Friday, March 26, 2010

Regional Feds and Financial Literacy

I recently visited the Federal Bank of Richmond to give a presentation at their Community Development Advisory Council’s spring meeting. Under the leadership of President Jeffrey Lacker, the Community Affairs Office of the Bank is making the promotion of financial literacy one of their strategic goals.

Regional Feds are ideal vehicles for the promotion of financial literacy. They have an intimate knowledge of the local economy and of the problems and most pressing needs in the community. They are in contact not only with local banks but with business owners and employers, community development agencies and not-for-profits. Much of the conversation that took place during my short visit to Richmond—including during coffee breaks and on a shared cab ride to the airport—was about using business principles to help development in the local community. This is ideal grounding for financial literacy; we need to develop and implement effective programs and avoid feel-good initiatives that may go nowhere.

So, I welcomed the hard questions that I was asked during the presentation, the insistent focus on what works and what the evidence shows about the effects of financial literacy. I prepared a lot for this audience because I knew I would be facing researchers who understand the nuances of research work and also economists and businesspeople who are interested in the relevance of the subject to their work.

Regional Feds have active research departments and some of the best research originates from these banks. Not only do these researchers not have teaching commitments (which—believe it or not—take a lot of time!) but they often have access to great data. They are confronted all the time by tough and important questions and this directs them toward research that is of economic and policy relevance. Economists from the Richmond Fed’s research department have written about entrepreneurship and financial education, among other topics. They had produced a review of the effectiveness of financial education that I have used in my research and that I discussed with them at the meeting.

During the lunch discussion in an elegant room in the high floor of the building, we talked about financial literacy in schools. Two main ideas emerged that I want to credit to the economists from the research department.

First, the advancement of learning normally builds over the years: one first learns beginning Spanish, then masters intermediate Spanish, and then can take advanced Spanish courses in the later years of high school. Similarly, one starts by reading short chapter books, then simple essays, short stories, then novels . . . it takes a while to build up to War and Peace. But financial education is often a stand-alone course offered in the final year of high school without much, if any, preparation in previous years. It is hard to imagine, even from a simple pedagogical perspective, that this method could be effective either in teaching financial literacy or in making financial knowledge stick. (In my case, I remember little from my one Spanish course but I could challenge Schwarzenegger to a Hasta la vista, baby! contest.)

The second idea is that one of the objectives of financial literacy education should simply be to make people interested in learning more; laying the groundwork so that people will seek out information and education over the course of their life. In the same way that good English literature instruction makes us appreciate a good book and fosters a taste for reading, so good financial literacy instruction may give people a taste, early in life, for future learning: reading the business section of the newspaper and making an effort to incorporate good financial practices into everyday life.

President Lacker took me around the building that houses the Richmond Fed, with its stunning views of the James River. He pointed out the bridges from the Civil War era that are still standing across the river. He spoke of the history of Richmond, and how much he enjoys living there. And he spoke with pride about the work that the Bank is doing. I returned home content and very much convinced that, in the Richmond district, financial literacy is in good hands.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Take the National Financial Capability Challenge

In previous posts, I have described the importance of teaching financial literacy in school, the difficulties in teaching financial literacy, and the need for teachers’ training. In this post I would like to inform readers about the National Financial Capability Challenge and encourage students and teachers to participate in the challenge.

The National Financial Capability Challenge is an awards program designed to increase the financial knowledge and capability of high school students across the United States. It challenges high school teachers and other educators to teach the basics of personal finance to their students, and rewards students, educators, schools, and states for their participation and their success.

All high school teachers and other educators working with U.S. high-school aged students (ages 13-19) are encouraged to register for the Challenge, download the Educator Toolkit, prepare their students, and administer the online exam. Educators who have been teaching students about personal finance for years as well as those who never have before are urged to join this national initiative.

Please note that this is a free program and it works as follows:

Registration: Educators are encouraged to go to, view the video message from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and sign up as soon as possible. Registration is open through March 14, 2010.

Educator Toolkit: Once registered, educators will have access to a free Educator Toolkit that includes ready-to-use lesson plans that cover all the core concepts students need to learn to take the Challenge. Educators are encouraged to use whichever modules they like, use other existing resources, or create their own innovative approaches to teaching these concepts in an effort to help students increase their financial capability.

Challenge Exam: The Challenge online exam, which is designed to illustrate the relevance of financial topics to students, as well as to assess their learning, will be offered from March 15 - April 9, 2010. It will take the average student less than 40 minutes to complete, and each student should take the exam only once. Educators can decide which day to administer the exam and are expected to treat it just like an official exam.

Awards Program: The top two scorers at each school, plus all students scoring in the top 20%, will receive National Financial Capability Challenge Award Certificates. All participating educators will receive an official certificate, and educators from schools and states with the highest proportion of participating students will be recognized as well.

Please spread the word about this important program.