Upgrading the State of Financial Literacy Education: An innovative Teachers Coll | Teachers College Columbia University

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Succeeding Where Others Have Failed: Teaching Teachers to Make Financial Literacy Compelling


The grades are in on states’ efforts to teach financial literacy to high school students, and the results are not ones that anyone wants to take to the bank. In a new report by Champlain College’s Center for Financial Literacy, 26 states received grades of C or worse on their literacy requirements for high school students. Twelve states got an F, and only five got an A.

Small wonder that, as the Wall Street Journal reported in February, “Most children still grow up into adults who can’t properly save, spend and budget.” 

Still, in the words of John Pelletier, the Center’s director, there are “islands of excellence” amid the mediocrity that largely characterizes financial education in the United Sates – and Billy J. Hensley, Director of Education for the nonprofit National Endowment for Financial Education, has called for a more in-depth look at those success stories.

A prime starting point would be Loot, Inc.: The Cowin Financial Literacy Project, a unique professional development effort at Teachers College that equips teachers to make personal finance not only comprehensible but also exciting and engaging for high school students. Offered through live summer institutes in New York City for the past three years, Loot Inc. has now gone national, with its curriculum available free at http://lootinc.tc.columbia.edu/.

Educating Teachers

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

“We’re the only program in the nation focused on training teachers, and the only ones using a case study approach to do that,” says Anand Marri, Associate Professor of Social Studies & Education, who led development of the program. Marri is currently on leave from Teachers College serving as Vice President and Head of Outreach & Education at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “There’s no one else in the United States doing this work.”

“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.” 

At the week-long Loot Inc. summer institutes held on TC’s campus, teachers have worked in groups to solve dilemmas posed by the project’s eight case studies—scenarios in which they (and, utimately, students) 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 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.” 

This year’s Loot Inc. professional development summer institute solidified the program’s national appeal and presence. Information packets distributed to teachers nationwide got double the response rate of each of the previous two years. The result: while in the first two pilot years nearly all of the participants were from New York City, this year’s 85 participants hailed from 13 states. As in the past, they heard presentations from prominent speakers, including former welfare recipient Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America; Adam Davidson, co-founder and co-host of Planet Money, a co-production of National Public Radio and This American Life, who writes the weekly “It’s the Economy” column for The New York Times Magazine; Sam Stovall, an analyst, publisher and communicator at Standard & Poor’s; David Anderson, Executive Vice President of W!SE, TC’s partner in the Cowin Financial Literacy Project; and Anja Luesink, a Certified Financial Planner, practitioner and registered investment adviser.

Marri, the highest ranking official at the Federal Reserve working to promote financial literacy, said that next year’s institute would include a tour of the Fed and more discussion of monetary policy and how to teach it.

Available Online

Now, Loot Inc. has created a robust online experience for teachers who download the curriculum. The program’s website offers new “Quick Start” guides that include “dilemma maps” (visual tools that show 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.

Overcoming the Fear Factor


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.  

"Most teachers are afraid of economic topics, period,” he says. “Fewer than 20 percent of teachers have taken more than one economics course in their undergraduate days. They must realize now that they don’t have to have all the answers—they just need to know what questions to ask.”

Loot Inc 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 Maureen Grolnick, Loot Inc. Project Manager. ”Our approach to financial literacy is really an attempt to instill critical thinking skills.” 

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 federal budget that Marri and his team created in 2009.

“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.” 

(Watch an interview with Cowin about her decision to create Loot Inc. as an “anti-snooker campaign” after the 2008 market crash.) 


Published Friday, Nov 13, 2015

Cowin Financial Literacy
Talking Finance to Teachers Nationwide: The 2015 Loot Inc. professional development summer institute brought together 85 participants from 13 states.
Cowin with Marri
From left: Associate Professor Anand Marri, who led development of Loot Inc., currently serves as Vice President and Head of Outreach & Education at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Joyce Cowin, founder and funder of Loot Inc.: The Cowin Financial Literacy Project.