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Regional Matters

September 17, 2020

Economics and Personal Finance Instruction in the Time of COVID-19

Introduction

Across the country, K-12 students have returned to classrooms that look very different than they did a year ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many school districts to shift classrooms to a completely virtual environment with students learning remotely. Other school districts are pursuing a hybrid approach with a combination of in-person and online learning. For school districts operating in person, social distancing and other health protocols still make the school day much different from before.

While the overall instructional environment has changed for many teachers and students, another layer of change is happening that is specific to different subject areas. One subject area that the Richmond Fed has particularly strong ties to is economics and personal finance. The Richmond Fed (and the Federal Reserve System overall) has a long-standing commitment to economic and financial education as part of our public service mission. Throughout the school year, we provide professional development and educational resources to teachers and programs for their students. In the current environment, teachers are having to access professional development in new ways and shift traditional classroom lessons and student activities to online instruction. This Regional Matters post provides an overview of high school economics and personal finance requirements across the Fifth District and discusses how organizations that support teachers and students are shifting their approach due to COVID-19.

Economic and Financial Education Landscape

In early 2020 — prior to the pandemic — the Council for Economic Education released its biennial Survey of the States, a report summarizing the status of economic and financial education in each state across the country. The survey serves as a benchmark by tracking where economics and personal finance are being taught and to what degree. In economics courses, students learn about concepts including opportunity cost, the laws of supply and demand, and the causes and effects of unemployment and inflation. Personal finance courses prepare students for life after high school by focusing on the development of consumer skills, knowledge of credit, and the role of insurance in risk management, among other topics. The Survey of the States breaks down the degree of economic and financial education into different levels of implementation by asking a series of questions. First and foremost, are there K-12 state standards, i.e., specific educational objectives that students should meet by the end of a given grade level? Are the state’s school districts required to implement those standards? Is it mandatory to offer a high school course, or is it mandatory for students to complete coursework for graduation? If required to complete, is the coursework in a stand-alone class or integrated into another one? Finally, do the state’s standardized tests cover economics or personal finance material?

The past two years saw increases in the number of states requiring economics and personal finance coursework to graduate. Currently, 25 states require high school students to take a stand-alone or integrated course in economics, and 21 states require students to take a class in personal finance. Furthermore, only five states and the District of Columbia still do not incorporate personal finance topics into their standards. However, there has been a reduction in requirements in other areas. Six fewer states conduct economics standardized testing, and two fewer conduct personal finance standardized testing compared to 2018. Overall, though, in terms of standards and coursework, the trend in the United States for economic and financial education over the past two decades has been toward more requirements.

Fifth District Requirements

The status of economics and personal finance requirements varies across the Fifth District, as shown in the tables below.

Economics Implementation

State

Included in the K-12 Standards

Standards Required to be Implemented by Districts

High School Course Required to be Offered

Stand-alone High School Course Required to be Taken

Required Coursework Integrated into Another Course

Standardized Testing

District of Columbia

 

 

 

 

Maryland




North Carolina

 

 

South Carolina


 

Virginia

 

 

West Virginia

 

 

 

Personal Finance Implementation

State

Included in the K-12 Standards

Standards Required to be Implemented by Districts

High School Course Required to be Offered

Stand-alone High School Course Required to be Taken

Required Coursework Integrated into Another Course

Standardized Testing

District of Columbia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maryland

 

 

 

 

North Carolina

 

 

South Carolina

 

 

 

Virginia

 

 

West Virginia

 

 

 

Note: The column, “Standards Required to be Implemented by Districts,” covers K-12. The columns “Required Coursework Integrated into Another Course” and “Standardized Testing” refer to high school only.
Source: Survey of the States, Council for Economic Education, February 2020.

There have been some notable changes in requirements across the Fifth District since the previous Survey of the States. In 2019, North Carolina established a new stand-alone personal finance and economics course required for graduation starting in 2024. Previously, economics and personal finance topics were taught alongside civics and government. South Carolina currently employs such a mixed model, but there too requirements have grown. As recently as 2018, the state did not require any personal finance coursework for graduation.

