Wall Street Journal Features National Launch of Loot Inc. | Teachers College Columbia University

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Showing Students the Money

Founded and funded by TC Trustee Joyce Cowin, TC's unique Loot Inc. program to improve young people's financial literacy is succeeding where others have failed.

Read the Wall Street Journal’s Donor of the Day profile of TC Trustee Joyce Cowin (subscription required). 

“Most children still grow up into adults who can’t properly save, spend and budget,” The Wall Street Journal reported in February, adding that, despite a vast assortment of programs now offered to improve financial literacy, educators are “doing it all wrong.”  

Yet even as the Journal sounded the alarm, the opening bell was sounding on a new era. At the beginning of April—Financial Literacy Month—Teachers College began the national rollout of Loot Inc.: The Cowin Financial Literacy Project, a unique professional development effort that equips teachers to make personal finance not only comprehensible but also exciting and engaging for high school students.

“We’re giving teachers the tools to teach financial literacy,” says Joyce B. Cowin, the longtime TC Trustee who is the founder and funder of Loot, Inc. “Better still, we’re doing it in a way that allows them to wrap this knowledge around the material they already teach.” 

Loot Inc. breaks new ground by, in essence, putting teachers in the student’s chair.

In New York City, where the program was piloted in public high schools, that’s been literally the case during the past three summers. Cohorts of teachers have come to TC’s campus for week-long “institutes” led by Anand R. Marri, Associate Professor of Social Studies & Education, who designed the program; Project Manager Maureen Grolnick; and teams of TC students. The teachers work in groups to solve dilemmas posed by the project’s eight case studies—scenarios in which they are asked to advise fictional clients ranging from a soon-to-be college graduate who has inherited a small insurance business and is grappling with how to set fair but profitable rates, to a star NFL football player who is trying to set budget priorities so he won’t run through earnings from a multi-million dollar contract.

“I want to buy a car. My family wants to go on vacation. I want to move out. I want to get a phone and pay for it myself. When you’re in high school these are life and death issues,” says Steven Namm, a soon-to-be-retired New York City social studies teacher who used the program with his students. “Loot Inc. integrates these situations into classroom work, and that makes it fun and exciting for the students and for the teacher.” 

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In July 2015, the third annual TC Cowin Financial Literacy Institute’s professional development summer institute solidified the program’s national appeal and presence. While attendance at the institute has stayed steady at about 70 over three years, information packets distributed this year to teachers nationwide got double the response rate of each of the previous two years. And while in the first two pilot years nearly all of the participants were from New York City, this year’s 70 participants hailed from 13 states.

“Having discussions with people from across the country gave everybody a lift,” says Grolnick. Participants “rose to the occasion when talking across state lines. The teachers were their best selves. They wanted to share what they’re doing in Virginia with people from California.”

In addition to drawing a more diverse and nationally representative cohort, this year’s sessions allowed for deeper, more analytical discussions than in previous years, says Marri. “We’re getting more knowledgeable. We are able to be less prescriptive with the teachers and, instead encourage them to bring their viewpoints in here.”

Marri says the program will continue to do targeted, national outreach to teachers and school administrators and school boards, especially in the 17 states that require financial literacy education in public schools. Recent studies at Harvard and the University of Colorado at Boulder show that students find the material taught in other financial literacy programs dry and boring, with no relevance to their own lives; that having teenagers learn sophisticated market terminologies and concepts is pointless because they have no occasion to use the information; and that adults who took school-mandated financial literacy courses in high school have done no better at accumulating assets than peers who did not.

With generous ongoing support from Joyce Cowin, TC’s Loot Inc. addresses all of those concerns. 

Where other efforts are directed at students, Loot Inc. “focuses on teachers becoming financially literate themselves,” says Marri. “We’re trying to get them to focus not on numbers but rather on the concepts that are involved—banking, savings, spending, consumption, investing, credit and risk.” Second, Loot Inc. employs case studies based on the Harvard Business School model—real-world scenarios that are relevant to students’ lives. 

And rather than offering a set curriculum, Loot Inc. empowers teachers to help students develop their own evidence-based solutions to real-life dilemmas. The program is aligned with the Common Core State Standards, which stress development of the ability to evaluate a speaker’s point of view and draw one’s own conclusions. “The goal is for students to make informed common-sense judgments,” says Grolnick. ”Our approach to financial literacy is really an attempt to instill critical thinking skills.” (Watch an interview with Cowin about her decision to create Loot Inc. as an “anti-snooker campaign” after the 2008 market crash.) 

These components have been TC hallmarks dating back to Harold Rugg, the pioneering educator who cofounded the National Council of Social Studies in 1921. They are signature elements of “Teaching the Levees,” the nationwide curriculum the College launched in 2007 as a counterpart to the Spike Lee documentary on Hurricane Katrina, and of “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility,” a course of study on the national debt and budget deficit that Marri created in 2009.

Loot Inc.’s developers are confident that the material will translate well for those who download it.  The program’s website offers new “Quick Start” guides that include “dilemma maps,” visual tools that shows all the variables students need to consider and provides teachers with an explanation of why the case study topic is so important to students’ lives. There are suggestions for grouping strategies, discussion prompts, debriefing exercises and extensions and adaptations to the cases to keep all students engaged.

The Guide also provides “Complicating Factors”—facts and research findings for use when students arrive too quickly at a solution without considering other potential responses.

“We’re inviting everyone to try this approach to financial literacy because we think it can work for any teacher, with any group of students,” says Joyce Cowin. “And that’s really why I wanted to create this program in the first place. When the market crashed in 2008, too many good, hardworking people lost their homes, their credit and their savings because they hadn’t been educated to understand that they were getting snookered on sub-prime mortgages and other deals that were too good to be true. I believe that education is the best way to prevent that from ever happening again.” 

(Published May, 2015)

Read the Wall Street Journal’s Donor of the Day profile as a PDF.

Published Friday, May. 8, 2015