Pam Whalley and her husband were enjoying a night out at Applebee’s not too long ago when she noticed a group of high school students having an odd conversation.
Listening closer, she couldn’t believe the things they were saying.
“I heard one of them say, ‘No, it’s true. If you save $2,000 a year from the time you are 23 until you’re 35, you will have more money at 65 than if you start saving $2,000 a year from 35 to 65,'” Whalley now recalls. “I was shocked.”
Only a month into the school year, and already kids were broaching the subject of compound interest.
As the director of the Economics Education Center at Western Washington University, Whalley has spent the last month working with teachers to implement Washington’s first-ever financial literacy standards in K-12 classrooms.
From now on, kids in public schools statewide will learn about stocks, bonds, credit scores, budgets, debt, and countless other economic principles that were once up to parents to convey.
Only five other states have mandates requiring schools to teach kids about money, including Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia. Many others have loose policies in place for economics education, while some have none at all.
Washington’s new standards translate to more than 300,000 kids learning how to be smart about money for the first time.
According to Whalley, the lessons will vary by grade level.
In the elementary schools, kids will learn the ways of basic commerce, like how to make change for a dollar, through their maths classes. In middle school, they will learn the basics about building credit and preparing for the future. In high school, they will write sample résumés and conduct mock job interviews.
Whalley says teaching kids about money, which is hardly a real concept to a jobless 12-year-old, isn’t that much of an obstacle for teachers. Cold, hard cash is often the most relatable part of a lesson.
“Adding or subtracting decimals if you’re in fourth or fifth grade is vague and esoteric,” she says. “Getting change from a five-dollar bill? That’s real.”
Recent data reveals more kids are graduating from high school in the US than ever before. Many of those kids will go on to higher education, which Whalley says compels schools to make sure kids know which careers are smarter picks than others.
For example, Washington teachers aren’t so heartless as to explain to third-graders that less than 0.1% of high school athletes make it to the pros. But Whalley says they will ask middle-schoolers to pick a career and research online how that industry might grow or shrink in 10 years.
The same goes for high-school kids who think about picking obscure college majors without considering the debt they will rack up in the process.
In suburban and rural areas, kids will learn how to finance their first car. In more urban classrooms, kids will learn about Uber and responsible budgeting for public transportation.
The over-arching goal is to get kids of all ages thinking about the real world they will soon inhabit. After 13 years of school, during which time kids defer to Mum and Dad for most financial decisions, teachers want to groom kids to learn what autonomy feels like — and what to expect once they have it.
“So much of this is just decision-making,” Whalley says. “Looking at facts and projections and putting them together to make good decisions for yourself.”
If that happens in an Applebee’s 50 years ahead of time, so be it.