Mediaplanet: At what age should financial literacy programs be brought into the classroom—and why?

Arne Duncan: Learning how to make sound financial decisions while they are in school will ultimately help students in all their endeavors, including securing good jobs, building successful businesses and strengthening their communities. It’s incredibly important to give students the know-how to make good decisions later in life. A strong financial education is a great tool to help all students—future lawyers, doctors, teachers—to think about and plan for successful careers and thriving lives. That’s why financial literacy should be integrated into student learning at all levels.

For example, at the Ariel Community Academy in Chicago, a public elementary school I helped start, financial education starts in kindergarten and runs throughout a student’s academic experience there. It starts by naming financial concepts with which students are already familiar and even gives classrooms money to invest and manage. We should encourage schools across the nation to start teaching financial capability as soon as possible and to build on a solid foundation across students’ educational careers.

MP: How has the changing economic climate encouraged society to become more financially literate?

AD: Financial education always has been important but it is perhaps more critical now, in the aftermath of our nation’s greatest economic recession. Americans have seen gains, but many–especially those in rural and manufacturing communities who have experienced generations of poverty–still seek stable financial footing. These Americans are willing to work hard, but–because of development patterns, a lack of infrastructure or other barriers–they feel like they can’t get ahead. That’s why our young people need not only a sound financial education, but also strong skills, dispositions and access to appropriate financial tools in a consumer-friendly environment.

"In low-income communities, a young person’s chance of graduating from high school and entering and completing college is just 9 percent. All students–regardless of where they’re from–face the challenge of rising tuition costs."

By equipping our students with these tools early, we’ll put them on a path to success later and life–especially if they are faced with financial hardships of their own. The good news is that districts, communities and states are stepping up. Today, 39 states have adopted personal finance standards as part of school curriculum requirements. Teachers continue to explore strategies that teach financial literacy. New online platforms promote independent learning for students while allowing teachers to assess student understanding and personalize instruction.

Communities also have come together around the importance of financial capability, with support from mayors, city treasurers, school district chiefs, parents and families and many others. Promoting financial capability is in the best interest of our children and our nation.

MP: What is the biggest obstacle to educating younger generations on financial literacy?

AD: The good news is that many children naturally gravitate toward this area, since they can see how learning about financial concepts is relevant and useful in their everyday lives. As a result, financial concepts are a great lens through which educators can teach other subjects like math and reading. We must think creatively about incorporating financial education into other content areas.

We’re already seeing some great work from innovative teachers across the country, already leading the way and using financial concepts to make math relevant to students’ lives. While this approach works in individual classrooms, success shouldn’t be in a vacuum. As an education community, we should share best practices and develop open educational resources and other sharable materials so that more teachers in more classrooms can benefit.

BOLD MOVES: The U.S. Department of Education is cracking down on school-bank partnerships that unfairly target college students receiving federal student aid.

MP: What issues could society face if students are not properly educated on finance?

AD: It always has been critical to give all students a fair shot and the opportunity to succeed. Today, more than ever, success in our knowledge-based, globally competitive economy requires some form of higher education or training. Unfortunately, college remains out of reach for far too many students. And in low-income communities, a young person’s chance of graduating from high school and entering and completing college is just 9 percent. What’s more, all students–regardless of where they’re from–face the challenge of rising tuition costs.

Without good, viable options for the future, we risk losing our young people to the streets. Financial education gives the power back to our young people, allowing them to plan for that future, whether it’s saving for college or paying rent for their first apartment. When students see that their financial decisions have repercussions–that is, “If I buy this, I won’t be able to afford that”–they start to recognize the action-consequence connection in other areas of their lives, too. Our young people are smart, talented, creative and entrepreneurial. Financial education allows them to build on those characteristics in a real and meaningful way. Providing our students with a complete and well-rounded education–including a solid financial education–creates the clearest path to the middle class for all young people.

MP: What can teachers do to help bring this topic to the forefront of the classroom?

AD: Across the nation, we’re seeing teachers develop engaging lessons that build financial capability in their students. While it’s great that teachers are having success on their own, we could help more teachers, more students and more classrooms if we share what’s working and scale successful practices. That could mean building teacher networks–online or in-person–or utilizing technology-enabled tools that help to facilitate financial education and interactive teaching modules. Teachers can also use games and simulations that bring financial concepts to life and encourage learning.

We all know teaching is hard work. If we can find ways to help teachers use their time and talents more effectively, we should absolutely do that. Scalable technology that provides high-quality, engaging content is a win-win for both teachers and students.

MP: What role can parents play in bridging the gap between financial education and the classroom?

AD: Parents will always be children’s’ first role models and their first teachers. Parents can play a critical role in reinforcing positive messages about learning. That’s why it’s critical for financial capability efforts to reach beyond a focus on students and extend to their families. This isn’t just an ideal, it’s happening in real communities.

Programs across the country already have seen success using a parent-student model in financial education. For example, the Kindergarten 2 College program in San Francisco is a youth savings program that starts when children are in kindergarten. Parents are key partners in the savings process, and many of the parents learn and practice positive savings behaviors along with their children. We must continue to promote effective programs that empower students as well as families.