Personal-finance classwork should be engaging - and free from bias

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SHUTTERSTOCK Many believe personal finance should be part of Core curriculums.

FOR MANY PEOPLE, personal finance can be pretty boring. I've even had folks planning to attend a financial class tell me they anticipated taking a nap.

Folks like having money. They just don't like the chore of learning the concepts it takes to manage it well. And if they aren't learning what they need to know, they likely aren't able to teach their children.

Many advocates believe teaching students about personal finance should be integral to the Common Core curriculums being implemented nationwide. According to the Council for Economic Education, 17 states now require high schools to provide at least some instruction in personal finance.

But how can teachers make the lesson plans engaging enough so that they are not lost on the students? And how can educators be assured that the teaching materials they use are free from bias and subtle sales pitches?

Last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a new guide to help educators scrutinize financial literacy courses.

"Despite the growing number of states encouraging financial education instruction, most educators do not feel well-equipped to meet this need," the CFPB said.

Champlain College's Center for Financial Literacy has graded all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their level of personal-finance instruction. Only five states - Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia - got an A.

Twenty-six states received a C, D or F. "Less than half were given grades that you would want your children to bring home from school," the center said.

The dilemma for many schools has been that, with limited public funds to create or buy financial education courses and hire teachers with the proper training, they often have to rely on free material either funded or produced by financial service companies. They also have to find space in their schedule to teach the information.

That's where the CFPB's new review tool comes in. It's meant to give financial education course developers and educators a framework, said Janneke Ratcliffe, the CFPB's assistant director in the Office of Financial Education. It can be found at consumerfinance.gov. Search for "Youth financial education curriculum review tool."

One key component aims to assess whether courses are unbiased. And while the tool cautions schools to be on the lookout for lessons that include branded products or promote specific financial-service providers, I would love for it to search for even more potential conflicts of interest.

I go nuts when I see lesson plans that say getting a credit card can help students manage their money. No, it doesn't. It teaches them the ways of a debtor - even a good one - too early in life.

I've been looking for a strongly worded financial-literacy course that aims to make skeptics out of students. Earlier this year, I wrote about a curriculum developed by the FoolProof Foundation. If you're an educator looking to vet a program using the CFPB's tool, I recommend going to foolproofteacher.com. It's such a complete turnkey program for teachers (even the grading is done for them), and it clearly favors the consumer protection of students. Too many of the materials I see don't red-flag enough the dangers of debt.

John Chargois, the junior-class principal at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., is also a fan of FoolProof. In order to graduate from a public high school in Oklahoma, students must show competency in 14 areas related to financial literacy. Chargois' school requires all 3,200 of its students to go through FoolProof's online curriculum.

"The program is very user-friendly, and one of the benefits we saw was that the material is presented by students," he told me. "We felt our kids could relate to the message. And throughout the entire program, one of the recurring themes is 'beware.' This is one of the most relevant courses we teach."

Sandra Deiseroth, a business and marketing teacher at Horseheads High School in Horseheads, N.Y., said FoolProof works hard to make sure its curriculum meets every state's standards and Common Core initiatives. "Though I continually review financial literacy programs each year, it's been a conscious choice to use FoolProof for the past 10 years," she said.

I volunteer as a personal-finance teacher at prisons and at my church. After testing out FoolProof myself, I'm planning to adopt its curriculum in my classes.

As schools evaluate financial-literacy programs, they need to be keenly aware that it's not enough to explain the mechanics of how interest rates, investing, checkbooks, student loans and credit cards work. We need to be sending our children through courses that are free of any conflicts of interest.