What’s more controversial than teaching kids about sex? Apparently, financial education for kids.
All 50 states require sex-ed classes in high school, and some even offer it in elementary school. It’s certainly a touchy topic (no pun intended). Earlier this year, a Kansas middle school got in trouble for a racy sex-ed poster that mentioned oral and anal sex. And a Hawaii lawmaker is trying to revise a sex-ed class that involved his 11-year-old son.
Research shows that half of all high-school students are sexually active. No one considers scrapping the entire sex-ed program. Yet, every high-schooler spends money, and hardly anyone is teaching them financial ed.
Why Financial Literacy Month is not enough
April is Financial Literacy Month. Many financial institutions and non profit educational organizations get involved. By holding promotional events and creating educational materials they involve local communities. Teaching better ways of effectively handling money and dealing with debt. A time “to promote good savings behavior and a chance for individuals to assess their own savings status.”
Problem is, it’s hard to teach adults anything. Our brains are full and our habits are set. Americans have rung up $857 billion in credit card debt and $1 trillion in college loan debt. So we need to start providing financial education earlier, for kids.
A FOX News report in January posed the question, Can Schools Really Teach Personal Finance? The answer was unclear: “Trouble is, there’s not much evidence that formal education in financial concepts works for children as young as five – or even for teens.”
Here’s my answer to that headline, which is very clear: Hell yeah.
For the past 15 years, I’ve volunteered at my local public university, where I advise college students. Very few have any idea how money really works. And they aren’t stupid people. When they attended elementary, middle, and high school, many excelled at math. But that was arithmetic, geometry, and calculus – not compound interest, savings rates, and debt-to-income ratios.
So what are the arguments against offering a class in basic finances to elementary and high school students? They fall into two categories. I find both offensive.
The “won’t remember” argument
Harvard professor Brigitte Madrian told FOX News, “There’s only so much we could expect of any initiative to increase financial literacy in the public schools…you’re going to have a hard time teaching successfully because the decisions aren’t relevant.”
In other words, students won’t learn about money because it doesn’t matter to them yet.
Using that logic, why do we teach children American history? To a teenager, what happened two centuries ago isn’t “relevant.” And what about geometry? When’s the last time you had to guess the height of a flagpole by measuring its shadow?
I’m not suggesting we stop teaching these two courses. I am suggesting we stop measuring financial education by standards we don’t use for the rest of the curriculum. I fear that wisely managing money is somehow considered a greedy, linear skill with no socially redeeming value.
I fear some academics think of money management like they do auto repair – a rote blue-collar “skill” instead of a higher-level academic pursuit. I’d remind those folks that auto mechanics today are de facto computer programmers. They earn decent entry-level wages (an average of more than $35,000 per year, according to Salary.com). A majority are not laden with college loan debt because they learned “on the job”.
Teaching about money can be as complex and as subjective as comparing communism to capitalism in social studies. Like defining symbolism in English class, life experience shades our view and understanding.
The “it’s unethical” argument
The most offensive argument I’ve heard against financial education for children came from that same FOX article. Economist Lewis Mandell told FOX it’s unethical to teach financial management to children. He believes those who’ll get an A-plus are from already-wealthy families.
“To waste very scarce educational resources on something that we know is just going to be of interest and advantage to those who are already holding all the marbles, just strikes me as very pathetic and very, very unfair,” Mandell told FOX.
I’m fairly disgusted by that statement. This is exactly why we should teach money skills to children of poor families. Don’t we want them to do better than their parents? Don’t their parents want them to do better?
This argument is flawed. To assume that not having money doesn’t allow you do “understand” it, is ridiculous. the purpose of education is to enlighten and be exposed to new ideas. Not teaching finance education is unethical. Financial disadvantage does not mean low marks in financial education. I could argue those same obstacles hurt them in all their other classes. Yet we still teach them. Even if they don’t score as high as their wealthier peers on a test, they’ve learned that money management is important. Even if they keep very little info from the class, that concept is priceless.
By teaching the class, we’re telegraphing to a new generation that money is an important concept to master. And to a nation that’s drowning in debt, isn’t it worth the risk of a few hours a week? If it is for sex ed, it should be for fin ed.