Finance 101: More Maine High Schools See Value In Teaching Students About Money

Aug 30, 2017

This week, students across the state will be hopping on buses and heading back to school. Over the past few years, some districts have made a big push to teach students about financial literacy. In the wake of the Great Recession, many teachers are adding credit cards and student loans to their curriculum.

Math teacher Brett Shifrin remembers one specific day in 2008 when it became clear to him just how little his students understood about banking. The financial crisis was just beginning. And Shifrin’s school, Gould Academy in Bethel, had invited two experts to campus to talk about its causes: risky mortgages and loans that people couldn’t pay back.

“And the next day, I just opened up my class to what questions they had on this,” he says. “And across the board, in my courses, kids were asking me questions for more than an hour. What’s going on? What does a loan mean? What does it mean to invest? All sorts of questions. They were hearing about money. And money became part of the conversation. I don’t think that was ever front and center before.”

That stream of questions made Shifrin rethink how he should teach math. He created a new course at Gould, specifically designed around financial literacy. Instead of teaching statistics or calculus, Shifrin designed a class to explain math concepts by talking about credit cards, mortgages and student loans.

A worksheet from a budget-making exercise as part of a "financial algebra" class at Massabesic High School in Waterboro.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

“I want a kid to be in any financial situation and slow it down to your comfort level,” he says.

“We continue to see more and more schools adding a course,” says Mary Dyer, president of Maine’s Jumpstart Coalition, which provides financial literacy training for teachers.

Dyer says she has seen a big jump in the inclusion of financial literacy classes like the one at Gould. Research suggests they’re badly needed. One recent study found that less than a third of students understand concepts like interest rates and inflation.

“There’s just such a gap in knowledge and awareness that has such a huge impact in so many areas,” she says. “So the more we can expose students, and as they’re older, give them that experiential opportunity, that’s a huge benefit, as well.”

Here at Massabesic High School in Waterboro, that comes in the form of a class called financial algebra. The teacher, Hattie Pellegrino, is a former banker. She says it emphasizes practical lessons.

For example, in one activity students plan out a monthly budget with their classmates as roommates.

“So I try to relate it to their world,” she says. “We talk about who has a job, who doesn’t have a job. Who has a car.”

Seniors Nathaniel Henry, April Allen and Aaron Trost initially struggle with the lesson. They’re unsure how much groceries cost and how to split up the budget. But Trost says he appreciates the challenge, because he doesn’t know how he’d learn the skills otherwise.

“The internet, maybe that’s the place I would look,” he says. “But even then, I don’t think I’d be able to learn it.”

“If you wanted to learn about it, this would be the class to go to,” Henry says. “No other class offers what this class does.”

“And in my opinion, this is the class where this teaches you for the real world,” Trost says.

Principal Jim Hand says the class is part of the school’s emphasis on teaching what he calls 21st century skills, like how to interview for a job or apply for a student loan.

Hand says he still sees many students taking unnecessary financial risks.

“They’ll take out a credit card because they’re offered a flashy new hat,” he says.

But Hand thinks the classes have made a difference, and the school is considering making financial literacy mandatory.

“We said this is something we want all kids to have,” he says. “It just seemed like the right next step.”

Across the state, there’s still plenty of room for growth. Schools are required to teach financial literacy under the state’s social studies standards. But, a 2009 survey from the Maine Jumpstart Coalition found that less than half of them are teaching the subject.

Kristie Littlefield, a Jumpstart board member and a former state social studies specialist, says resources have declined for social studies nationally because the subject is no longer assessed on standardized tests.

“It’s just an unfortunate consequence, if you will, over many years, of the erosion of social studies education,” she says. “Not just in Maine but across the country.”

But Littlefield is encouraged by these new efforts to specifically train teachers around financial literacy. And she hopes that schools see the value in teaching kids about not only history and algebra, but credit cards and loans, too.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

This story was originally published Aug. 29, 2017 at 4:17 p.m. ET.