“In most high schools today, you can take Woodshop or Auto, but not a class on investing.”

Americans are in the red when it comes to financial literacy – and the need to have the topic introduced into school curricula nationwide is even more evident than ever.

In a recent global PISA survey of 18 nations, United States teenagers ranked only in the middle of the pack when it comes to financial literacy – well behind such nations as Belgium and New Zealand. Only 9.4 percent of American 15-year-olds demonstrated strong understanding of a wide range of financial terms and the ability to describe potential outcomes of financial decisions – knowledge that researchers say is essential in meeting urgent financial challenges like saving for retirement or staying out of debt.

The public overwhelmingly agrees that we need to address the deficiency – now. According to a 2013 poll sponsored by Bank of America, 99 percent of adults believe it’s important for high schools to teach students about personal finance.

Though the drive to get financial curricula into schools has been halting, several organizations have developed highly successful outside-the-classroom models for empowering young Americans with the skills and confidence necessary to build secure financial futures. Examples include the Voya-Girls Inc. Investment Challenge, PwC’s Earn Your Future program, Ariel Community Academy and Schwab MoneyWise initiative.

For the past 5 years, the Voya Investment Challenge (formerly known as the ING Investment Challenge) has offered teenage girls the opportunity to build and manage a diversified, real-time $50,000 portfolio, in the process earning invaluable, hands-on asset management experience and other financial literacy skills. The bank’s program assessment reaffirms that such early-education programs not only provide immediate financial empowerment, but also encourage teenagers to become life-long savers and investors. Parents of the participating girls have been learners as well, saying they’ve picked up new saving and investing knowledge from their children.

But how can we better “institutionalize” financial literacy education? There have been some advances in school boards introducing economics and financial training into curricula. This year, for the first time, all 50 states and the District of Columbia include economics in their K-12 standards, according to the Council for Economic Education’s 2014 Survey of the States. But only 19 states require a course in personal finance to be offered.

A dearth of teaching support – and, more fundamentally, lack of a well-defined consensus on how to measure success – remain impediments. Only one in five teachers feel qualified to lead a personal finance class, according to a University of Wisconsin study. And even with enough qualified instructors, personal finance concepts are not part of standardized tests, which seemingly makes their inclusion in curricula less urgent. Given that educational practices are set at the state level, lack of information and agreement on the success of financial teaching methods has made states and their education cautious to commit.

Now that the first step towards national financial literacy has been taken – acknowledging the need – it is time for unified effort to put in place firm educational requirements. Financial literacy must become a staple in the classroom alongside subjects such as science and history, and at the very least, a portion of the math curricula. If all states and all schools are not incorporating financial education, then it will not be considered an essential topic, and will most likely fall by the wayside. The positive benefits of out-of-school programs are undeniable, so why wouldn’t we allow every child the chance to succeed financially in their future?

Video Credit: Financial Literacy: Mellody Hobson at TEDxMidWest via YouTube


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