Oct 22, 2018

What I Learned Reading the State Auditor's Report About Financial Education in Utah

As most folks interested in financial education are aware, Utah generally scores high in any state-by-state comparisons of the commitment to financial education earning an A+ from Champlain College and identified as one of only five states with a standalone personal finance course requirement in the NGPF Access To Financial Education study. So, I was excited when the publicly available Utah State Auditor's report crossed my desk (or more accurately appeared in my inbox). I immediately wondered what I would glean from an independent report written to mark the 10 year anniversary of the Utah personal finance mandate. As I skimmed the report it quickly became apparent that the issues identified in Utah are common across the country. The good news is that they are solvable. 

Here were my five major takeaways:

Let's start with the good news:

  • Students who took the personal finance course were both more knowledgeable and exhibited positive financial behaviors: "The survey results indicate that Utah public high school graduates who took one of the GFL  courses for graduation exhibited higher average scores on both the knowledge and behavior questions. There is a correlation between Utah’s GFL [General Financial Literacy] course participation and improved personal financial knowledge and behavior for the past decade of graduates."
  • Educators believe that personal finance is a critical course for their students: "Administrators and instructors appear to generally believe that the GFL Standards provide vital life skills that apply to all students regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Two  instructors from different schools with drastically different socioeconomics indicated that the GFL Standards allow them the latitude to address the needs of students from significantly different backgrounds.


Now let's look at institutional hurdles and opportunities for improvement that exist not only in Utah but we have heard/seen in in multiple states:

  • In many schools, personal finance does not have a natural home and therefore there may not be the same level of ownership (or budget) and oversight as many traditional subject areas: "Within a traditional public high school, subjects are typically divided into departments which  teach courses common to those subjects. For example, geometry, algebra, calculus and other math classes are typically taught by the math department with the math department  overseeing the instructors of those courses. Each department generally has a department head who meets with school administrators in both a collective group and individually to discuss how  best to meet the instructional needs of the instructors in that subject. The department heads may be given a budget that can be used to provide instructional materials and basic instruction tools. However, since its inception, GFL has not fit neatly within this traditional structure.
  • Go to any teacher PD session and a constant lament among new teachers is "too many resources" and not enough curated lesson plans [Editor's Note: NGPF has 90 curated lesson plans in their Semester Course available at no cost:) "Many new GFL instructors mentioned the wealth of GFL content but were overwhelmed with  trying to distill that content into effective lesson plans. Instructors indicated that sifting through  content to find what is most relevant to developing lesson plans is an arduous task. There are several websites instructors cited as being a help as they develop curriculum. We identified 12 unique sources dedicated to providing financial literacy resources [Editor's Note: It was great to see NGPF listed in the top 4]."
  • Staffing challenges have become a thorn in the side of principals: "Principals expressed several concerns they encounter when attempting to staff GFL classes with  existing faculty, including:
    • Resistance to change
    • Instructor lack of content knowledge
    • Instructor lack of passion for the subject
    • Instructor preference for teaching subjects more in alignment with their expertise
    • Assumption that legislature would repeal mandate and class would go away

In some cases, principals use the class to fill an instructor’s schedule rather than finding a  knowledgeable or passionate GFL instructor. Our review of the GFL Assessment results would indicate that the practice of assigning only one or two courses to an instructor resulted in lower  student outcomes.

What I found so refreshing about this report is Utah's focus on continuous improvement by taking an objective look at their current program and asking the difficult questions that will lead them to maintain their top rating. I also think this report is a must-read for policy analysts and other stakeholders interested in scaling their personal finance initiative on a state-wide basis. Utah has a ten year lead on you and has helped the movement immensely by sharing both their glows and grows. By doing so, they have shown their commitment to retain their A+ rating which will lead to better outcomes for students, educators, communities and their state. 





About the Author

Tim Ranzetta

Tim's saving habits started at seven when a neighbor with a broken hip gave him a dog walking job. Her recovery, which took almost a year, resulted in Tim getting to know the bank tellers quite well (and accumulating a savings account balance of over $300!). His recent entrepreneurial adventures have included driving a shredding truck, analyzing executive compensation packages for Fortune 500 companies and helping families make better college financing decisions. After volunteering in 2010 to create and teach a personal finance program at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Tim saw firsthand the impact of an engaging and activity-based curriculum, which inspired him to start a new non-profit, Next Gen Personal Finance.

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