Academic Discipline and Personal Finance Instruction in High School

Article excerpt

Despite public support for personal finance instruction in high school, its effectiveness has not been firmly established. The current study investigates instructional approaches as a reason for these inconsistent outcomes by comparing survey responses of business education, family and consumer sciences, and social studies/ economics teachers. The study framework suggests differences in the three disciplines' identities and individual teacher preferences. Findings confirm discipline-specific approaches to personal finance instruction with regard to content, information sources, time investment, and teacher and student characteristics. In addition, a link emerged between college-based teacher preparation and teachers' ability to respond to the challenges of personal finance instruction.

Key Words: academic disciplines, high school, personal finance instruction, teacher perceptions


Public opinion has embraced the idea that personal finance instruction in high school is key to alleviating consumer indebtedness, financial delinquency, and bankruptcy (Bernanke, 2011; Bernard, 2010). Surveys and knowledge tests of high school students have found that financial knowledge is lacking, identified how this lack of knowledge may interfere with financial decision making, and offered suggestions about how policymakers may implement high school financial education to overcome this lack of knowledge through personal finance instruction (Mandell, 2008b; National Endowment for Financial Education, 2005). As a result, 36 states have mandated financial literacy education in secondary schools (Council for Economic Education, 2012).

The academic literature, however, is inconclusive regarding the effects of high school financial education on financial decisions and behaviors. A groundbreaking study by Bernheim, Garrett, and Maki (2001) reported positive effects on savings behavior and asset building among young adults receiving financial literacy education in high school. Other studies found no (Cole & Shastry, 2010; Mandell, 2005; Tennyson & Nguyen, 2001) or negative relationships between high school financial education and financial behaviors (Peng, 2008; Peng, Bartholomae, Fox, & Cravener, 2007).

A reason for these diverging findings may be found in the tension between the goal of the public mandate and its actual implementation in secondary school teaching. In many cases, the mandate to teach personal finance in high school is unfunded, vague with respect to academic department, classroom time, and materials, and not part of the core curriculum. The gap between the goal of the mandate and its implementation may undermine the anticipated outcome. In the current research, we respond to this concern with a survey of high school teachers and their perceptions of personal finance instruction. Analyzing teachers' decisions adds the high school perspective to the current discussion about best practices in financial education (Lyons & Neelakantan, 2008; McCormick, 2009; Servon & Kaestner, 2008), service providers' background (Bone, 2008; Grinstead, Mauldin, Sabia, Koonce, & Palmer, 2011), and content selection (Beutler, Beutler, & McCoy, 2008; Spader, Ratcliffe, Montoya, & Skillern, 2009).

The current study investigated high school teachers in Ohio from the three academic areas most likely to offer personal finance education. The discussions surrounding the imminent implementation of a statewide personal finance education mandate in 2010 provided for good timing to address three research questions:

(1) Which teaching preferences define personal finance instruction in the three academic disciplines? By identifying preferences for personal finance instruction for the academic disciplines, we documented the unique approaches of teaching this topic across different disciplines.

(2) How does mandatory personal finance instruction compare to elective personal finance instruction? …