Tag Archives: The Economist

You Are Failing Your Students

Stock Photo Much of the American educational system is about improving outcomes, often by focusing on results from some form of standardized test.  If students are found to be underperforming on some measure, school improvement plans, smaller class sizes, financial funding, and all manner of sundry interventions are thrown at the problem in order to correct it.  But what if you were told that there was a test that the average high school student was regularly failing?  What if this test was absolutely critical to a student’s future success?  What if I told you that the test they were failing was financial literacy?

According to a financial survey conducted by the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, one that was recently featured in a USA Today article, high school seniors scored an average of 52.4% questions correctly.  Is there a school in the entire country for which this is not a failing outcome?  This average would not be tolerated if it were in Algebra II, but we somehow tolerate it for financial literacy despite the fact that Jump$tart has repeatedly demonstrated the shortcoming.

Why is such a miserable outcome tolerated?  In short, it’s because us adults aren’t much better.  The FINRA Investor Education Foundation, an educational offshoot of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Inc., the leading non-governmental regulator for all securities firms doing business in the United States, conducted a National Financial Capability Study in 2009.  One of the most startling findings from the survey were that nearly half of the respondents expressed difficulties in making their monthly expenses or in paying their bills.  Perhaps even more disturbing is that many Americans “engaged in financial behaviors that generated expenses and fees and exhibited a marked inability to do basic interest calculations and other math-oriented tasks.”  It’s no wonder our students can’t make sound decisions if we can’t even do basic math.

Who is to help with such a dire situation?  You needn’t worry: the federal government is here to help.  A financial overhaul bill passed last year created a new Office of Financial Literacy in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  (You can listen to a discussion about this new office on Marketplace Money.)  The irony of a government helping with finances that is currently arguing about raising its own debt ceiling isn’t lost.  Moreover, as staff writer Karen Blumenthal has pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Is There a Cure for Financial Illiteracy?”, such government efforts tend to focus on providing more information, as though the simple act of providing it will cause people to make smarter financial decisions.

Some states have also stepped into the mix as well.  Massachusetts recently signed a bill into law that creates a new trust fund to promote financial literacy to students, schools, and community groups.  Tennessee is working on legislation that will connect certain financial literacy concepts to the standardized testing for social studies, which would obviously represent a significant step in establishing financial literacy as a desired outcome of a high school education.  Ohio has taken a different track by requiring schools to teach financial literacy as part of the Ohio Core, making it a graduation requirement, though the mandate has met with apathy on the part of many Ohio schools.

While such efforts will, no doubt, place increased emphasis on financial literacy, there are two important facts you should know to develop a smarter financial literacy program for your school, both of which are highlighted in an excellent article in The Economist titled “Getting it Right on the Money.”  First, the only demonstrably efficacious financial literacy programs at the high school level are those that leverage a stock market game.  If you read our blog posting earlier this year titled “Escape to . . . Reality?” – about the use of games in education – this should come as no surprise.  A stock market game has its own built-in rewards which “automatically” serve as reinforcement of the concepts being taught.  High schools would therefore be well-advised to develop literacy programs that work in such a way as link rewards with desired behaviors.  At earlier grades, creating the right habits early enough in life causes them to persist.  Jeroo Billimoria, creator of Aflatoun, a financial literacy course, has focused her efforts on six- to fourteen-year-olds, with surprising success.

Moving our students from failure to success won’t be easy, but to fail to equip them with at least a rudimentary level of financial literacy is doing them a huge disservice.  We need educators who are willing to move beyond their own discomfort with money; who will study to learn what they lack in their own financial literacy; and who will be unafraid to discuss this most taboo of topics – money – openly with their students.  The University of Minnesota Extension has put together some great free resources to get you started.  Are you going to make the commitment now to stop failing your students?

The Inerrant Word of . . . Wikipedia?

Library full of aged books and ladder An interesting blog post by Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University, compared the authorship of the Bible to Wikipedia, a collaboratively-authored encyclopedia.  Both works are the result of a myriad of authors, though, depending on your specific religious disposition, you might believe God to be the ultimate author of the former, and therefore inerrant.  The same regard is not held for Wikipedia: teachers often rant about its inaccuracies, and frequently forbid students from using it as a source for research.  But, is Wikipedia really inaccurate?  Is Wikipedia rotting the minds of our nation’s youth?

A number of studies have actually been undertaken on this topic, so much so that Wikipedia itself has an article dedicated to the topic.  One of the first to attempt to study this was The Guardian, a British daily.  In their study, experts were asked to review articles related to their fields, with most articles receiving favorable marks.  In a now famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) study on the topic, the British weekly journal Nature pitted Wikipedia against popular Encyclopedia Britannica.  Its findings (payment or subscription required) were that serious errors occurred about equally between the two encyclopedias, and that Wikipedia was only marginally less reliable with respect to minor errors.  (A free review of the research can be found in “Wikipedia survives research test” by BBC News.)  Other studies have found similar results, some with Wikipedia actually slightly outpacing its commercial competitors.  Wikipedia is anywhere from slightly more authoritative to slightly less authoritative than a traditional commercial encyclopedia, depending on the particular study and methodology.

Of course, study methodologies are closely scrutinized, and the Nature study was, not surprisingly, openly criticized by Encyclopedia Britannica.  Nature responded to the open criticism with a point-by-point rebuttal.  One of the more interesting outcomes of all this scuttlebutt is a Wikipedia article that lists errors present in Encyclopedia Britannica that are corrected in Wikipedia.  According to the article, it was started to serve as a reminder that no encyclopedia is perfect, and “as an illustration of the advantages of an editorial process where anybody can correct an error at any time.”

However, it is Wikipedia’s editorial process that is at the heart of the debate.  Heretofore, we have relied on academic “experts” writing on the subjects of their expertise.  In the Wikipedia editorial process, originally even anonymous authors were allowed to contribute.  Is a collaboratively authored encyclopedia, written by the “general public,” as “authoritative” as an encyclopedia authored by experts?  (See the aforementioned blog post by Mr. Bivens-Tatum for a great discussion on authority in sources.)  At initial blush, it would seem that the answer is yes.  On the other hand, Wikipedia may no longer fit this definition.  Precisely because of vandalism of pages on prominent people such as Edward Kennedy and Robert C. Byrd, Wikipedia has decided to limit changes to articles on people, a change detailed in a The New York Times article.  Such changes serve as barriers to entry, which may have stagnated Wikipedia’s growth.  According to the article, Ed Chi of Palo Alto Research Center has found that the site’s growth hit a plateau in 2007-2008.

The Economist has elucidated such limitations and its impact on the future of Wikipedia in an amusing article titled “Wiki birthday to you,” written in Wikipedia-style.  The Economist points out that the editorial review process has gotten increasingly more complicated over the years as Wikipedia has “grown up,” and that regular contributors have dropped by as much as a third.  In the aforementioned The New York Times article, Michael Snow, chairman of the Wikimedia board, the nonprofit that oversees Wikipedia, openly discusses the fact that Wikipedia has moved beyond its initial frontier heyday, and that more discipline is now required.

The real irony in Wikipedia is that, as it institutes increased rigor and discipline, it becomes more like the commercial entities that it has dethroned in page viewership.  As it becomes more like them, its ability to draw interest from the public at large.  And, as contributions decrease, there could be a real spike in errant entries.  In so doing, could the inerrant (or at least less errant) Word of Wikipedia become what teachers have always feared it was?