Bringing Financial ABCs To School Curriculums

Each summer, the University of Arizona offers the "Take Charge America Institute" program, which helps instructors learn how to teach students about handling personal finances. Host Michel Martin discusses the importance of teaching financial literacy early with the program's director Michael Staten and one of its participants, Glenda Seward.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now to matters of personal finance. Every week on this program we try to offer some kind of practical advice on managing your money. But do you ever think to yourself, gee whiz, I wish somebody had told me that when I was younger.

Well, now there is an institute at the University of Arizona that's trying to extend that kind of coaching to high school students to get them ready for a world of credit card offers, debit card use, and even the coming option to pay as you go with a smartphone.

This summer, the Take Charge America Institute invited teachers from around the country to teach them how to teach their students about personal finance.

Joining us to talk about it, Michael Staten is the director of the Take Charge America Institute, as well as a professor of economics at the University of Arizona. He's with us from member station KUAZ in Tucson. Professor Staten, thanks for joining us.

Professor MICHAEL STATEN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us is Glenda Seward. She teaches family and consumer science at Mid-Prairie High School in Wellman, Iowa. She was one of those who took advantage of the Take Charge America Institute's effort to teach teachers. She's on the line with us from member station WUSI in Iowa City. Welcome to you also. Thank you for joining us.

GLENDA SEWARD: Thank you.

MARTIN: And, Glenda, you're on the front lines of this effort. What are some of the things that you've seen with young people and the way they manage money that caused you to want to participate in this effort?

SEWARD: Well, from the time I began teaching about 10 years ago, I saw students who may have had quite a bit of access to money from their parents, but not having much of a clue on how to manage that money and then going off into adulthood not having been prepared within their families or certainly by the school system to manage their money well. Get off on a good start.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example. Like, I've told this story before on this program of a young lady who, like, tried to kind of help mentor. And she mentioned to me once that she couldn't wait to get a credit card because then she could buy anything she wanted. And I said, what do you mean by that? And she said, well, you just swipe the card and they give stuff to you. And she really did not - I mean, this was a girl who's a high school freshman and she did not understand that you actually have to pay the bill, which scared me tremendously.

SEWARD: Oh, exactly. Yes, that's very, very common. And I think from early childhood they see their parents swiping a card and don't ever get the connection that money had to go into that account before it comes out. It's a rare student who is regularly working and putting money into a savings account.

MARTIN: Michael Staten, what was the seed for the summer school to teach teachers? What was the impetus for this?

STATEN: Well, we've - for 10 years at the institute we've had an outreach program that puts a curriculum in high school and middle schools around the country. And one of the things we realized early on was in trying to help teachers get financial education into the classrooms that this is a subject area that many teachers aren't trained in in terms of - they don't get degrees in personal finance for the most part. They're social studies teachers, there are math teachers and whatnot.

They use those tools all the time, but not all of us are that comfortable turning around and teaching it somebody else. And so we thought, anything we could do to help raise teachers' comfort level with the subject matter and then also show them how to use the curriculum that we have would be a benefit in making their job easier to put it into the classroom.

MARTIN: Is teaching personal finance a little bit like teaching sex in the sense that people feel like there's a lot of personal values involved? And that perhaps teachers are hesitant because they're not sure about how their own personal values should be brought to bear in this in the absence of kind of a generally recognized curriculum? Is it partly like that?

STATEN: Particularly in this fast-paced market, there are products that are evolving all the time, you know, whether it's new mobile payment products and whatnot that teachers or the rest of us may not have had any experience with yet. And yet the students in our classrooms are sort of at the cutting edge of adopting. And if we're not comfortable talking about those technologies, then we tend to shy away from those subjects. And so that's part of it.

And then there's the piece you suggest in terms of their own beliefs, in terms of credit good, credit bad. Should you be comfortable? Should you have a credit card at all? Should you shun credit cards? Those sorts of things that are personal choices and yet you know that they're creeping into the classroom when you try and teach it.

