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Teaching Common Cents

The State of Financial Literacy Education in VIrginia
April 20, 2020

This article was published in the March/April 2015 issue of Disclosures magazine.

By Chip Knighton

It’s been a long time coming, but Virginia’s first full class of officially financially literate students is heading out into the real world. 

In 2009, the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) approved a one-credit course in economics and personal finance as a requirement for high school graduation for the Standard and Advanced Studies diplomas. It wasn’t a seamless process getting the requirement in place, and the requirement did come with opposition, but the class of 2015 is the first to graduate from high school under the requirement. 

Once the requirement went into place for the class that began high school in the fall of 2011, the challenge for the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) was getting teachers into place.  

“School divisions knew in advance that it would be a graduation requirement and knew when that requirement would go into effect,” said Judith Sams, program specialist for business and information technology and related clusters with the VDOE. 

Recognizing the potential teaching numbers crunch, the VDOE identified six endorsements that gave teachers the proper background to teach the course: business and information technology, marketing, agricultural education, family and consumer science, history and social science and mathematics. Any teacher licensed in Virginia and endorsed in one of those areas can teach the course. 


While that’s a broad set of approved endorsements, it still left schools needing to ensure that the endorsed teachers were ready to teach the course. That’s where the Virginia Council on Economic Education (VCEE) and the VSCPA stepped in. The VCEE runs several training sessions each year, called Economics Institutes and Personal Finance Institutes, where high school teachers can become trained and certified, and VSCPA members have eagerly taken on the role of teaching those teachers.  

“Unlike many presentations I’ve done where only a few members of the audience ask questions, almost every one of the teachers got involved in some way,” said Vince Nadder, CPA, a partner at Glen Allen firm Keiter who has led Personal Finance Institutes at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Some asked questions, others tried to reconcile the information I was providing with real-world situations they had encountered, and in some instances, a teacher would try to answer the question or elaborate on a point made by one of the other teachers.” 

The Personal Finance Institutes also include the teacher certification version of the Working in Support of Education (W!SE) test, a VBOE-approved, 45-question assessment given to 52,000 students last year with a 79 percent pass rate. The pass rate has been at least 78 percent every year the test has been given to students. 

“Being endorsed to teach the course doesn’t mean that you have the knowledge or the good materials to teach the course,” VCEE Director of Programs Sarah Finley said. “We feel that successful participation in the Institutes is a good benchmark to indicate that teachers have the content knowledge to teach the course.” 

Ninety-five percent of the 755 teachers who have participated in the PFIs since their inception in 2010 passed the W!SE teacher financial literacy certification test.  

“This is one of the most beneficial programs offered to teachers,” Donald Bierschbeck, a teacher at Yorktown High School in Arlington County, said in his evaluation of the 2013 PFI at George Mason University. “The content that is being taught and brought back to students is information that all members of society should be entitled to. I only wish I would have had access to this information 30 years ago.” 

For students, the W!SE test isn’t a state requirement for graduation — the state has left it up to individual school divisions to decide whether or not to require it. The Institutes are also voluntary, but the VCEE hopes for higher attendance to help even veteran teachers brush up on their knowledge. 

“Even teachers who have been teaching in this area for a long time who have attended these institutes have found them helpful,” Finley said, “but I think that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. We really hope that all teachers attend them, and we’ve been pushing for that and have continued to push for that. Maybe you’re a good teacher, but you’ll be an even better teacher.” 

The VDOE also offers its own teacher training tools, including sessions during professional association conferences and an online resource center developed in conjunction with the VCEE and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, among other organizations, under the umbrella of Teaching Money Virginia. 

Most of the resources provided, available at www.TeachingMoneyVA.org, are free, and teachers can add their own resources that they have found, although they’re subject to a vetting process and approval. Keeping costs down was a priority for the VDOE in light of the budget concerns that led to the graduation requirement being delayed for a year. 

Nationally, Virginia is ahead of the curve on financial literacy education. The Commonwealth was one of seven states to receive an “A” from Champlain College’s Center for Financial Literacy on its efforts to produce financially literate high school graduates. (The other states to receive the top mark were Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee and Utah.) And Virginia placed 29 schools on W!SE’s list of the 100 best schools teaching financial literacy. 


