The percentage of U.S. students falling short of the OECD baseline score for financial proficiency was 17.8 per cent, slightly higher than the average. Only about one in 10 U.S. students was considered a “top performer,” defined by the OECD as being able to “look ahead to solve financial problems or make the kinds of financial decisions that will be only relevant to them in the future.”
The ranking of U.S. students in the new assessment is consistent with the nation’s stagnant performance on the most recent PISA for math and reading—two skills that track closely with financial literacy. And it’s in keeping with prior findings. In a 2008 national survey by the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, high school seniors gave correct responses to less than half—48.3 per cent—of the questions on the basics of finance.
“We need to improve financial literacy of all young people, and the best approach is going to be a combination of in-school, after-school and at-home learning,” Laura Levine, JumpStart Coalition’s president and CEO told me. “It’s important that we don’t pit these against each other or say it should be one or the other. It’s really about all of the above.”
To be sure, the breadth and depth of financial literacy instruction in the U.S. varies widely among states, districts and schools. And while some states have begun making it a priority, we’re a long way from a common set of comprehensive expectations for what kids should know and how that information should be taught. Twenty-seven states have legislation pending related to financial literacy education. Some states—including Florida, Georgia, and Iowa—are considering making financial literacy classes a requirement for high school graduation, while others have already done so. In Kansas, a proposed bill would offer cash bonuses to teachers who incorporate financial literacy into existing curriculum.
And how effective are such strategies in the long run? In a 2010 literature review for the RAND Corporation, researchers found that efforts to promote financial literacy–by schools, employers, credit counseling agencies or community groups—didn’t typically produce enduring positive effects. But at the same time, there is a case to be made that high-quality initiatives are a worthwhile endeavor, the researchers concluded.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about what works in financial education,” said Reid Cramer, director of the Assets Building Program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. “We don’t know how information translates to knowledge, and there’s real challenge to teaching people who aren’t connected to financial systems in a basic way.”
In an EWA-hosted call with education reporters on Tuesday, Michael Davidson, head of the OECD division that oversees PISA, said mandating financial literacy instruction might not even be the best answer. It’s possible that focusing on more intensive math instruction could be even more effective—a question that deserves further investigation, Davidson said.