3 cool organizations teaching kids about money
As I traveled across the country last year to talk about my book Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not), I was blown away by all the innovative ways people have created to teach kids about money. Here are three organizations that are taking financial literacy education to new heights.
Brain Arts Productions. Ten years ago, Gwen Tulin, a performing-arts Renaissance woman, founded this Chicago-based company as Brain Surgeon Theater, a way for kids and adults to collaborate in theater productions. Over the years, the organization and its mission have morphed. Today, Brain Arts Productions focuses on teaching financial literacy and entrepreneurship through the creative arts to toddlers right up through high school seniors.
“Some people think we make plays about money, which isn’t what we do at all,” said Victoria Golden, Brain Arts’ program director. Instead, Brain Arts designs programs that incorporate financial lessons and skills into hands-on activities for clients including banks, museums, and schools. Programs include a Shark Tank–like scenario in which kids develop an idea, create marketing materials, and ultimately pitch it to real-life entrepreneurs, as well as a program in which students must solve a mystery as an employee of a secret organization, all the while learning skills like budgeting and bill paying.
As the Brain Arts team honed its financial literacy focus over the last couple of years, they got a little nervous about the reaction of parents. After all, money is a very personal subject. “This is a values-based system at the end of the day,” Golden said. “What kind of values are we passing on to these children, whether we are aware of them or not?” But the response, she says, has been overwhelmingly positive: Anecdotally, at least, parents of kids in Brain Arts’ programs are themselves becoming more confident about money.
My Classroom Economy. Lots of financial institutions boast that they’re helping to educate their present and (they hope) future customers, and not just taking their money. It’s rare, though, that such an industry-sponsored financial literacy program gets props from academic researchers. But Vanguard, the behemoth financial services company known for selling low-cost mutual funds, is the exception. My Classroom Economy, an immersive financial education program designed by Vanguard employees, is free for any K–12 teacher who wants to download it. The basic premise is that students work to earn “school dollars” so that they can rent their desks, pay fines or earn bonuses, make purchases at a classroom store or auction, and so on—like a microcosm of the real economy.
Last September, a group of University of Wisconsin scholars and a Federal Reserve economist published a report concluding that elementary students who participated in a My Classroom Economy program for 10 weeks showed statistically significant gains in financial knowledge and budgeting, and were more likely to talk about money with their parents and to engage in money management behaviors like working for money or owning a bank account. It’s no secret that financial education is still short on metrics that actually demonstrate what works, so this study should make everyone in my field perk up. Plus, teachers love the program!
EverFi. This Washington, D.C.–based startup, founded a decade ago, is helping to fulfill the promise that technology can extend the reach of education to the remotest corners of the country. EverFi’s digital content—developed for K–12 students as well as adult learners—tackles tough social issues including alcohol use, character development, sexual violence prevention, workplace conduct, and, you guessed it, financial literacy.
EverFi makes its money from colleges, universities, and corporations that pay to license its content. It has raised more than $250 million from investors, too. But, with the help of big sponsors—Bank of America, for instance, is a major supporter of its financial literacy program—the company gives away content for free to more than 20,000 K–12 schools across the country. The financial literacy curriculum includes lessons on topics like wants vs. needs (grades 4–6); investing and saving (grades 6–8); and credit scores and student loans (grades 9–12).
EverFi is doing big-scale things, but it’s the effect on individual students that impresses me. Take this short essay that a high school participant in the EverFi financial literacy curriculum wrote about getting hit with bank overdraft fees. Her teacher explained the importance of a buffer for those expenses that may slip our minds—a lesson she won’t soon forget.
(Full disclosure: Last year I participated in a panel discussion for middle school students who had completed FutureSmart, a digital financial literacy curriculum co-created by EverFi and MassMutual.)
With big and small organizations tackling financial education using new and exciting tools, it’s hard not to feel that—at least in some ways—our country is moving in the right direction. It makes me feel optimistic about what 2018 will bring.