With ‘Kiddynomics,’ an attempt to teach youngest learners how to manage money

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Todd Zartman gives his 'Kiddynomics' presentation.

Todd Zartman gives his 'Kiddynomics' presentation. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

On a recent Tuesday evening, Todd Zartman flips on an overhead projector inside the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and plunges into an economic lesson.

In a plush, wood-paneled meeting room that’s likely seen its share of erudition, Zartman slides a book cover onto the projector’s flat service and reads the title aloud: “Betty Bunny Wants Everything.”

From there, Zartman, an economic education specialist, reads aloud from a picture book where a baby rabbit bugs her rabbit mother to buy her a bunch of toys, even though her mom says she can only pick out one toy.

It’s hardly the stuff of high finance, but Zartman’s crowd isn’t the banker set. They’re teachers, mostly pre-K teachers, and Zartman’s showing them how to teach economics — to 4-year-olds.

The curriculum even has a name, “Kiddynomics,” and it represent an idea folks at the Federal Reserve Bank have been trying to popularize — namely that financial literacy should be a core part of what kids learn in school.

“Across the board, we want to see kids learning personal finance as part of an overall subject that is taught K to 12, just like anything else is,” said Andrew Hill, economic education adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Kiddynomics, a suite of five lesson plans, was developed by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. It’s designed to instill an “economic way of thinking” in kids as young as 3. The curriculum takes already-circulating children’s books and infuses them with lessons about concepts such as choice, trade, incentives, and scarcity.

For one lesson, Zartman asks the roomful of teachers if they’d like a bag of pretzels or popcorn, but he’s only brought enough for six teachers to receive a snack.

“And you can see where we’re headed here,” Zartman says before explaining the definition of scarcity. “I’m going to have some unhappy people here in a second.”

No mandate for financial literacy in Pa.

In the K-12 world, financial literacy remains a fringe subject.

Only 22 states require that students take an economics class, and just 17 require a course in personal finance, according to the Council for Economic Education. Pennsylvania requires neither, and the number of states mandating financial literacy hasn’t budged in recent years.

City politicians including Councilman Allan Domb and former Philadelphia controller Alan Butkovitz have pushed the School District of Philadelphia to focus further on personal finance. Domb, in particular, has been an evangelist, saying he wants some form of financial literacy taught in every grade.

“I don’t want to teach it in pre-K and not teach it in first and second grade, because they’ll lose it,” Domb told teachers gathered at the Kiddynomics seminar.

The need here is clear. Surveys show many Americans don’t have enough knowledge to make sound financial choices. If kids are exposed at an early age to financial concepts, the theory goes, they’ll reach high school with a better general sense of how the economic world works. From there, if they learn the ins and outs of personal finance, they’ll make better money decisions as college students and adults.

In essence, it’s the same pedagogical thinking behind teaching math, literacy, or any core subject.

“You don’t teach algebra to a kindergartner or first-grader, but you teach them how to count,” said Nan Morrison, president and CEO of the Council for Economic Education.

There’s no good data on the prevalence of financial literacy at the primary level, said Morrison. The council does, however, provide in-person teacher development and online tools for teachers across the K-12 spectrum, and  Morrison believes elementary-school teachers use those resources about as frequently as high-school teachers.

Still, it’s hard to judge the idea of a K-12 financial literacy continuum when, in most places, there’s barely a commitment to high-school-level finance courses.

Even the effectiveness of those high-school-level courses is a matter of debate and skepticism. Research suggests students who take finance courses do well on post-course quizzes. That pattern holds for elementary-school learners. A 2014 analysis showed fourth- and fifth-graders exposed to financial literacy retained much of the information a year later.

But the data hasn’t established a clear link between those classes and better long-term decision making. One study out of Harvard claims the most effective financial literacy plan is to simply require students take more traditional math courses.

All of that is to say, it’ll take a lot more effort and proof to move financial literacy from curricular obscurity to a place in the K-12 lineup.

Teacher Aliyah Tinsley, though, thinks it’s worth the effort. Tinsley, who teaches pre-K at Spring Garden Academy just north of Center City Philadelphia, says her kids are already intensely curious about money.

“They want me to bring in receipt books and money and a cash register,” said Tinsley. “So I said OK, let’s take this somewhere.”

She hopes Kiddynomics students will imbue her students with a financial framework for evaluating the world — and perhaps allow them to avoid some of the monetary missteps she made early in adulthood.

“When I graduated, I went to Punta Cana,” she said. “And I really didn’t need to go on a vacation. I should have been looking for a job.”

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