personal finance. The number of states that require students to take a personal finance course (or personal finance included in an economics course) as a high school graduation requirement remains at 13.
Only 2 more states now require that personal finance content standards be implemented, bringing the total to 36.

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