Dr. Bessie Moore: A Financial Literacy Pioneer

Patricia O’Connell and Michael Munevar

Former Securities and Exchange Chairman Arthur Levitt once said, “The American Economy is the 8th wonder of the world, and the 9th is the economic ignorance of the American people.” Had it been up to Dr. Bessie Moore, former executive director of The Arkansas State Council on Economic Education, the eradication of that ignorance likely would have been the tenth.

Dr. Moore was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame on August 30, 2018 in recognition of her contributions to education and civic involvement. She left behind a legacy of promoting literacy through her work in education and with libraries not only in Arkansas but also throughout the U.S.

She became a teacher in her home state of Kentucky at the age of 14, starting a career that would be largely focused on education. In 1926, she became a supervisor for the Jefferson County Rural Schools in her adopted home state of Arkansas. That same year, she helped organize the county’s first library, and in 1929, she started working to promote libraries across the United States through the American Library Association.

Her work with libraries would mirror her work in education through the years. She held various educational and library-oriented positions until 1947, when she joined her husband in the operation of the restaurant they owned. Following her husband’s death in 1958, she returned to her career in education and library science.

In 1962, Dr. Moore, then supervisor of education in Arkansas, and Dr. Arch Ford, the Arkansas education commissioner, formed the Arkansas Council on Economic Education. Now known as Economics Arkansas, the non-profit’s mission is to “promote economic literacy and the economic-way of thinking to students in Arkansas by empowering educators to teach the fourth ‘r,’ real life economics.” Economics Arkansas provides resources and training to teachers (kindergarten through twelfth grade) in public and independent schools.

A resource that has proven popular with both students and teachers has been The Stock Market Game™, a national program of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA). The Game, which Economics Arkansas has been facilitating in the state since 1999, allows students and teachers to invest a virtual $100,000 in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds throughout a 12-week simulation each semester.

According to a recent survey for participating teachers, the Stock Market Game lives up to Dr. Moore’s goal of increasing an understanding of how the capital markets work and how they are influenced by current events. “My students became real world thinkers,” wrote one teacher in the survey. “They started seeing how current events can affect the economy.”

Commented another instructor: “Participating in the Stock Market Game brought current events to life for my students. Most notably, on February 9, my students were able to `buy low’ when they saw a sharp decline in the market resulting from the State of the Union Address.”

Some students have taken what they learned a step further by investing actual money. Noted one teacher, “Several of my students have already begun their own investment portfolios with their parents.”

It’s not just the students who learn from the Game – or need to. According to the 2016 TRS Annual Comprehensive Financial Report, more than 65% of school employees aren’t adequately preparing for life after a career in education. One teacher commented about the Stock Market Game, “This program allows students to be actively engaged in an area that many adults find difficult. It not only gets their interest in class, but also helps them create a strong financial mindset for the future.” According to the survey results, 96% of teachers said that the Stock Market Game increased their knowledge on investing; 61.64% said it increased their confidence and 33% said they had become more active in managing their own investment portfolio.

Indeed, Drs. Moore and Ford were prescient in recognizing the need for promoting financial literacy. An assessment of student financial literacy from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) showed that 22% of American students failed to meet the baseline of financial literacy. Only one in ten U.S. students earned a top ranking for financial literacy according to the survey, published in 2017. Just 22 states require that high school students take an economics course prior to graduation, and 17 states require that high school students take a personal finance class. (Arkansas requires that high school students take classes in both personal finance and economics.)

Statistics from a Standard and Poor’s Rating Services Survey published in 2017 show there is still work to be done. According to the survey, only 57% of U.S. adults were considered financially literate. Overall, the U.S. ranked 14th among more than 100 countries surveyed.

To Dr. Moore, economic education was essential not just for individual success, but also for the success of our nation. She visited East and West Germany shortly after the Berlin Wall had gone up, and she recalled its impact as “indescribable.” She said shortly after her 1961 visit: “The entire situation was extremely tense. This visit served to deepen my appreciation for my country, and I returned to Arkansas with something akin to religious zeal, particularly about the part that I felt economic education could play for living in and preserving our free country. The economic education program in Arkansas just had to be a success.”

A 2015 survey conducted by Gardner & Associates, a firm that helps teachers plan for retirement, called Economics Arkansas “the gold standard in economic education.” And if the Stock Market Game is any indication, it has been the success Dr. Moore envisioned.