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Commentary: A Gaping Hole in Americans' Education
 
Thomas J. Donohue, President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

For too long, America's education system has failed to equip students with the knowledge they need to make good financial decisions. An alarming number of adults are unable to balance a checkbook, understand the terms of a basic mortgage, realize the benefits of compound interest, and properly manage credit card debt.

Today we are suffering the consequences. We can see it in the subprime mortgage meltdown, skyrocketing credit card debt, personal bankruptcies, and a low savings rate. Beyond individuals broken dreams, this lack of financial and economic education is threatening the competiveness and wellbeing of our country. So what can--and should--be done about it?

Ideally, an understanding and appreciation of economics and finances would be taught at school levels from kindergarten to the 12th grade and beyond. It should be taught as part of a robust curriculum as determined by the states, in the same way that music and art are taught. Unfortunately, local school boards decline to include financial and economic literacy as part of the core curriculum. Many college students can earn a degree without having taken any courses in basic economics.

That means the private sector, nonprofits, parents, and religious groups must step in to fill the void. Many companies in the financial services industry have robust and effective programs to teach kids how to handle their personal finances. They have partnered with groups like Junior Achievement, the Boys and Girls Club, Operation Hope, and Jump$tart, among many others.

We must also clearly recognize that our citizens will not be financially literate without first learning basic math. Without the ability to do fractions and percentages, students will not be able to calculate compound interest, amortize loans and mortgages, or figure out other financial products like annuities and 401(k)s. It's all tied together, and it's why the Chamber has a major initiative underway to renew and strengthen No Child Left Behind.

But there's something more ... The lack of financial and economic education is at the core of the growing and dangerous trends against international trade and immigration. Many of our citizens do not understand how the worldwide economy works. They do not understand how trade and direct investment create good-paying jobs, lower prices, and increase choice. They do not understand the reality of why some jobs go overseas even as many more are created here at home. They do not understand the looming worker shortages in both high- and low-skill jobs.

This puts our economy in peril. It leaves citizens easily susceptible to fear mongering by politicians who are eager to confirm people's belief that whatever is wrong in their life is somebody else's fault.

If America is to compete and win in the 21st century economy, we need citizens who can not only make smart financial decisions in their personal lives, but in the economic life of the nation.

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