Teaching Financial Literacy

Teacher workshop participants take a pre-test on economic concepts.

Teacher workshop participants take a pre-test on economic concepts.

A basic understanding of the systems that drive our economy and competency in the life skill of financial literacy might be as critical to personal and professional success as the foundational skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, but that common-sense conclusion is not always translated into educational practice.

In fact, elementary school teachers are not required to have economics as part of their certification curriculum. And even though schools are supposed to be integrating economics into the social studies curriculum, there simply are not the resources to monitor how well they are doing. “The focus of most K-8 schools is strongly on reading and math, with social science sadly neglected,” said Joanne R. Dempsey, president and executive director of Econ Illinois, a 60-year-old statewide organization that works with educators to help ensure Illinois students’ economic and financial literacy. That leaves it up to the individual classroom teacher to pursue the content through continuing education course.

State Goal 15 of the Illinois Social Science Learning Standards prescribes curriculum outcomes through which K-12 students acquire an understanding of “economic systems, with an emphasis on the United States.” This goal, which outlines detailed objectives, was first implemented in the late 1990s. A social studies test that included economics used to be administered in grades 4, 7 and 10, but that test was dropped about five years ago. “Since then, many schools, especially K-8, have given much less attention to meeting those economic standards,” Dempsey explained. “Illinois school students are not required to take an economics course nor are high schools required to offer an economics course.”

Enter Helen Roberts and the UIC Center for Economic Education, one of eight university-based centers across the state that provide economic literacy and methodology for K-12 teachers. The UIC-CEE, based in the Department of Economics, is responsible for teacher continuing education in economics for the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Archdiocese Schools.

CEE Director Helen Roberts leads a workshop

CEE Director Helen Roberts leads a workshop

The CEE wants students to be responsible citizens, knowledgeable consumers, prudent savers and investors, effective participants in the global economy, and competent decision makers throughout their lives.

Roberts, a clinical associate professor in the economics department, has been director of the UIC-CEE since its founding in 2000. Before attending the University of Chicago and earning her PhD in economics, she was a music educator and kindergarten teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

Roberts is passionate about the work of providing classroom teachers with both the theoretical understanding of economic systems and the teaching tools to translate that theory into practical skills for their students. In addition to understanding the basic functioning of the economy, the CEE wants students to be responsible citizens, knowledgeable consumers, prudent savers and investors, effective participants in the global economy, and competent decision makers throughout their lives. This is a tall order, especially when classroom teachers often have no economics coursework.

“We’re the gateway drug to economics,” Roberts laughed. “This is economics access. We’re trying to be friendly economics and applied economics so that they can see not only how it is done in classes, but also how it is done in life. Some of it is making good decisions that they may already be making, but not understanding the context. Sometimes it’s vocabulary. Sometimes it is realizing that taking account of economic reasoning means you can make better decisions.

“We don’t require teachers to be financially literate before they take our programs,” she continued.  “Our offerings include Econ is for Life! which is a four-module summer program for people who have never had any economics and Economics is Elementary which provides basic microeconomic concepts.” 

Learning and teaching basic economics can be fun.

Learning and teaching basic economics can be fun.

Beyond the basics, teachers can continue with special topics courses including Economics and Entrepreneurship, Drawing the Big Picture: Macroeconomics and Economics for Development. Along with the theory, participants are provided with curriculum materials appropriate for a range of grade levels, from kindergarten through high school.

“Kindergarteners make choices all the time, things that people think of as advanced topics. Children are always borrowing and lending,” Roberts said. “Would you lend your pencil to somebody who broke it all the time? You need to be a responsible borrower if you’re going to borrow again. That’s a principal that adults need to know. Part of what we do is translate adult principals into language useful at the grade- school level.

“You really need to understand economics to explain it in a normal-person fashion. A demonstration can be very useful. Living it can be useful. Those are teaching techniques: simulations and active learning. Economics and financial literacy concepts are really important and money is a way to get people’s attention.”

Classroom teachers play the Stock Market Game

Classroom teachers play the Stock Market Game

One very popular teaching and learning tool is the Stock Market Game, an online educational game geared for student grades 4-12. Since its inception in 1988, more than a half-million students in Illinois have participated in this virtual learning environment, competing in regional competitions. Teacher training workshops on the game are offered by CEE four times each year.

On a Saturday in mid-September, about 20 teachers gathered in CEE’s training room in the basement of University Hall for a five-hour, hands-on session. They were enthusiastic about an interactive learning tool that promises to boost math scores, hone critical thinking skills, and improve interpersonal cooperation and communication.  

Thomas Kowalewski shares an idea with colleagues.

Thomas Kowalewski shares an idea with colleagues.

High school teacher Thomas Kowalewski came up from Virginia, Illinois for the SMG workshop. He is a veteran teacher and instructor of economics, marketing and computer skills to the students in his Cass County community of fewer than 2,000 citizens. He felt the need for a refresher course, because his class will compete for the first time in several years.

“My class started playing the day after Labor Day and slowly progressed from the bottom of the barrel. I now have one team that is second in our region and the whole school has gotten behind this thing,” said Kowalewski. “They’re recommending stocks to my students—who come in before school to say, ‘did you see what I did yesterday?’ They check their stocks at lunch before they come to class. It’s phenomenal! I think the game ends December 9—it’s a semester-long thing. There are something like 560 teams in the state and each region has a winner.”

As enthusiastic as he is about the mission of economic education, Kowalewski is quick to note an irony. “Nothing I teach is mandated. I’m not a core teacher. Business, marketing and computers are not core subjects,” he said. “These are basics that everybody needs for the rest of their lives. Understanding how these things work is an important thing for all the kids today.”

Janene Maclin of Spencer Academy

Janene Maclin of Spencer Academy

Janene Maclin has been teaching reading for five years at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy in the Austin-North Lawndale neighborhood. She is excited about academic improvements at the academy since she has been there and wants to bring the Stock Market Game to her students.

“Many of our students and their families have aspirations for them to be more. We want to expose the young people to things they don’t see everyday or have access to—the stock market, the economy, being involved in and aware of current events,” Maclin said. “The Stock Market Game is an exciting way to learn about finances and being financially literate and hopefully they’ll take ownership of it. We are trying to prepare them to be college—and career—ready when they graduate from CPS.

“Our students are competing with children around the world for college entrance and they need to learn how to be creative and innovative dealing with science and technology. This is a program that will hopefully give them the opportunity to own those twenty-first-century skills that we talk about—collaboration, decision-making, critical-thinking, and analytical and research skills. This is going to be a great tool that will allow them to grow as people.”

Watch a video about the Pritzker Elementary School 2008 SMG winning team.

grade school student drawing of goods and services

A grade-school student’s artistic depiction of the difference between goods and services.

Each year, CEE also sponsors the Economics Poster Contest for children in grades 1-8. Through their drawings, students demonstrate their understanding of economic concepts such as “goods and services,” “opportunity cost,” and “specialization.” Enjoy the entries from the 2010 contest.

“Never has the need for teaching young people critical decision-making skills and economic reasoning been so evident,” said Econ Illinois President Dempsey. “The UIC Center for Economic Education provides outstanding in-service programs for K-12 teachers in Chicago, helping those teachers integrate economics instruction across the curriculum.”

Workshop photos by Joshua Clark