Teaching teachers the ins and outs of financial literacy

Teachers admit they’re ill-prepared to teach financial literacy to their students. Training sessions such as the one held earlier this month at Fidelity Investments in Research Triangle Park aim to change that.
Teachers admit they’re ill-prepared to teach financial literacy to their students. Training sessions such as the one held earlier this month at Fidelity Investments in Research Triangle Park aim to change that. MCT

Chelsea Kozlowski asked for a show of hands from those who have failed, at one time or another in their adult life, to pay a bill on time.

Roughly 60 teachers raised their hands.

Then she asked who had used one credit card to pay the balance of another credit card. A smattering of hands went up.

And so it went at a one-day financial literacy training session, held earlier this month at Fidelity Investments’ RTP campus. The free session, conducted by the giant mutual fund company and the nonprofit N.C. Council on Economic Education, was designed to provide K-12 teachers from across the state with the basics of managing their personal finances so they can avoid these pitfalls. Even more importantly, it aimed to provide those teachers with effective ways to pass that financial savvy on to their students.

“It’s the idea that you can’t teach something until you feel confident that you have a mastery of the subject matter,” said Tom Ryan, senior vice president and one of three regional leaders of North Carolina operations for Fidelity, which employs about 4,000 workers in RTP. “So how can a teacher get in front of a classroom and explain these complex topics if they themselves aren’t feeling confident in their own personal lives about it?”

A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison found that just 37 percent of K-12 teachers nationwide had ever taken a college course with “financial-education related content.” Fewer than 20 percent of the teachers surveyed reported that they felt “very competent” to teach personal finance topics such as financial planning and money management.

“Teachers self-admit that they are ill-prepared to teach economics and personal finance,” said Sandy Wheat, executive director of the N.C. Council on Economic Education, a 46-year-old organization that provides financial literacy courses, workshops and programs to an average of about 1,500 teachers annually.

That lack of preparedness is a real concern because, in North Carolina, personal finance is required to be taught to students from kindergarten through eighth grade as part of their social studies courses. In addition, Wheat said, about 40 percent of a civics and economics course that high school students must pass before they graduate – American History: The Founding Principles, Civics and Economics – is devoted to personal finance and economics.

“It’s really tough to teach government and economics (and personal finance) in one semester,” said Jamie Phelps, a training session attendee who teaches civics and economics and AP psychology at Person High School in Person County.

Nationwide, educators and others are stressing the need for financial literacy in the face of excessive levels of consumer debt; predatory lending practices; an ever-expanding array of financial products that consumers must choose from; and the decline of traditional pension plans, which requires people to set aside more money for retirement – and invest it wisely.

Phelps said that he had a decent understanding of personal finance but was seeking – and received at the training session – help in breaking down complex financial terms in a way that would get through to his students.

Tomika Altman-Lewis, who teaches academically and intellectually gifted students at Fayetteville Street Elementary in Durham, attended theFidelity session because she wants to introduce her students to financial literacy concepts they may not otherwise be exposed to.

“If someone would have taught me about financial literacy at a younger age, I probably would have a lot more in savings,” she said.

Indeed, Altman-Lewis appreciated the session’s dual focus on boosting teachers’ understanding of key concepts and providing them with the tools, including lesson plans, to impart their newly acquired knowledge to their students.

“On a personal level, it’s excellent for myself,” she said. “I didn’t come expecting to learn something that was going to be applicable to my own life. So I’m excited about that. And I’m excited about the lesson they just went over (on) a professional level, for my students.”

Fidelity’s partnership with the N.C. Council on Economic Education is a way of giving back to the community that also aligns with Fidelity’s business.

“We try to help our customers make better-informed decisions with their finances,” Ryan said. “So there’s a vested interest for us in terms of having people more knowledgeable, more confident, more informed.”

At the same time, Fidelity has found that associates who are involved in their communities are happier.

“It’s a virtuous circle, if you will,” said J.J. Johnson, executive vice president for public affairs and policy.

That’s certainly the case with David Schneier, a principal technology risk analyst who volunteered his time to help out at the training session.

“I think a lot of the people who volunteered for this do it because they have teaching in their blood ... or because they see the value in it,” he said. “The fact that I work for a company that not only creates these opportunities but encourages us to do it, I see that as one of the key perks of working here.”

The partnership with the N.C. Council on Economic Education started about five years ago with Fidelity hosting, and providing additional support for, an annual financial literacy session for teachers that was taught entirely by the council’s instructors.

But the Fidelity volunteers who worked with the nonprofit wanted to do more and leverage their financial smarts. So, beginning last year, Fidelity volunteers began presenting the personal finance content developed by a national organization, the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. The Council on Economic Education, meanwhile, handles the pedagogy – instructing the teachers on the best way to pass on what they learn.

The team approach has proven its worth.

The 51 teachers who attended last year’s training session tested their students on their personal finance savvy beforehand, then tested the students again after teaching them what they learned in the session.

Just 5.88 percent of the high school students scored at least a 70 percent on the first test, but 25.49 percent did that well the second time around, said Wheat. The results for the middle school students were even more remarkable: 2.27 percent scored at least 70 percent on the first test, versus 61.36 percent on test No. 2.

Seems like a first-rate return on this investment.

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii