Last month in Chicago, the Council for Economic Education held the third of our Spring series of policy luncheons on “Building the Financial Literacy of Illinois Students.” Two panel discussions addressed two topics: first, the role of public-private partnerships in advancing financial literacy education; second, financial literacy success stories from Chicago Public Schools.
Moderator Gail MarksJarvis of the Chicago Tribune opened by addressing the importance of teaching the grammar of financial literacy through an early education: “The financial industry knows financial information inside and out, but because of this, they have a hard time speaking English. People think these financial experts know some secret. There is no secret.” State Senator Tom Cullerton concurred, noting that “The earlier we can teach people financial literacy, the better off they can be,” and pointing out the critical role of our educators: “You have to have the teachers educated to this and passionate about sharing this with our kids.” In the first panel, Lori Berkes-Nelson, Executive Director, Econ Illinois (a CEE affiliate) remarked that the real-world applications of financial literacy education were the “best thing” about it: “When you use financial literacy it brings to light a reality of what it means to be responsible with money.” And partnerships with the private sector are a great way to “put people on the right path,” according to Kant Desai, Chief of Policy, Office of the City Treasurer Chicago. PWC’s Sheryl Eighner agreed, affirming that the company “really wants to be an organization that helps the community build their future leaders.”
In the second panel of the day, the focus turned toward Chicago Public Schools. Speaking as their representative on the panel, Martin Moe said that “teaching financial literacy is something that starts in kindergarten and needs to be taught through high school.” Which doesn’t necessarily mean a stand-alone class, according to Helen Roberts, Director, University of Illinois, Chicago Center for Economic Education (a CEE affiliate): “Financial literacy is part of life everywhere. If you infuse it through all courses, it’s amazingly effective.”
For Dr. Lennette Coleman, the Principal of Ariel Community School, financial literacy is already ”part of our brand, our mission . . . we have teachers that teach the 4 strands of financial literacy. Our students will know what money is, what money does and what it can do for them.” But “unless it’s a mission [for all schools and school districts] then it’s an elective.
“The panel agreed that teacher training is key: According to Cindy Ivanac-Lillig, an Education Manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, they need to raise teachers’ confidence: “If you don’t have a lot of confidence in what you’re doing at home, it’s not going to be top of your list when you get in front of a room full of 10 year olds. And the best teachers teach from their own experience.
“Promoting the mission of financial literacy is an ongoing challenge; as Dr. Coleman points out, ”students are real world, real time, right now. Those children have to balance that in their life daily.” But, Coleman continues, she is confident that public school educators are up for the challenge: “We don’t give teachers enough credit. In 30 years of running schools, I’ve never met a teacher who was afraid to teach.
“Lori Berkes-Nelson acknowledged the great programs in place and the work that needs to be done to move the needle in Illinois stating: “We have great financial literacy programs for teachers, students, even families; we do not need to reinvent the wheel. What we do need is to establish a formal approach to financial literacy at the state level – and the first step is to adopt statewide standards so teachers, schools and districts have a framework from which to build.” Berkes-Nelson called on all present to join with Econ Illinois and CEE as we work with educators, state officials, non-profits and corporations in Illinois to promote the adoption of strong, assessable standards for financial literacy in grades K-12 to build financial literacy for ALL students in the state.