Financial education still looking for elusive payoff

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2013 - 4:37 PM

Educators are getting creative in their quest to teach children to handle money.

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Greenleaf Elementary School student and bank CEO Nulia Nguyen, 10, examined documents as she evaluated loan applications.

Looking dapper in a blue shirt and striped tie, 11-year-old Quinn Krueger leaned over his desk and peered at plans for his company’s next project — a park bench.

Krueger was CEO of the only construction firm in BizTown, a simulated city at Junior Achievement in Maplewood where fourth- and fifth-graders spend a day learning to run a business, work for a boss, write a check, pay taxes and do payroll.

“We’re selling the bench for $75,” Krueger said. “We’re doing good.”

With kids zipping back and forth and bemused parents and teachers looking on, the program is among the more elaborate attempts to teach children to become financially literate.

April is holy month for the financial literacy movement that has swept the nation in the past decade, as state and federal government, nonprofits and financial firms launch town hall meetings, task forces, fairs, forums, quiz bowls and high school visits.

There is, however, a problem with this well-intentioned effort to teach youngsters personal finance: Educators haven’t found an approach that clearly works.

“I wish it weren’t true, but it is,” said Lauren Willis, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who has published several papers on the subject. “Math matters, but these financial education programs do not.”

Repeated research has shown that classroom personal finance instruction does not translate into financial literacy or wiser financial decisions. Students don’t remember what they learn, and the lessons become outdated too quickly.

Willis said programs that get students to interact with the material can work better. That’s the idea with BizTown, as well as a program Junior Achievement runs that lets ninth-graders compete in a computer business simulation.

“That experiential model is really what sets Junior Achievement apart,” said Gina Blayney, president of Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest. “We put them into a competitive environment.”

Other models that have been successful include cooperation from parents, and giving students the skills to find and analyze information on their own.

But while few would dispute that too many American high school graduates lack the skills to navigate their finances, many experts argue that financial literacy education has more work to do to remedy the problem.

The Jump$tart Coalition, a group that’s been widely credited with popularizing financial literacy training and pushing April as a month to emphasize it, was formed in late 1996 by a coalition that included banking and credit card industry groups, the Federal Reserve Board, the National Council on Economic Education and Junior Achievement, among others.

The economy was growing, the stock market was doing well and yet bankruptcies were on the rise, said Lewis Mandell, an economist involved from the beginning.

Mandell developed the coalition’s survey that measured the financial knowledge of high school students. To no one’s surprise, American teenagers came up wanting. The solution, the coalition decided, was to teach them more about personal finance. The group thought it would be a slam-dunk.

“We felt that in 10 years, the problem would go away,” said Mandell, a professor emeritus at the State University of New York in Buffalo. “Everyone would take the course in high school, and there wouldn’t be that problem any longer.”

In 2000, Mandell started asking students he surveyed whether they had taken a semester course related to personal finance, to see if those who had were answering more questions correctly than their peers. The results were dismal.

“There was zero difference,” Mandell said. “We did this for five separate national studies of high school seniors, and we found no difference.”

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  • Participants at BizTown recited the Pledge of Allegiance before beginning their workday at the simulated city at Junior Achievement in Maplewood.

  • After receiving instructions, students headed out to their assigned jobs for the day.

  • Greenleaf Elementary School student and bank teller Lynn Dinh, 10, waited for the workday to begin.

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