Story Highlights• April is Financial Literacy Month
• As of 2004, only eight states required financial literacy course
• Jump$tart Coalition helps set curriculum standards for educators
By Donna Krache
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(CNN) -- Fifteen-year-old Connor Lewis knows a thing or two about money. He pet-sits, mows yards and earns an allowance by doing chores; and he puts half of his earnings into a savings account. He comparison shops for video games and other items and doesn't buy them until he finds the cheapest price.
"I pretty much buy everything on eBay," he says.
But as teenage consumers go, Connor is the exception, not the rule.
Although college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT test a student's ability to understand algebraic equations, they don't test what many consider the practical side of math: comparing prices, computing interest and balancing checkbooks. Some educators argue there's no time to devote to personal finance in the classroom.
April is Financial Literacy Month, casting light on the topic and the need to address it in classrooms.
Laura Levine is executive director of the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a coalition of 170 national organizations and 46 state-affiliated coalitions that helps set national standards for educators teaching financial literacy.
Levine says the coalition's biennial survey of high school students shows financial knowledge is in short supply. First conducted in 1997, the Jump$tart survey of high school seniors has consistently shown that most teens get a failing grade when it comes to consumer finance.
"The problem is deep, and it's not something that is going to be solved by a single program," says Levine.
So what's being done to address the needs of undereducated young consumers?
As of 2004, 38 states had curriculum standards for personal finance. But only eight states required a course with actual personal finance content.
Utah is one state aggressively promoting personal finance. In addition to standards in traditional subject areas, Utah has standards in financial literacy and requires a financial literacy course to graduate from high school.
Gayle Whitefield is the business department chair at Riverton High School in Riverton, Utah. She says high bankruptcy rates prompted state officials to act fast to teach kids about money management.
Though some parents do a good job teaching their kids, some live paycheck to paycheck and kids follow suit, says Whitefield. They get jobs at younger ages to earn money that they spend without giving a thought to money management. "They'll get a checking account before they get a savings account. I think that's a little backward," she says.
In fact, when she asks her students how many of them have a savings account, about 75 percent typically respond that they don't have one or don't know if their parents have one for them.
So Whitefield starts her course with a letter home, telling parents they will be involved in the process, and that their kids will want to have financial conversations with them. The students are required to keep a spending journal for several weeks.
They look for ways to go on a financial "diet," spending less, saving more. She uses practical exercises, like comparison-shopping projects and stock market simulations, to expose students to smart spending and investing. But the class also explores the psychological and social consequences of poor money management -- like broken marriages and destroyed lives.
The state of New Hampshire has written a personal finance component into its Economics curriculum standards. Sheila Miller teaches business classes at Newfound Regional High School in Bristol, New Hampshire, as well as a financial literacy course geared to upperclassmen. "They're not adequately prepared when they leave high school for life in the real world without it," she says.
Like Whitefield, she sees spending as the immediate problem. "They're purchasing a lot of their immediate wants, not practicing delayed gratification," says Miller. "They don't think about the long-term effects of their spending."
To reinforce her message, Miller has students invite experts to speak to the class on topics they have covered. Bankruptcy attorneys, mortgage brokers and realtors all help make the real-world connection for the kids. Students also create videos to teach others about money management.
Miller also uses online resources like the LifeSmarts competition, a consumer challenge competition run by the National Consumers League and Financial Football, developed by VISA, the NFL and Players, Inc.
She feels good about her course and its impact on the students. "By the time it ends, they have a pretty good foundation about financial goals and how to not get into trouble with credit."
As for Connor, he has some pretty basic advice for teens who see money just slip through their hands.
"You don't have to buy something every time you go out." That will save you money every time.
Connor Lewis, 15, counts his earnings from a recent pet-sitting job.
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