Of all the lessons taught by the financial crisis, the most personal has been that Americans aren't too slick with money. We take out home loans we can't afford. We run up sky-high credit-card debt. We don't save nearly enough for retirement.
In response, proponents of financial-literacy education are stumping with renewed zeal. School districts in states such as New Jersey and Illinois are adding money-management courses to their curriculums. The Treasury and Education departments are sending lesson plans to high schools and encouraging students to compete in the National Financial Capability Challenge that begins in March.
Students with top scores on that exam will receive certificates but chances for long-term benefits are slim. As it turns out, there is little evidence that traditional efforts to boost financial know-how help students make better decisions outside the classroom. Even as the financial-literacy movement has gained steam over the past decade, scores have been falling on tests that measure how savvy students are about things such as budgeting, credit cards, insurance and investments. A 2008 survey of college students conducted for the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy found that students who'd had a personal-finance or money-management course in high school scored no better than those who hadn't.
"We need to figure out how to do this the right way," says Lewis Mandell, a professor at the University of Washington who after 15 years of studying financial-literacy programs has come to the conclusion that current methods don't work. A growing number of researchers and educators agree that a more radical approach is needed. They advocate starting financial education a lot earlier than high school, putting real money and spending decisions into kids' hands and talking openly about the emotions and social influences tied to how we spend.
One promising example of new thinking is found on Chicago's South Side. At the Ariel Community Academy, financial education starts in kindergarten with books like A Chair for My Mother (the moral: if you want to buy something, save money first) and quickly becomes hands-on. Each entering class at Ariel a K-8 public school that has partnered with a local money-management firm since the mid-1990s is entrusted with a $20,000 investment portfolio, and by seventh grade, kids are deciding what to buy and sell (profits help pay for college). Last year, for the first time, the eighth-grade class graduated with less than the original $20,000. Talk about a teachable moment: stocks don't always go up.
Other initiatives are tackling such real-world issues as the commercial and social pressures that affect purchasing decisions. Why exactly do you want those expensive name-brand sneakers so badly? "It takes confidence to take a stand and to think differently," says Jeroo Billimoria, founder of Aflatoun, a nonprofit whose curriculum, used in more than 30 countries, aims to help kids get a leg up in their financial lives. "This goes beyond money and savings."
That approach might have helped in the recent housing bubble. Buyers didn't just need to know how different sorts of mortgages worked; they also needed the fortitude to choose a 30-year fixed rate when everyone around them was buying a bigger house with a riskier loan.
Amid such a complicated landscape, some experts question whether there could ever be enough education to adequately prepare Americans for financial life. A better solution, these critics contend, is to reform the system. "What works is creating institutions that make it easy to do the right thing," says David Laibson, a Harvard economics professor who, like Mandell, has decided after years of research that education isn't a silver bullet. One idea being discussed in Washington is the automatic IRA. Employers would have to enroll each worker in a personal retirement-savings account unless that worker decided to opt out.
Yet even the skeptics are slow to write off financial education completely. More than anything, they say, we need to rigorously study the financial decisions of alumni of programs like Ariel and Aflatoun and compare them with those of peers who didn't get the same sort of education. "Until you have experimental evidence, it's all a little speculative," says Michael Sherraden, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who is conducting a seven-year, randomized, controlled study on whether giving children bank accounts inculcates the habit of saving a program already being tried on a large scale in the U.K. Yes, good, solid research like this takes a lot of time and resources. But if what we're doing right now isn't working, it's in our own best interest to figure out what does.