When Bonnie Cohen asked her sixth grade students how many of them talk about money at home, she was excited when everyone raised their hands. But then she asked them what they talked about.
“[They’d say] ‘my mother says I can’t have any,’ or ‘my mother says wait till payday,’ or ‘my father says ask your mother,” she said.
That wasn’t quite the response the executive director of the Delaware Financial Literacy Institute was looking for.
This lack of financial knowledge has spurred certain state leaders to look to increase financial literacy among Delaware’s youth. In the 148th General Assembly session, Rep. Ruth Briggs King introduced House Resolution 4 to create a financial literacy task force.
The task force would focus on making sure young students – especially those in elementary school – are given the chance to develop personal finance skills. Lessons such as money management, investing, and savings are a few additions they would like to add to school curriculums. The task force potentially could make financial literacy a K-12 requirement.
High school ‘too late’ for financial literacy
House Resolution 4 didn’t make it through the General Assembly, however.
King said the bill failed to gain traction because it was “bogged down in the political process.” She said other legislative obligations, such as the state budget, took priority.
It was King’s second attempt and marks the third time such legislation has been put forward and failed to pass.
In 2012 she tried to pass a resolution that would have required high school seniors to take a financial literacy course. This ran into opposition in the House Education Committee; the State Board of Education felt the bill didn’t go far enough.
“Our concern was that [the] bill really only focused on a high school course,” said Donna Johnson, executive director of the Board of Education. “All of the research we had about financial literacy said that waiting until high school was too late.”
Delaware State University Professor Michael Casson agrees. The economics professor, who recently wrote a book on financial literacy, believes in the necessity of reaching students early.
“We know that if we can establish some core values around finances at a very early age then that can be a predictor for successes as they grow older,” Casson said.
Casson has never met King, but their ideas are very similar. The economics professor recently collaborated with Towne Pointe Elementary teacher Linda Brown to write a book about financial literacy for elementary students.
The book, “Enwan the Entrepreneur: Enwan’s First Savings Account,” focused on a kid’s attempts to save money and start a business.
“They’re fertile soil in terms of understanding finances and money. So it’s up to us as adults to plant those seeds of financial literacy,” Casson said.
Challenges to implementation
King said another obstacle may get in the way of financial literacy goals: standardized tests. Delaware’s emphasis on the Smarter Balanced Assessment could prevent other topics from getting into the curriculum, she stressed.
“We have to say, ‘Is it important that we teach the test and prepare them just for college or do we need to prepare them for life?’” King said.
While educators may agree with her plan, some admit it’s easier said than done.
“Right now personal finance is not a requirement in the high schools,” said Cohen.
At the University of Delaware’s Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship, Assistant Director Bonnie Meszaros said educators’ schedules are already hectic.
Teachers think it’s important, but finding space on a schedule is an obstacle. “They already have this overcrowded curriculum, particularly in the elementary grades,” Meszaros said.
According to the state school board’s Johnson, Delaware is using financial literacy initiatives in Maryland as a model.
Sue Garrett, supervisor of career and technology education at the Harford County School District in Maryland, said the required financial literacy standards are beneficial but can be challenging to implement.
“Giving a set of standards that is required from K to 12 is tough,” she said. “How does a local school system adapt them? They have to determine which courses in existence already teach that content, and most districts had to do an analysis of current curriculums to see where it is actually getting taught.
“Schools have to figure out how they’re going to fit this into their school curriculum, and at the high school level that’s really tough because they have all these requirements.”
King, for her part, acknowledges the many challenges facing the introduction of financial literacy programs, but says progress is being made.
She has reached an understanding with the State Board of Education, she said, and the two parties are working together to make sure legislation is passed when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
Though it may have taken years and several attempts, King believes the initiative is necessary.
“I believe strongly that a lot of the financial problems in 2008 and forward were because of a lack of understanding by adults of finance.”