CEO Stories: Financial Education & Economic Literacy for the Next Generation

Kathleen Lawson and Marsha Masters
Economics Arkansas

In the U.S., only 22 states require high school students to take an Economics course. Only 17 states mandate a high school level course in Personal Finance. Arkansas is poised to be a leader in financial education because of organizations like Economics Arkansas.

A graphic with a microphone icon and text that says CEO Stories - Economics Arkansas.

Since its founding in 1962, Economics Arkansas has impacted the lives of over 4.5 million children by teaching economic literacy. The organization is led today by Kathleen Lawson, Executive Director, and Marsha Masters, Associate Director.

With the goal of expanding financial literacy for students K-12, Economics Arkansas offers workshops around the state to give teachers a grounding in economics and help them understand how to integrate it into everyday curriculum. Associate Director Marsha Mason recalls the 10-day summer workshop she attended as a teacher as life-changing, because she, like many teachers, didn’t have a background in economics education and became empowered with the necessary knowledge and vocabulary.

As befits a program aimed to help students understand economics and capitalism, there is an annual awards program where teachers submit student projects, such as a the amusement park created by fourth graders who wrote a business plan and negotiated a hundred dollar loan from a local bank. An investing simulation called the Stock Market Game helps students learn about publicly traded companies, investing, and associated career opportunities. In Central Arkansas, the school district has had Shark Tank events where budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to judges. Even students as young as four are taught financial basics through the “Itty-Bitty Economics” program, incorporating songs, play, art and children’s literature.

In a state with great economic disparity – unemployment is around three percent up north while poverty is widespread in the southeastern delta region – education can help close the gap. Economics Arkansas has 15 educational service centers around the state where school districts can opt-in for training in central locations. After-school programs for students also boost participation and engagement and the goal is to increase those. The new partnership with Stephens Inc. to provide K-12 education around free enterprise is another way to scale impact statewide.

This Is Capitalism: Marsha Masters, Kathleen Lawson

RH: This is Capitalism, I’m Ray Hoffman. It’s amazing how little most of us really know about the economic miracle that supports and nourishes the USA. After all, only 22 states require high school students to take even a single course in economics. Only 17 states mandate a high school level course in personal finance.

Bessie Moore of Mountain View, Arkansas, whose life spanned the years from 1902 to 1995, would not have been pleased to know that’s the state of American economic education in the 21st century. She believed a system built around free markets, allowing for free choice, free expression, underpinned by the rule of law, needs to be nurtured from generation to generation. And thanks in large part to her efforts, Arkansas has K-12 personal finance and economics education.

Her legacy is well guarded by an organization known as Economics Arkansas. Kathleen Lawson is Executive Director, Marsha Masters is Associate Director. Let’s meet them.

Kathleen, have you ever tried to come up with a rough ballpark number of how many children have derived real lasting benefits from the teaching and training and programs of Economics Arkansas, going back to 1962 now, 56years ago?

KL: You know, we have done some calculations on this and we think really, conservatively speaking, we’ve probably served about four and a half million students, so really a ton of impact over the years.

RH: And Marsha is the teacher here. Can you give me a ballpark number of how many teachers, most of whom I assume have had no particular background in economics and personal finance, have been trained by Economics Arkansas?
MM: Since our beginning in 1962, I would think that we’ve had over a 100,000 teachers that we have worked with in some capacity. And you’re right, very few of them have had any background as it relates to economics education.

RH: And you were one of them, right? Can you take me through your background and the experience you had?
MM: I was. I really came to economic education as kind of a third stringer. I was at a school and there were two teachers who really did have background and had worked with Economics Arkansas. There was a 10-day workshop that was coming in the summer and I was the only one…the first two ladies that were asked were not able to commit because it was 10 consecutive days.. And so I was a third stringer but I had no idea, when I went to those 10 days, that it would change my way of teaching and really my life, my perspective on how important teaching students economic principles would be.

For the first part of my teaching career I did not know about economic education. I had no contact with Economics Arkansas. And the last half of my teaching career I just see the benefit that it had for my students. I feel like I was a better teacher because I was making real-world connections in my classroom. So there’s kind of a part of me that feels sad that the first part of my teaching career those students didn’t get that knowledge.

RH: So you couldn’t be happier that you were once a third stringer.
MM: That’s right! I tell people that because I would have not initiated attending that workshop probably because I felt I was busy and overwhelmed with everything else that goes along with the world of teaching, but it turned out to be one of the best 10 days that I have spent in my entire lifetime.

RH: So let’s go back to ’62, the beginning of this program. The Arkansas Council on Economic Education. How did it start?
KL: So the Council started really from Dr. Arch Ford who was the Commissioner of Education at the time. And he really wanted students in Arkansas to really understand the free market system. And he felt that if students better understood the basic concepts of the free enterprise market economy that they would better just understand the dangers that other economic systems posed.

So Commissioner Ford really…it was his vision to start the Council on Economic Education and he appointed Bessie B. Moore as our first leader. And she really is such a legacy and really provided such a great foundation for this organization.