MARTIN: Glenda, what about you?

SEWARD: I think that's definitely the case. I know I was very uncomfortable at the beginning when I first started teaching because I felt like I kind of knew what I was doing. But there was a great gap in what curriculum was available to help us do that. And for the most part, my students found it to be a boring topic when I first began teaching it.

MARTIN: Really?

SEWARD: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I would've thought they would be very interested in that.

SEWARD: No. They're interested in the money and the spending. But learning about it, not so much.

MARTIN: How did they express that to you?

SEWARD: Well, until I started using the curriculum I use now, groans when they came in and saw what we were going to be covering. Just not engaging with it. You can certainly get the head knowledge into them and test it and find out if they know the definition of a word or whatever. As you try to get them to apply it, they were not making that connection.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Glenda Seward and Michael Staten. Michael Staten is the director of the Take Charge America Institute, which conducted a summer institute to teach teachers about how to teach personal finance. They've actually been doing that for a while. Glenda Seward is one of the teachers for the institute and participated in the annual initiative to promote financial literacy in the classroom.

And, you know, Michael Staten, I'm wondering whether this program began a decade ago when the economy was very different. And I'm wondering if now that kids might actually be more acquainted with people whose personal finances are shaky or who have suffered some consequences as a result of it, and that has piqued their interest a little bit.

STATEN: I think so. You cannot have lived through the last three or four years without seeing something about personal finance in the headlines every week certainly, sometimes every day. And, you know, students pick up on this and they see it in terms of stress or even just conversation at home. And they're seeing it in the media all over the place so they're naturally more interested in the impact of these things.

MARTIN: Tell me, Glenda, before we let you go, what was the unit or the lesson that you think has been most impactful?

SEWARD: I had a lot of students who really felt like the savings unit, where we get at the issue of paying yourself first and beginning to save for retirement early on in your working career and letting that interest compound, it was something they had not really, you know, you were going to save when you made enough money that you could save. But realizing that whatever income you make you should be saving a percentage of it now and how that will multiply over time, that's just been a light bulb moment for a lot of my students.

MARTIN: How did you teach that lesson about compounding interest and how the effects build up over time?

SEWARD: Well, we have what's called an active learning tool and it is using jelly beans and a piggybank and a tall, clear cylinder. And it's just - it's the activity that you do at the very beginning of the lesson, but it's the one the students go back to and say, wow, that really made me think. You make each jelly bean worth about $10 and so you put $100 worth of jelly beans into the piggybank and that just sits there and, you know, you saved it in your piggybank at home.

In the cylinder you put your 10 or your $100 worth of jelly beans and then you use different colored jelly beans showing them, you know, in five years this much interest would accrue. And just letting it build. If you leave it in there for 50 years it's worth almost $3,000 and you didn't touch it.

MARTIN: And Michael Staten, final thought from you. I kind of want to ask you whether teaching this over time has changed the way you handle your own money.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STATEN: Well, you know, it does cause one to reflect from time to time. Am I really following the lessons that we're putting out there? But I think in a greater sense this is - the economic events of the last three years have created a gigantic teachable moment for us. And I think personal finance has always been important. I think it's becoming more important as the more complex the markets get. And if we can't reach folks now and pique their interest, we never will, and that's what we're trying to take advantage of.

MARTIN: And how can people participate in this institute? How can teachers get involved in this?

STATEN: We have a program that's open to teachers across the country, throughout the world if we can gain an international momentum. They can go to our website, which is www.fefe - that's FEFE, it stands for Family Economics and Financial Education. So it's fefe.arizona.edu.

MARTIN: All right. Michael Staten is the director of the Take Charge America Institute. He's also a professor of economics at the University of Arizona. We were also joined by Glenda Seward, one of the teachers who attended the Take Charge America Institute seminar. And she's a family and consumer science teacher in Wellman, Iowa. I thank you both so much for joining us.

STATEN: Thank you, Michel.

SEWARD: Thank you, Michel.

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