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 Students don’t remember what they learn, and the lessons become outdated too quickly.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.”
Among college students, those who’d taken a high school class did no better than those who had not. Even college classes in personal finance, business and economics failed to register a statistical benefit. Instead, what predicted smart financial decisions was analytical skills and problem-solving ability. Engineering and science majors performed the best.
Educators have not found an effective way to teach financial literacy in the classroom, but they have learned a few things. Games and competition help. So do basic skills on how to find information, and so do parents.
“Like anything, if it’s not reinforced at home, it goes out the window,” said Joanne Kuster, a personal finance speaker and blogger based in Iowa.
Thrivent Financial makes a point to train children along with their parents, to help reinforce the lessons. Mary Vandehey, who oversees financial education for Thrivent members, said the company held 2,000 financial workshops for parents, teens and younger children in 2012, and 32,000 people attended.
“When parents are able to talk openly about finances, their children tend to have a stronger foundation and a better understanding,” Vandehey said. “We’re hitting an audience, but we still have lots of work to do.”
Quinn Krueger and his classmates spent a month and a half preparing for their visit to BizTown. They looked at classified ads, applied for jobs, and had to dress up for formal job interviews. “They were all super-nervous,” said Lynn Schwieters, a teacher at Valley Crossing School in Woodbury.
Twelve kids applied to be the radio station DJ, but only one boy got the job. Others landed jobs in the cafe, as a CFO, as mayor or as the guy who reads utility meters.
“It’s cool for them to experience real life,” Schwieters said. “Getting a paycheck, going to the bank, realizing that the money doesn’t come from nowhere.”
The students were slated to spend half the day at BizTown, and they threw themselves into the jobs. Across the hall, ninth-graders from Mounds View High School huddled around computers as they competed with each other to have the most profitable business. Each team of three or four students controlled the price of their product, inventory and budgets for charitable donations, marketing, and research and development. They made decisions together on the fly and got regular updates on who was winning.
“How many ninth-graders do you know who are talking about research and development?” said Jon Nuss, who teaches economics at Mounds View. “Right now we’re in our business unit. A lot of the stuff we talk about fits right in with this game.”
But even games don’t translate into measurable improvement in financial behavior, said Willis, the law professor at Loyola.
“The games seem to show some positive learning, but [the students] don’t engage in any better behavior,” she said.
The factors that lead to wise financial behavior are self-control and basic math skills, she said. Also, she said, the idea that financial literacy is the key to navigating a rapidly changing financial marketplace distracts attention from the fact that many financial products are so complex they aren’t even understood by experts.
“The idea that it’s providing people freedom?” she said. “Yeah, it’s this perverse notion of freedom, to force people to try to figure this out and then blame them when they can’t. It’s really a shame.”