RH: So who was Bessie Moore? I’ve read that she knew everyone in Arkansas. I’ve read that she had an iron fist in a velvet glove. I know she was Executive Director from the start, ’62 until ’79 when she was 77, even after that into the Reagan years, she served on the National Commission of Libraries. And for many years she had a pancake house on the side. So tell me more about this woman.
MM: She started teaching as a teenager in Stone County, which is north of…northern part of our state. And she made an impact in the school setting there. But she had a love for economic education and literacy in general. And so she began to make an impact in our state. And I would say she has a footprint all over our state.

So when Dr. Ford was ready to find a pioneer for economic education, he didn’t have to look far to find Bessie. And you’re exactly right, we didn’t have the pleasure of knowing her but everyone that we’ve encountered, very notable people around the country, they all told us she was a force to be reckoned with. And she had such passion and commitment for spreading economic education that it was very hard to say no to Bessie.

RH: Did this program have an immediate impact or was it more a matter that just somebody and somebody with that iron fist in a velvet glove was doing something to nurture an understanding of personal finance and choices of your own volition and capitalism?
MM: So the Council began in 1962 when Dr. Ford reached out to Bessie to get the ball rolling. And just within a few years the first center of economic education started at Henderson State University, which is in Arkadelphia. And she saw the opportunity to have the multiplier effect by working with university centers for economic education as well as reaching out to media, clergy. She wanted everyone to have the opportunity to see the benefits of economic education.

And so within five years she was on our public television network producing lectures so that teachers could watch them. And I think it was a big fire that blazed and it just never stopped. As song as she was around, she was going to be stirring the pot and getting those different channels to spread the good news about economic education.

RH: Now, how was this program worked into a regular school curriculum?
MM: I think I’ll just answer that a little bit from a teacher perspective. We have standards, kindergarten through high school, that deal with economic education. Sometimes those seem a little abstract for teachers in a busy day and they’re not always top-notch as there are so many things that are tested in the world of curriculum and school settings. So our goal is that we help a teacher not see economics as an additional course to have to teach. We rather think that economic education is a part of everything they’re teaching.

If they’re reading a literacy book to a kindergarten student, that’s an opportunity to begin to talk about economic concepts. If they are working through math problems, why not apply real-world connections to understand budgeting, finance, I mean things like that, the whole idea of scarcity. And as it works up to in the high school setting, we have a requirement, a semester requirement, that students take economics for graduation.

RH: And that’s statewide now?
MM: That is, and we’re very grateful for that.

RH: Now, I’m guessing that it goes over pretty well with many if not most of the students because it’s practical.
MM: You know, that’s true. One of our superintendents that serves on our board has lunch with students and he calls it “Soup with a Supe.” And so he shared with us not long ago that some of the students said to him, you know, we need like a class called “Life” because we hear often from students who are like when they get out in the real world, they’re like, now what do I do? So our hope is that Economics is going to help them be successful.

So if you go back to Dr. Ford’s story, what we’ve heard from Joe, his son, was, when he went off to college and took Economics before it was really seen much in the setting K-12, he came home and it’s like, “I took this class called Economics and it really makes everything connect. Why didn’t we teach that?” And so that helped Dr. Ford see the importance of starting a K-12 initiative.

RH: But how easy is it to get beyond the fear of the unfamiliar, to get these children to see how really familiar and a part of every day that this really is?
MM: You know what’s funny is, I just was talking to a teacher earlier today who’s going to teach kindergarten. And she was like, “can I teach kindergarteners economics and financial literacy concepts.” And I said, “you sure can.”

It’s amazing at what a young age students can grasp concepts and hopefully, they begin to see the idea of scarcity, decision making, opportunity costs. They begin to see what a market’s like and how their role as a consumer and a producer are and how that interacts and impacts them.

So I think that sometimes it seems overwhelming to a teacher, especially secondary teachers, who are assigned to teach economics courses, have taken history, they’ve taken geography. They feel very comfortable teaching that. Many of them are a little overwhelmed when they’re assigned to teach Economics. We don’t see why that is because we see that as a great opportunity to help students connect.

And we do know that students can connect because it really does impact their world. We say, “you could teach Economics by picking up the newspaper. Look in the Sports section, you could teach a lot of economic concepts and the students then could relate and take it to apply to their future.”

RH: But teachers are overburdened to a great degree. Do you get any pushback from the teachers?
KL: You know, we’ve been really encouraged about the growth that we’ve had over the past few years. And I think we’ve just found some great new training opportunities that really appeal to teachers. Marsha does a great job of connecting economics in so many different ways.

But we also know that incentive is important. And so often with our workshops, we will provide incentive for teacher participation, and I think that’s helpful. I’ll let Marsha weigh in on this if she thinks there are other reasons. But we’ve really been encouraged by the participation level that we’ve had. And I think a lot of it is because we’re not teaching it in a silo, that economics is really embedded into other parts of what they’re teaching.

RH: So creating a better model.
KL: I think so.

RH: Marsha?
MM: I agree. I think at first, you’re right, there’s a barrier because so much professional development for a teacher is prescribed and their summers become smaller and smaller every year. So our goal is that we help them see the benefit of attending our workshop and how then transferring that to the classroom really makes their teaching richer, more integrated as they introduce the economics throughout their curriculum.

