Here we go again. U.S. reformers anxious about how little children and youth know about opening up checking accounts, doing taxes, and figuring out mortgages—especially after the debacle of 2008—now want every student to receive instruction in sound ways to conduct one’s financial affairs as adults. But media hype and state mandates about financial literacy cannot change the fact that the ferocious battles between Progressives and Traditionalists have gone the way of Neanderthals.
First, the hype. Missouri, Utah, and Tennessee have mandated financial literacy courses as a requirement for graduation. Chicago schools’ CEO Ron Huberman praised a pilot program in the district teaching “personal finance” saying: “We want to make sure our students (86 percent come from low-income families) are armed with the financial literacy to understand any economic transaction they get into.”
Anytime lack of knowledge in the younger generation has been defined as a problem, it gets a niche in the school curriculum. Too many kids smoke, use drugs, and drink alcohol—organize a course. Too many babies born to teenage moms—organize a course. Too many auto accidents—organize a course. Too many fat children—organize a course. So here we go again. This time it is lack of knowledge about taking out credit cards, buying a car, and saving money from weekly paychecks. One 17 year-old taking a required cash-management course put the knowledge deficit crisply: “Money is so hard to make but so easy to spend.” (NEWSWEEK)
Whoa, Larry, what’s wrong with having students become financially literate, save money rather than going into debt, and write checks that don’t bounce? Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting children and youth to be financially literate. Just as there is nothing inherently wrong with policymakers, voters, and parents wanting the next generation to be math literate, science literate, civic literate, technologically literate, or all the other literacies that the young need in the 21st century. The problem is that there is far too much that Americans want their public schools to do and too little time, expertise, and resources to do everything.
Just as habitual over-eating leads to obesity and ill health, habitually wanting schools to solve national social, political, and economic problems leads to bloated curricula and new structures. Over-stuffed curricula are clear symptoms of that frequent, enervating struggle Traditional and Progressive school reformers have engaged in concerning the role public schools should play in a democracy. Financial literacy, of course, is just another skirmish in that century-long cyclical struggle. New structures, less noticeable because they are less visible, however, have trumped curricular bloat.
Cyclical battles between Traditionalists and Progressives over the best ways to teach reading (phonics vs. whole language) and math (conceptual vs. rule-driven), over which subjects should be central to a core academic curriculum—are no longer central to what is occurring in public schools now and in the immediate future.
Since the late-1970s, the center of gravity in debating what are “good” schools has shifted slowly from Traditional vs. Progressive curricula and pedagogy to where U.S. students stand internationally on academic performance. The cold-water dousing of the U.S. falling short in global economic competition in the 1980s coincided with the “Reagan Revolution” in the U.S. and the emerging belief that a results-driven system of schooling was crucial to a growing economy. That shift toward political conservatism, containing an animus to government action and a love affair with free market principles has created new structures that make the cyclical battles between Traditionalists and Progressives as quaint as a rotary dial on a phone.
In the past quarter-century, a decided shift in the primary goal of U.S. schooling has occurred: From creating the best curriculum and pedagogy to increasing student achievement. Today, what largely defines a “good” school is the level of student performance on key tests, high school graduation rates, and college admissions.
Today, the structures of high-stakes testing, state curriculum standards aligned to those tests, and measurable and publicized accountability have become visible features of U.S. schooling. National, not state, standards and tests are just around the corner. Pay-for- performance of superintendents and principals are now well established; tying teacher evaluation and salaries to student performance are being negotiated now. Moreover, expanded parental choice has become structurally built into public schools with laws that enable the spread of home schooling, online cyber schools, and charters.
These emerging structures in U.S. schooling–expanded parental choice and standards-based testing–point to a future where Traditional vs. Progressive debates—while they will still occur–will have as much effect on the newer structures that a newly-designed saddle would have on the production of horseless carriages in 1910.
Thus, any media hullabaloo over financial literacy courses is pushed to the margins of current school reform, reforms now anchored in results-driven structures, not quaint debates over new courses and what students need to thrive in the 21st century.