02/07/2013 04:36 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Chicago Public Schools Raise the Bar for Financial Education

Last month, students nationwide headed back to school to begin the semester anew. And for high school seniors, that means graduation is already looming large on their minds. In just a few short months, some are going to continue on to post-secondary education, some will enter the working world, and some will simply struggle to figure out what comes next. While right now planning for the future may take a back seat to planning the prom, it's a critical time for these students to learn the lessons they'll need for the "real world" -- like making informed financial decisions.

So it might surprise you to know that right now, only 22 states require students to take economics, and just 14 states make personal finance a mandatory part of the curriculum. While the overall trend these past couple decades has been positive, progress slowed between 2009 and 2011 -- and in some cases stopped altogether (data sourced from Council for Economic Education's 2011 Survey of the States).

But on a very encouraging note, some school districts are going to great lengths to prioritize financial literacy. As one of the first states to implement rigorous economic and personal finance standards, for many years Illinois has set a high standard. This semester, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) raises the bar, introducing a dedicated personal finance course for 12th-graders with resources developed by my organization, the Council for Economic Education (CEE) and one of our local affiliates, the UIC Center for Economic Education, and made possible by funding from Discover Financial Services.

The first piece in a broader financial literacy framework spanning kindergarten through 12th grade (launching Fall 2013), the course was designed to provide graduating seniors with the necessary real-world skills to navigate today's financial landscape. Students will cover important lessons like the language of financial markets, gathering information on investments, and the nature of financial institutions in the U.S. economy. But most importantly, they'll learn how to make thoughtful, well-informed decisions they'll carry with them beyond the classroom.

Rather than just reading these lessons out of a textbook, students will have a chance to interact with the concepts and watch them at work. And when you're dealing with a classroom of digital natives, incorporating an online component is key. The CPS course makes Gen i Revolution, a video game-like challenge where students win missions by making savvy financial decisions, a central part of the curriculum. Taught in conjunction with the existing civics curriculum, seniors are encouraged to take these lessons beyond the classroom and into the community, making informed decisions as consumers, investors and savers, and even voters.

As of right now, about 25 classrooms are implementing the personal finance course, but by 2016 the course will reach all schools district-wide -- and perhaps by then, other school systems, and hopefully other states, will have followed suit. Today's high school students will face many real-life financial challenges upon graduation, managing the debt of student loans, making monthly car payments, paying rent for the first time, or all of the above. When people are financially literate, they make smart financial choices, an essential skill at every age and every time. So it's up to us to provide them with the tools they need to succeed.