New tools, curriculum build students' financial literacy early

UC Economics Center behind $martPath software
Posted at 6:01 AM, Aug 27, 2016

CINCINNATI – From first grade onward, students in Ohio public schools learn about math, science, language arts and history. Education works this way for a reason: to provide students a foundation upon which to build future lessons.

That’s why waiting until high school to teach students about personal finance and economics rarely works, said Julie Heath. Heath, executive director of the University of Cincinnati Economics Center, called such attempts “a case of too little, too late.”

“When concepts aren’t grounded in some sort of foundational knowledge, then they’re just kind of free-floating and don’t offer much in the way of practical value,” she said.

Starting this year, Ohio students will no longer have to wait to receive financial and economic education. The Smart Ohio Financial Literacy pilot program, developed by the UC Economics Center, will be rolled out to 500 first- through sixth-grade classrooms across the state this academic year.

At first glance, it may not seem to make sense to try to teach a 9-year-old about personal finance; after all, most kids don’t have any money to think about, much less jobs. There’s more to financial literacy than dollars and cents, though, Heath said.

“If we think about economic and financial education more broadly and define it as the ability to make good choices, the ability to weigh options as they are presented to us, as critical thinking, then it becomes more obvious that the earlier we start this, the better,” Heath said.

Heath has already seen the value of bringing that message to young students. While teaching at the University of Memphis, Heath was behind the rollout of a similar program, called Smart Tennessee, in 2006.

At the end of Smart Tennessee’s first year, an encounter with a little boy at an inner-city Memphis school convinced Heath that her program was a success. She recalls asking the boy, Kobe, what he’d learned from the program. “I learned how to make good choices,” Heath remembers Kobe responding.

She followed up by asking if what he’d learned would help him as a grown-up. “He said, ‘Oh, yes ma’am,' " Heath recalled. “‘Now I know I shouldn’t join a gang.' 

“I cried. I teared up.”

It wasn’t long after Smart Tennessee was implemented that other states, including Texas and Indiana, followed suit. Though Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed the bill authorizing the roll-out of Smart Ohio throughout the state on June 28 – the culmination of two years of lobbying efforts by Heath – about 100 teachers in southwest Ohio have already piloted the program.

What gives Ohio’s program a leg up on other states is the technology. The Smart Ohio program is delivered via a free, online curriculum called $martPath, the development of which was funded by a $1 million gift from a UC Economics Center board member. $martPath presents concepts like goods, services, markets and consumers through interactive stories with cartoon characters faced with decisions.

The $martPath digital platform has been well-received by educators and academics alike. $martPath was the recipient of the Excellence In Financial Literacy Education Awards’ 2016 Children’s Education Program of the Year award. Heath has already asked for the $martPath developers to provide a quote for building out curricula for seventh- and eighth-grade students.

An image from the $martPath online learning tool for financial literacy in Ohio. It was developed through a $1 million gift from a UC Economics Center board member.

Part of the program’s success is owed to the ease with which teachers can integrate it into their course plans. Marsha Piphus, a speech language pathologist at North Avondale Montessori, said she thinks other teachers will find $martPath to be easy to use and engaging for their students.

“I felt that the implementation was very easy, and it fit right in to the goals and objectives of the curriculum I was doing,” Piphus said. “A lot of my students work on reading-comprehension skills, so it was very easy to address those goals within the context of financial literacy.”

More importantly, $martPath encouraged Piphus’ students to discuss the lessons among themselves, and they were more than happy to oblige.

“The students were excited because it was interactive,” Piphus said. “They related to the storylines within the curriculum.”

Financial literacy primer

Learn more about financial literacy and what Ohio is doing to improve financial literacy for both children and adults.

  • A page on Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel’s website includes links to financial literacy tools, a glossary of terms and other resources.
  • The Ohio Department of Education’s website offers a guide to the state’s new financial literacy standards, which were adopted last spring, and links to several outside resources. There’s also a list of frequently asked questions about the requirements.