Richard M. Todd - Vice President, Community Development
Published January 1, 2012 | January 2012 issue
Amidst a wave of foreclosures and household debt problems, support for teaching personal finance in American high schools is high. Eighty-five percent of American parents surveyed in spring 2011 said a course in personal finance should be a high school graduation requirement,1/ and a survey of 1,200 K-12 teachers found that 89 percent expressed moderate to strong agreement that either taking a course or passing a test in financial literacy should be required for high school graduation.2/
The teachers' survey showed much weaker support for personal finance instruction in the elementary grades. By contrast, prominent advocates argue that personal financial education should begin early on,3/ and this view is reflected in many financial education standards, including those of some states in the Ninth Federal Reserve District. For example, the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy recommends a detailed set of concepts that students should know by 4th grade, with further concepts to be learned by the 8th and 12th grades. Wisconsin's model standards follow this pattern, while Minnesota's 2011 draft social studies standards specify personal finance topics beginning in 3rd grade. North Dakota includes discussions of consumer concepts such as wants and needs in its K-8 social studies standards.
Are elementary and middle school students truly ready to learn personal finance concepts? Research by child development experts suggests they are. As early as preschool, children are developing critical decision-making skills and grappling with the financial aspects of time, trading, and value. By grade school, according to University of Exeter psychologist Paul Webley, "it is possible to teach many economic concepts," and by age 12, "children's understanding of economic situations is broadly comparable to that of adults."4/ Webley's examples suggest the same is true of personal finance concepts.
However, it appears that K-8 financial education programs are not always designed with child development research in mind. In a recently released literature review, personal finance scholar Karen Holden and educational psychologists Laura Scheinholtz and Charles Kalish ask "whether financial literacy programs have been structured taking into account what is known about cognitive development and capabilities of the children."5/ They find many gaps and recommend that "specialists in cognitive development and financial literacy should together develop strategies for effective and timely education" in personal finance. Their literature review and one by Webley provide practical information for teachers and curriculum designers about the way a typical child's financial and economic understanding develops, such as:
These generalizations gloss over the many developmental differences among children and the effects of culture and personal experience. Nonetheless, educators can use child development research in at least two ways. They can work within their students' developmental limits in order to deepen existing understanding of personal finance concepts. Alternatively, they can deliberately stretch their students' limits in order to introduce new concepts. Either way, personal financial lessons based on an understanding of child development belong in elementary and middle school as well as high school.
This article is based on a Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Research Report titled Early, Broadly, and Through Young Adulthood: A Child Development Perspective on Youth Personal Financial Education.
1/ Practical Money Skills for Life: 2011 Father's Day Survey, Visa, Inc., 2011. Available at www.practicalmoneyskills.com/resources/pdfs/Visa_FathersDaySurvey_2011.pdf.
2/ Wendy L. Way and Karen Holden, Teachers' Background and Capacity to Teach Personal Finance: Results of a National Study, The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, March 2009. This study and related materials are available via the search feature at www.nefe.org.
3/ Alejandro Lopez-Fernandini and Karen Murrell, The Effectiveness of Youth Financial Education: Summary of a Convening Held July 15–16, 2008, New America Foundation and Citi Foundation, December 2008. Available at newamerica.net/publications/policy/effectiveness_youth_financial_education_1.
4/ Paul Webley, "Children's Understanding of Economics," in Children's Understanding of Society, edited by M.D. Barrett and E. Buchanan-Barrow, Psychology Press, 2005. Pages 43–67.
5/ Karen Holden, Charles Kalish, and Laura Scheinholtz, "Cognitive Development and Children's Understanding of Personal Finance," in Consumer Knowledge and Financial Decisions: Lifespan Perspectives, edited by Douglas Lamdin, New York: Springer, October 2011.