A whopping 53% of high school teachers are seeing concerning levels of financial illiteracy among their students, according to a recent study on the state of economics and personal finance in high schools conducted by Project Tomorrow and Certell. Just 10% of educators said their students are above basic proficiency.
One reason is that the percentage of teens working has plummeted, from almost 60% in the late 1970s to only 37% today. This is troubling considering that the current generation of high schoolers spends an average of $2,391 a year. One additional reason for this lack of knowledge surely stems from the failure of schools to make up for this lack of practical experience by teaching these important subjects. Only 25 states currently require high school economics education to graduate, and just a fraction of states require a standalone financial literacy class.
Because economics and personal finance courses aren’t as ubiquitous as history, math, and English classes in U.S. high schools, there are fewer experienced teachers for these subjects, and teacher confidence is lagging. Only 64% of teachers surveyed say they are very comfortable teaching economics or personal finance, yet just 11% of teachers with less than three years of teaching experience consider themselves very comfortable, and an additional 11% note that they are not comfortable at all, the Project Tomorrow survey found. This is troublesome given the high rate of retirement among experienced teachers and the teacher shortages experienced in nearly all states.
The need for economics education at the high school level is crucial. Few colleges require that undergraduates take a course in economics, so if students don’t improve their understanding of economics and personal finance at the high school level, they may never be exposed to it.
How to fight financial illiteracy
There are a few things district administrators can do to help bridge this financial illiteracy gap and create financially-savvy students:
- Adopt digital tools that help develop great teachers. Free digital course packages are available that provide teachers with everything they need—including content, activities, and tests—to confidently teach economics and personal finance. Digital course packages also reduce the burden on new or inexperienced teachers who lack the time and resources to assemble a curriculum. According to the Project Tomorrow study, 59% of teachers said they lacked the time to find appropriate content for their class, 48% said they didn’t have the authority to license or purchase digital content, and 43% said they struggle to find the content that meets the different ability levels in the class. All these challenges are solved in part or completely by readily-available course packages.
- Make courses more relevant for students. Today’s digital-native student expects to be entertained all the time, so traditional lecture-style classes don’t work. Districts should adopt course material that includes digital storytelling, simulations, and gamification that make economics more interesting and meaningful to students. Economics teachers noted in the Project Tomorrow study that they are particularly interested in how to use digital tools to engage their students in the course content through interactive and participatory class activities that “connect the dots” between theory and real life. A teacher in Pennsylvania said: “It is my goal to incorporate pop culture as much as possible through video or images. It helps to connect the language of economics to what (the students) already know.” According to the survey, the digital tools and resources teachers find most valuable to support instruction include popular culture references (98%) and simulations (98%). The most used pop culture content includes videos, music, TV episodes, and social media including TikTok videos.
- Look for alternative ways to meet short-term needs. Districts that struggle to hire qualified teachers for economics and personal finance can find creative ways to educate students until the gap is closed. For example, nonprofits such as Sensible School plan to offer inexpensive online economics courses this fall for high schools. These classes can be streamed into multiple classrooms that are staffed with proctors, enabling students in multiple schools throughout a single district or in various districts to take the course at the same time.
- Tap into emerging state education programs. The need for qualified economics teachers is resulting in some innovative programs focused on training the next generation of economics instructors. Many state universities offer a master’s degree in economics for educators, and some are free for qualified teachers. For example, West Virginia University is offering a free master’s degree in economics education for high school social studies teachers in that state.
Making these resources available to teachers and removing roadblocks such as cost and time will result in more qualified teachers. There is no shortage of digital content and other resources available to districts today to use to support instruction, including teacher enrichment opportunities, free course packages, and online classroom instruction. Districts need to believe in the importance of economics instruction for today’s students and commit to making it happen.