Financial literacy — just like reading, writing and knowledge of science — enables young Marylanders to responsibly participate in the global economy. But that message is clearly not getting across to our students: 68.8 percent of Maryland high school students failed Algebra One, and 79.8 percent failed Algebra Two, according to the recently released results of a statewide exam,.

Even if simply seen as a baseline, these new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) scores are still cause for alarm and action.


Many people say they will never need to understand algebra "in the real world." Most of us, however, unthinkingly use algebra every day to figure out, for example, our interest, cash flow or credit card balances. And these are just some of the basic personal finance equations you need to know "in the real world." If PARCC results indicate that the majority of our high school students are failing to understand algebra, it's not too farfetched to say that the majority of them also would not do well with other aspects of mathematics and personal finance, and that's something none of us can afford.

The Maryland Council on Economic Education (MCEE) recognizes the importance of financial literacy every day. Current conditions within our global economy, coupled with the complexity of personal finance issues, require that students have a strong understanding of economic and personal finance fundamentals prior to high school graduation.

According to the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), one in five Americans has zero or negative net worth, and nearly 50 percent of households do not have a basic personal safety net to be ready for emergencies or future needs. Research done by CFED indicates that financial education taught to children in elementary school and beyond can have a meaningful impact on their financial knowledge, and that exposure to real-life financial situations can increase confidence and interest in managing their money.

The winning combination is for students to be surrounded by personal finance learning opportunities both in school and at home.

Ask the staff at your child's school what they teach their students about money so that a conversation begins. Urge school systems across Maryland to put greater emphasis on financial education in kindergarten through grade 12. All 24 Maryland school systems are required to offer a program of instruction in financial literacy education for students in grades 3-12; but the depth of coverage is uneven from system to system. We can do better for our students.

However, without professional development, many teachers would lack the proficiency needed to teach students to become financially literate. MCEE found that 64 percent of teachers feel unqualified to teach concepts within the state of Maryland's financial literacy standards without additional professional development. MCEE works with over 3,000 Maryland teachers annually to assure that they are equipped to effectively teach economic and financial literacy. The ultimate goal would be to make sure all teachers teaching financial literacy have this specialized training.

Young Maryland students are facing financial decisions earlier than other generations and the decisions they make now can have important consequences throughout their life. Will they go to college? If so, how will they pay for it? When we talk about financial literacy, we're not only talking about knowledge, we're also talking about promoting effective decision-making. These are critical life skills that MCEE wants all Maryland schools and teachers to start teaching as early as kindergarten. At that young age, children are capable of learning that they can't have everything they want and must make choices. Explaining this concept at the grocery or toy store is a great way for kindergarten-age children to work through making choices and experiencing the "opportunity costs" of their decisions.

Parents and teachers should look for daily opportunities to teach their children about the financial decisions they make. At home, when it's mortgage renewal time, parents could explain how borrowing for home ownership works. When a credit card statement comes in, explain the impact of making the full payment, avoiding interest, and paying promptly.

Now is the time to take action so that these failing scores don't correlate to financial illiteracy, a huge problem today significantly impacting the local, regional, national, and international economies.

Mary Ann Hewitt is the executive director of the Maryland Council on Economic Education; her email is mhewitt@towson.edu.