Founder Joyce Cowin’s Financial Literacy at Teachers College
Professor Anand Marri and Founder Joyce Cowin
The Cowin Financial Literacy program, founded by TC Trustee Joyce B. Cowin, this past summer included 85 participants from 13 states. The Cowin Project Institute uses case studies to help teachers make topics like credit, insurance, investing, money management, and financial planning relevant for their students.
Named for its benefactor and guiding spirit, TC Trustee Joyce B. Cowin (M.A. ’52), the Cowin project gives teachers basic financial literacy tools to pass on to their students and use themselves. The summer institute is designed to bring experiential learning about personal finance into under-resourced, urban classrooms. The curriculum is now available nationwide for free download at the program’s website (CowinFinancialLiteracy.tc.columbia.edu).
In addition to drawing a more national crowd, this year’s summer session allowed for deeper, more analytical discussions, said Anand R. Marri, Associate Professor of Social Studies and Education, who is currently on leave serving as Vice President and Head of Outreach and Education at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
“We’re getting more knowledgeable,” Marri said. “We are able to be less prescriptive with the teachers and, instead encourage them to bring their viewpoints in here.”
As in the past, the summer institute drew a case of prominent speakers. Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (Putnam, 2014), raised a question that is almost taboo in personal finance classes: How can poor people make financial plans or even good short-term financial decisions if they don’t know whether they’ll have a job or income next week?
Tirado, a former welfare recipient, spoke from personal experience that many students and even teachers can relate to. Tirado juggled raising two children, working two low-wage jobs, and taking classes to further her education. She spoke about how hard it is to make good financial decisions when all of the choices are bad ones, and when the work of making ends meet is day-to-day—and exhausting. She advised teachers in low-income schools to deliver their lessons with empathy.
Speaker Adam Davidson, co-founder and co-host of Planet Money, a co–production of National Public Radio and This American Life who writes the weekly “It’s the Economy” column for The New York Times Magazine, suggested to the teachers that his job as a reporter and journalist is similar to theirs as educators. The best practitioners in both professions know how to tell an engaging story that grabs attention and imparts complex information in language that lay people can understand, Davidson said.
The session did not lack for information about the American economy and Wall Street. Sam Stovall, an analyst, publisher and communicator at Standard & Poor’s, provided S&P’s outlook on the economy and markets. David Anderson, Executive Vice President of W!SE, TC’s partner in the Cowin Financial Literacy project, gave a primer on bonds; and Anja Luesink, a Certified Financial Planner, practitioner and registered investment adviser, talked about the basics and importance of financial planning and investment strategies.
Marri, the highest ranking official at the Federal Reserve working to promote financial literacy, said that next year’s institute would include a tour of the Fed and more discussion of monetary policy and how to teach it.
The need for financial education in high schools is clear, but while 17 states mandate it in public schools—and hundreds of financial literacy programs are available to schools around the country—Marri and Cowin believe that if students are to use what they learn from the study of personal finance, they must be engaged in problems and dilemmas that are intrinsically interesting.
“Most teachers are afraid of economic topics, period,” Marri observed. “Fewer than 20 percent of teachers have taken more than one economics course in their undergraduate days. They must realize now that they don’t have to have all the answers—they just need to know what questions to ask.”
Cowin, a generous supporter in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, asked where each person had come from and made a point of encouraging them to take what they had learned back to their schools and share it with other teachers.
“My hope is to see this program in every high school, in every state in this country,” she said, echoing comments she made in a Wall Street Journal profile in May. “That’s my dream.” #
This article was written by Patricia Lamiell and first appeared on the website of Teachers College, Columbia University.