The financial literacy movement began in 2005, with the Virginia General Assembly approving a bill to require instruction in financial literacy, the same year the VSCPA-driven Virginia Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy was founded. Three years later, 2008 saw the introduction of the first bill aimed at making an Economics and Personal Finance course a graduation requirement. 

While that bill died in committee, the VBOE took it upon itself to make sure future legislation wasn’t necessary, unanimously approving the graduation requirement through the regulatory process in 2009. Initially, the requirement was set to take effect beginning with the high school class of 2014, but a 2010 bill delayed all new graduation requirements for financial reasons. 

The VSCPA was instrumental in blocking future attempts to stall the graduation requirement, and then-Gov. Bob McDonnell wrote an open letter in support of the requirement and signed legislation that exempted it from delays that affected other new requirements. 

At that point, the wheels were already in motion. The VDOE and the VCEE had already kicked off its professional development training, and high schools across the state were preparing to implement their Economics and Personal Finance course offerings. 

In addition to the aforementioned state agencies, the VSCPA and the Virginia Jump$tart Coalition, the Virginia Bankers Association, the Virginia Bureau of Insurance and Virginia 529 were among many other groups instrumental in implementing and protecting the requirement. 

“It’s a great example of a lot of different people and organizations working together to make something happen,” Finley said. “There’s really no one group that gets credit, and that’s the beauty of it.” 


Other groups have recognized the hard work in getting the requirement off the ground and offered their own help. Longwood University in Farmville launched a summer pilot program offering dual-enrollment college credit in 2013, and the school has expanded that program each year, with 30 school systems currently participating. 

“We saw it as a win-win for us to partner with the school system and promote Longwood,” said Dr. Bennie Waller, chair of Longwood’s Department of Accounting, Economics, Finance and Real Estate. 

Waller says Longwood has received multiple requests to offer the program on a year-round basis, and several other colleges have jumped on the dual-enrollment bandwagon. 

Such courses clearly benefit the colleges as well as the students — as Sams says, they “get students on campus and let them get to know the university, and it gives the colleges an opportunity to get into the high schools. But most people at colleges and universities feel strongly that this course is that important.” 

One university educator who clearly feels that way is Waller, who said: “I, along with other colleagues, just saw the economic crisis really devastate a lot of people. And not just a lot of poor people, but a lot of people who had education.  

“I can’t tell you the number of people I counseled who had advanced degrees but did not understand financial literacy. We thought that it should be taught in K-12 and in college, and that’s what we’re doing now.” 


While the financial literacy graduation requirement is off to a strong start, it’s still in its infancy. The class of 2015 has yet to enter the workforce, and many graduates won’t truly be integrated into society until after college. But stakeholders are encouraged by the way students and teachers have performed. 

“Virginia is already starting to show the success from this one standard alone,” Sams said. “We think that the real change is going to come with the change in behavior from our students, which is going to take a couple of years to measure. But with success like this already, we’re in good shape. We want to get better, but we’re certainly pleased.” 

Another indicator of success is the partnerships that have come from the requirement, In addition to the VSCPA, the Virginia Jump$tart Coalition, Junior Achievement and numerous credit unions have all lent their help to the financial literacy cause. 

All that means is that success for the financial literacy graduation requirement will be multifaceted. Better test scores, more qualified teachers, helpful resources and enthusiastic partners are all indicators of success. 

“We’re going to give the test to more students,” Sams said. “Because of the good instruction our Virginia teachers are giving them, they’re going to have higher pass rates. We’re going to have more teachers who are certified. We’re going to have more teachers getting professional development. Partnerships are going to develop more resources, more free resources… 

“Virginia is already starting to show the success from this one standard alone,” Sams said. “We’re going to give the test to more students.  Because of the good instruction taking place in our Virginia classrooms, we’re going to have higher pass rates. We’re going to have more teachers who are certified. We’re going to have more teachers taking part in professional development. Partnerships are going to continue to develop more resources, more free resources.  

“The real change is going to come with the change in behavior from our students, which is going to take several years to measure. But with success like this already, we’re in good shape. We want to get better, but we’re certainly pleased.”