University of ArizonaNorton School of Family and Consumer Sciences

UA Units Merge to Tackle Economics, Finance Educator Shortfall

The Norton School's Take Charge America Institute and the Office of Economic Education have combined to address statewide high school economics and personal finance education mandates by training more teachers.

Two units at the University of Arizona charged with training teachers in economic education have merged. The move comes as Arizona's schools struggle to expand teaching capacity to meet new high school education mandates in economics and personal finance for the class of 2012.

For years, the University of Arizona's Take Charge America Institute, TCAI, and the Office of Economic Education, OEE, have worked separately to train teachers and other educators in economics and personal finance. The two organizations joined forces this spring and will work together as OEE, which previously was housed in the Eller College of Management. OEE  moves under the umbrella of TCAI at the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"In many ways, we've been ahead of the curve in recognizing the importance of financial literacy and the immense need for teacher training," said TCAI director Mike Staten. The institute already has provided free training and curricula to more than 18,000 instructors across the country through its award-winning Family Economics and Financial Education, or FEFE, program.

TCAI will continue that work bolstered by the intellectual and material resources of the Office of Economic Education. Under Cathleen Johnson's leadership, OEE has historically focused its work in Arizona, making it "a great complement to our education outreach, especially in responding to Arizona's mandate for economics education," Staten said.

"We are very excited about OEE becoming a critical part of the Norton School, as we both have a shared mission to reach out to high school teachers," said Soyeon Shim, director of the Norton School. "It is truly an excellent University engagement model."

Like TCAI, the state of Arizona is ahead of the curve in economics and personal finance education as the result of a strategic, systemic plan put in place more than a decade ago, according to Elizabeth Volard, president of the Arizona Council on Economic Education.

Forty-six states – roughly double the number just 10 years ago – now have some standard regarding economics and finance education, although many don't require implementation. In contrast, Arizona has defined and required implementation of standards for every grade K-12. Those standards encompass subtopics ranging from economics fundamentals to macroeconomics, microeconomics and personal finance.

At the same time, the Arizona Council on Economic Education has helped to create teacher certification programs to meet those standards. In 2007, the Arizona Board of Education took the ultimate step of mandating that all students starting high school after 2008 pass a criterion-based economics/finance course to graduate.

"We are the only state in the nation that has all of these elements in place," Volard said. She noted that many states haven't defined grade-specific standards while others offer training with no certification process to ensure qualified teachers. "We're the model that other education councils call to see how they can follow our lead."

While Arizona leads the nation in statewide economics and personal finance education, the state still faces a serious capacity gap when it comes to "highly qualified" high school teachers.

That standard for teachers, as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act, is met only by subject-specific degrees, or the equivalent of 24 credit hours in college-level subject coursework, or certification via the rigorous Arizona Educator Proficiency Assessment.

And while Arizona trains more than 2,000 teachers a year for economics education, only about 300 of those are qualified to teach at the high school level. Volard estimated the state needs at least 600 more.

The problem is not unique to Arizona. Even as states legislate financial education standards, the vast majority of instructors aren't up to the teaching task, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin, who in 2009 published their findings in "Teachers' Background and Capacity to Teach Personal Finance."

Analyzing more than 1,200 responses from cities across the country, they found that 89 percent of current and prospective K-12 teachers felt that high school graduation should require a course or test in financial literacy. The researchers also found that only 37 percent of the teachers had taken a college course in personal finance, and less than 20 percent felt confident in their ability to teach personal finance topics.

Johnson said that while TCAI and OEE have worked independently for years, by working together they are in a position to offer an ideal resource for helping Arizona meet its educational needs. She noted that the state's economics standard includes traditional economics as well as personal finance.

"Our office (OEE) and TCAI were both already actively training high school teachers," Johnson said. "And you really can't divorce economics from personal finance when you're talking about K-12 education. For older students to understand economics and global affairs, they need to understand the dynamics of individual choices. And to teach fundamental economic concepts to kids, you need concrete examples from personal finance."

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