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Op-ed: Don't buy the sham argument against teaching personal finance in school

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As schools across the country prepare for the coming year, which we hope returns to something like a pre-pandemic normal, the financial literacy community will redouble its efforts to get effective financial education into our nation's classrooms.

After the array of economic uncertainties brought on by a nearly worldwide shutdown, most people are applauding the effort to provide financial education to a new generation of consumers – not only to better prepare them for whatever unexpected crisis happens next, but as an essential life skill.

Still, there are some who believe financial education in the classroom to be ineffective, unrealistic and even misdirected; but we can't let these misguided notions rob our kids of the opportunity to gain valuable knowledge and money management ability.

Critics of school-based financial education have argued that teaching kids about money is the parents' responsibility. This isn't a recent criticism; it's been going on for just about as long as we've been promoting it. Helaine Olen, for example, who has been railing against financial literacy since publishing her 2013 book "Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry," took another swipe at Financial Literacy Month in a recent Washington Post column.

At Jump$tart, we agree that financial learning should start at home; however, for families that are "unbanked," maybe new to this country, or just not sure of their own proficiency, schools play a critical role. And of course, some kids don't have parents or guardians at all. By including personal finance in the PreK-12 curriculum, we can help close the financial inclusion gap by educating those students who need that guidance the most.

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For years, critics of school-based financial education have refuted the claim that "all we need is better education" to improve the financial well-being of everyone – but the sham is that no one in the financial literacy community actually claims that. We know that better education alone won't protect victims of financial fraud or discrimination, won't provide better access to service and opportunities, and won't guarantee workers a livable wage. We do believe, however, that financial education is a strong foundation on which equity, access, opportunity, service, and consumer protections can – and will – be built.

A couple of years ago, Jump$tart launched Check Your School, a public engagement campaign designed to harness the power of parents and others to bring financial education to every school in the country. But, in the midst of the pandemic that affected disadvantaged communities more severely than others and the Black Lives Matter movement that called necessary attention to injustices in our society, we realized that while all schools need financial education, some need it more.

In talking to community leaders, we were reminded that less advantaged communities don't really want heroes to swoop in and save the day. They don't want special events or well-intended volunteers who spend an afternoon with them, never to be heard from again. What they want is an investment in their communities and a real chance to make it on their own. And we can do our part by supporting neighborhood schools, providing training to teachers and reliable curriculum resources, to help the community help itself, not once, but for many years to come.

Detractors who say that teachers are ill equipped to teach the complexities of personal finance haven't been to the Jump$tart National Educator Conference or any other professional development programs offered by an array of our partners and affiliates. The teachers we work with are talented, committed, and knowledgeable about finance – many with certifications in the subject. And the ones who aren't, could be, with the help and support of our vast network.

Last year, my organization conducted a study, which found that comprehensive, content-based professional development for teachers not only improved the teachers' own level of financial literacy, but resulted in bigger learning gains for the students they taught after completing the training. What's more, among our participant group, lower-income students of color benefited the most from the training their teachers received. The favorable results of this study support our belief that well-qualified, well-supported teachers who use standards-based curriculum resources and engaging activities for a sufficient number of instructional hours can teach financial skills that have the potential to change lives.

As a defined subject area, personal finance is still relatively young and evolving; but research such as the meta-analysis recently conducted by the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University and independent research already support the promising effect. And while there is still much to learn about the effectiveness of financial education, we know enough now to commit ourselves fully to the financial education of all American students and a lifetime of financial well-being for everyone.

By Laura Levine, president and CEO of Jump$tart

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