How Has COVID-19 Affected Programs for Teachers and Students?

Across the Fifth District, many nonprofit organizations including state-level councils on economic education have a long history of supporting classroom economics and personal finance instruction and advocating for expanding economics and personal finance course requirements. The Maryland Council on Economic Education, North Carolina Council on Economic Education (NCCEE), SC Economics, and Virginia Council on Economic Education (VCEE) all provide teacher professional development, classroom resources, and student programs to help students understand key economic concepts and help them develop the skills they need to make informed financial decisions in the future. In West Virginia, which does not have a state council on economic education, the State Treasurer’s Office and its partners are engaged in financial education through direct-to-student and educator programs. Other national organizations, such as Junior Achievement (JA) and the Jump$tart Coalition, also contribute substantially to local efforts through local JA areas and state-level coalitions, respectively.

Each of the economic and financial literacy organizations listed above transitioned their programs following the shift to virtual learning in the spring. Within a week of their states moving to an entirely distanced environment in March, the VCEE and SC Economics compiled new programs and resources to support teachers’ efforts to meet requirements in their states. Since that time, all of the councils have fully moved their in-person programming to an online platform. In addition, most began programs on economic topics that became relevant due to the pandemic or the heightened focus on racial inequality that occurred this summer. Many of the organizations also hosted rigorous professional development programs during the summer that needed to be reconfigured. The NCCEE had planned to host weeklong, in-person institutes throughout the state to train teachers on the new economics and personal finance course set to launch in the 2020-2021 school year. They pivoted the program to a synchronous, virtual program that engaged teachers in learning the content and sharing the educational resources they will need to implement the course. As the new school year begins, the organizations are being flexible in their response given the unique health and education requirements in their states.

At the Richmond Fed, our Economic Education team responded by offering virtual programs of our own and partnering with the state councils on their professional development programs for teachers. As the new school year is beginning, we are highlighting the classroom resources that are useful for teachers in a remote or hybrid environment, including Invest in What’s Next, an online mini course the helps students create a personalized plan for life after high school. We also plan to offer a guided virtual tour program to bring the Richmond Fed’s museum, The Fed Experience, into classrooms, virtual, or in-person, throughout the Fifth District. The Fed has other resources to offer, too. Teachers can access online offerings from other Fed banks on the Fed’s education website. In particular, the St. Louis Fed’s Econ Lowdown portal has economics and personal finance content for all ages and provides teachers with instructor management capabilities.

How Might Classroom Instruction Unfold?

This post has focused on the shifting approach of organizations that support economics and personal finance teachers and students, but we have said little about what actual classroom instruction currently looks like. While we do not have a clear window into classrooms across the Fifth District at this time, some states may be in a better position for online instruction than other states. For example, since Virginia implemented its economics and personal finance course requirement in 2011, it has offered an online version for school districts (with plans to enhance the course). Still, even within states that previously had online options, there will be unique challenges at the school district-level. As discussed in a recent Regional Matters post, access to broadband and computers at home differ across rural, urban, and suburban areas in the Fifth District. Students in school districts in urban and rural areas are less likely to have these tools at home than students in suburban areas.

In addition to disparities in online access, there may also be differences in the degree to which school districts are able to cover economics and personal finance content. One could argue that perhaps economics and personal finance instruction should take on even greater urgency now given the pandemic’s effect on economic activity and individuals’ financial well-being. The pandemic, like significant economic events before it, provides a teaching moment to help students relate economics and personal finance concepts to daily life. On the other hand, the pandemic also raises the key economic concept of trade-offs, which school districts and teachers are undoubtedly facing. Instructional constraints may lead some districts to prioritize other core subjects over economics and personal finance. This trade-off may be particularly at play for areas that may be struggling to provide students with consistent online access and are therefore facing difficult decisions about prioritizing subjects. A future Regional Matters post will dig into these issues more deeply so that we can better understand pandemic-driven differences in economic and financial education at the local level.


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Views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.

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