Monday, July 18, 2011

An Investigation of Financial Education in B.C. Public Schools

Part 1: What's happening in the middle years, grades 4-6?

How many B.C. high-school grads
are financially literate?
I've been trying for a while to get a comment from B.C.'s Minister of Education on where we are going with financial literacy in the public school curriculum. Is there a move to make financial education a mandatory part of the grade four to 12 curriculum like Ontario is doing this fall? Or are we sticking with the status quo? Are B.C. high-school grads financially literate? Are we testing for that?

I was recently told by someone in the Ministry of Education's media department that not only is financial education woven throughout the existing curriculum, the twenty hours of instruction that students get in the finance unit of Planning 10 is "significant."

Is that so? As a parent with a child going into grade three this really matters to me. So, I've decided to comb through the curriculum to find out just how much financial education B.C. students are getting right now. I have gone through the subject areas for grades four through six which seem most likely to contain personal finance concepts: Health and Career Education, Math and Social Studies.

The following is an overview of what I found in the Prescribed Learning Outcomes (PLOs) for grades four through six that are made available by the Ministry of Education. PLOs, by the way, are government policy that establish "the learning standards for the provincial K to 12 education system and form the prescribed curriculum for British Columbia. They are statements of what students are expected to know and do at the end of an indicated grade or course."

Grade 4
In Health and Career grade-four students learn to identify the steps in a decision-making model, to inventory their skills and about the importance of developing effective work habits and how those habits can lead to success. These topics are not obviously related to personal finance but there is a connection to career and consumer choices.

In grade-four Math, students become literate with numbers up to 10,000, patterns, variables and equations, shape and space, 3D objects and 2-D shapes, statistics and probability and the concept of chance. How often money is used in examples and exercises seems to be up to the teacher. Nowhere in the PLOs does it specify that financial concepts be taught. Social Studies, however is more promising. In the unit of study called "Economy and Technology," students compare bartering and monetary systems of exchange in the context of exploration and how European explorers traded with Aboriginal people.

Grade 5
In Health and Career grade-five students start to learn how media can influence decision-making, how to identify types of work that appeal to them and continue to learn more about the benefit of having effective work habits. In Math, students work with numbers up to 1,000,000 and go deeper into the other topics covered in grade four. As is the case in grade four there are no money concepts specified on the PLOs for grade five. In Social Studies, however, students learn about supply and demand using specific resource examples such as the boom and bust in Barkerville and how fashion trends in Europe drove the fur trade. But that's it for money concepts.

Grade 6
In Health and Career, students build on the grade-five PLO's but go deeper into planning, goal setting and goal attainment including the consideration of "costs and resources." They talk about the word "budget" and do some exercises to practice creating a budget for a project or to achieve a goal. In Math, grade-six students learn to work with numbers greater than 1,000,000 and continue to build on the other mathematical concepts they have been working on since grade four. Again there are no money concepts in the Math PLOs for this grade.

In the "Economy and Technology" unit of Social Studies, grade-six students learn about trade between regions and countries including what imports and exports are. They also compare Canada's economy, technology and quality of life with those of other countries (suggested for comparison are the Horn of Africa countries). Here they learn terminology such as: industrialized, developed, developing and least developed, non-profit organizations and fundraising.

Not mandatory means it's up to teachers
From grades four through six, B.C.-students learn about decision making, effective work habits, career choices, goal setting, and do some budgeting in Health and Career. They also study Math, which is great and foundational for financial literacy. And in Social Studies they learn about bartering, monetary systems, trade, supply and demand, imports and exports, non-profits and fundraising. That's not bad...or is it?

The bottom line is that personal finance concepts are not specified in the PLOs in the intermediate grades. How many of these concepts each student is exposed to depends entirely on the school and the teacher. As the Ministry states, "Schools have the responsibility to ensure that all PLOs...are met; however, schools have flexibility in determining how delivery of the prescribed learning outcomes can best take place....Evaluation, reporting, and student placement with respect to these outcomes are dependent on the professional judgment and experience of teachers, guided by provincial policy."

Can most teachers teach money concepts?
In May, I asked a group of 42 elementary school teachers to complete a financial literacy questionnaire.When asked this question, "If you were given a list of 100 money-related words, how many do you think you would know?" exactly 50 per cent said they would know less than half of the words. I also asked the respondents "How often do you talk about money issues in your classroom?" While 12 of the 42 teachers responded that they talk about money at least once a week, 17 responded "hardly ever" and 13 said "maybe once a month." That means 71 per cent of the teachers in my survey don't generally talk about money to their students.

It's becoming clear to me that the answer to the question, "What are kids in grades 4 through six learning about money in B.C. schools?" is far from clear and certainly not universal. I can imagine that a small percentage of teachers with a personal interest in investing or entrepreneurship may bring a host of financial language to the PLOs, while those who are financially illiterate likely shy away from talking about money and do just enough to meet the requirements.

Who is responsible?
Unlike the commitment to financial literacy that the Ontario Ministry of Education has made by making personal financial education a mandatory part of the grade four through twelve curriculum (complete with teacher training), B.C. is leaving it up to individual teachers, many of whom are not financially literate themselves.

My hope is that by the time she finishes grade six, my daughter will be fluent in the basics of earning income, credit and debit, cash flow and investment. After all, she already has amassed quite a nest egg and if she makes smart money decisions now that will surely pay big dividends as she gets older. The sooner she is saving and investing her money, the longer she has for that money to grow. Raising fiscally responsible citizens is central to the economic future of Canada. Funny how our "underfunded" school system and "underpaid" teachers in B.C. don't seem to be striving to meet that goal, at least not that I can see from the PLOs that I've been reading.

By the way...there is still room in the Money & Me camp for ages 9-13 that I'm teaching next week in North Delta from 1:30-3:30 pm. Call 604-940-5550.

Copyright 2011. Laura Thomas. All Rights Reserved.
For reprint permission contact moneyme at telus dot net.


  1. Laura, I agree wholeheartedly with you. The schools can certainly do a much better job and it will serve us all well in the long run if our children are more adept at managing money. Stress levels, anxiety, family conflict are so often connected to financial problems. Wouldn't it be nice if we could do something that would reduce that source of mental anguish and free up that mental energy to do something else?? Imagine the possibilities. I will help you any way I can.

  2. Doug, you know I'm going to take you up on that offer!