California target: economic illiteracy

You can find one in almost any bank: the customer who can't for the life of him (or her) balance a checkbook; who has no money tucked away for that rainy day because he's no good at budgets; who is head over heels in debt because he doesn't understand what credit spending is all about.

The problem? Economic illiteracy. Bankers say it's a nationwide predicament.

The answer? In at least one state, California, educators and bankers say part of the solution may lie in a statewide campaign for financial literacy that will be launched this fall in elementary and secondary schools.

Under a newly developed educational program known as the Bank Ed School Series -- developed by educators and paid for by bankers -- thousands of California schoolchildren, from fifth grade through high school, will learn about such economic theories and consumer practicalities as the history of bartering, comparison shopping, figuring simple and compound interest, applying for a job, starting a business, and operating a household budget.

Economic theory has been taught in schools for years, sometimes as a separate course, frequently as a unit slipped into social science classes. But the need for a more structured system and a more specific, consumer-oriented curriculum came about here in 1978, when California legislators mandated that all public schoolchildren be educated in economics -- a decision made in the same year that voters dealt a financial blow to schools and other local government bodies, with the passage of Proposition 13.

The ensuing dilemma -- being given a broad mandate to teach economics at the same time voters made it almost impossible to get the money needed for educational materials and training teachers -- was not lost on E.T.S. & Associates, a San Diego consulting firm.

Working with local schoolteachers, E.T.S. developed a three-part economics education program and then found a sponsor -- Crocker Bank -- to underwrite the districts throughout California. Unlike virtually all other corporation-sponsored programs, say state educators, Crocker had no say in developing the materials and its name does not appear on any of the books or classroom props students will be using. E.T.S. and Crocker now plan to make the packet available nationwide.

Although no schoolteacher will be required to teach the course -- the 1978 legislative mandate included no specifics on what or how much had to be taught -- county school district offices around the state will be handing out the materials this September and urging teachers to use the Bank Ed system.

Such a promotion effort marks the first time district offices have handed out anything other than material that has been developed in-house, according to John Hunt, chairman-elect of the State Steering Committee for Curriculum Development and Publications.

"It's unusual for a group like us to put our stamp of approval, so to speak, on something like this," Mr. Hunt said recently. "The material is high quality; it's excellent. As educators face more and more budget constraints, this can do nothing but benefit us all."

Bank Ed I and II, tested this year in elementary and junior high schools in San Diego County, have received high marks from teachers who tried the pilot program. And Bank Ed III, based on a course taught for seven years by Dr. Art Womer at Huntington Beach Union High School, already has received state and national accolades for exemplary economic teaching.

In Dr. Womer's class, students spend a semester playing role models of married, working couples who must decide how to spread their "salaries" across the budgetary needs of their "household."

"The students love it," says Dr. Womer. "They actually sit in class and argue over the merits of buying a third pair of shoes. Then I step in and summarize what they've been discussing, explain the economic theory behind what they've been debating in a real-lif e situation."

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