RH: And I’m assuming the training is somewhat transformative for many of the teachers and that most of them have no particular background in finance or the study of free enterprise.
KL: That is certainly true.

RH: What lessons have the teachers learned from the students?
MM: We hear stories often from teachers who, as they introduce and get involved in these projects, they are having ah-ha moments along with the students. We offer an awards program competition every year where teachers submit their innovative projects and judges in the economic education field will review those. And we salute these winners at a rather gala luncheon and it’s amazing the stories that we hear.

We had a counselor who worked in an alternative education environment and she began a bazaar, a market place with students. And they learned…they went through all the steps of what it meant to open your business. And these students were very nontraditional in many ways. And the ah-ha moments to them were like, “oh, I need to really work. I realize I’ve got to work to have money, to be able to do the things I want.” Or they learn lessons of how successful they were, what they needed to tweak in business practices.

So I think it’s helpful for a teacher as well as a student. But the students, as they’ve reviewed what they’ve learned, their reflections are impactful. We look at these projects that come in and we know it’s just a small sampling…(Unintelligible)amazed at what’s going on in our state. And our hope is that we just can spread that across the state so that all students in our state have the opportunity to learn those very important principles.

RH: I see last year a fourth-grade class in Fort Smith did a seven-week project in which they created a makeshift amusement park. They wrote a business plan, they interviewed their fellow students for jobs. This is fourth graders doing this, student employees in quotes, “employees,” and even went to a local bank to negotiate for a $100 loan. I can’t think of any experience I had in grade school that would have been anywhere near as valuable as that and as much fun.
MM: Isn’t that a terrific story? And we encourage our teachers to tell those stories. Because you’re right, I didn’t have that experience either. We also offer an investing simulation called the Stock Market Game. And I often say, I never knew how the market worked. I didn’t even know what the stock market was when I was in elementary. But yet we just honored a national winner who wrote an essay about a company she would want to work in because she had researched publicly traded companies. I know I didn’t know about publicly traded companies when I was in fourth grade.

RH: Your annual report says 13,000 students have played the Stock Market Game.
MM: We have heard from students who participated in the simulation. And they finished in dead last spot as far as their ranking but they loved the language of the market so much that they became financial advisers.

And then on the other hand, we’ve heard from students who, when they became able, they became investors themselves. Just at this last luncheon, some boys were telling us that had played for several years, that now they’re 18 and they’re starting to use apps on their phones to become investors. So I think that’s fabulous.

It’s just introduction to the language of the market so that when they get hired in their first job and they’re asked to invest in their own 401(k), they know what a stock, bond and mutual fund are. They’re familiar enough to not walk away from the table and leave that money that’s there for them without taking advantage of it.

RH: Wonderful. That will make their lives so much easier in the years and the decades to come. Now at the other end of the K-12, at the K end, you have a program called Itty-Bitty Economics.
KL: We love this program. It’s really through songs and play and art and children’s literature, all the things that speak to the Pre-K audience, kids as young a four years old can learn about economics and the economic way of thinking. So this program I just adore.

I tell this story because I love it–you can see it in our annual report–about a little four- year old that said, you know, “my sister ate the last Pop-Tart so we have Pop-Tart scarcity in our house.” And I just love that because that’s a big word for a little person, you know? And I think that’s a really great foundation that we’re helping to build right there at that Pre-K age group.

RH: And as someone who has interviewed a lot of entrepreneurs about the lemonade stands they had, you have a book as part of a statewide initiative, The Lemonade War. It’s designed to help parents get up to speed on Capitalism as well, right?
MM: We were very honored to offer that book and family opportunity really last year and this year. And we have been amazed by the stories that we’ve heard of those discussions that students had with their parents as well as how they applied it. So we’ve heard of lemonade stands all across our state that have popped up as a result after they’ve read that book.

And this year we’ve also added an additional book into the mix. In Central Arkansas the school district has had Shark Tank events all week with a culminating event on Saturday of budding entrepreneurs who are pitching their ideas to judges in our cities.

RH: Oh I’d love to be a part of that. That’d be so much fun. I noticed though that your annual report, I guess it was the 2017 report, said only four school districts used that Lemonade War book in the first year. How do you broaden that out?
MM: We continue to try to spread that message. So we had four school districts as a whole district that took advantage. But we also have had schools within other districts that participated, not as an entire district. But our hope is that we continue to spread the message and the benefits become more apparent and we’ll have more schools joining us in the future. So we have two book opportunities and we’ll be adding a third one in the next year. So lots of opportunities.

RH: Now Arkansas continues to rank near the bottom of states in per capita income. On the one hand there’s practically no unemployment. It’s well under three percent in Washington County, Fayetteville where the University is. Just to the North, Benton County as in the home of Walmart, also very low unemployment. But in the southeastern part, in the delta region, along the Mississippi, it’s a totally different story. So how does Economics Arkansas in an operational sense serve those two very different parts of the state?
MM: Our state is structured in that we have educational service centers called co-ops, cooperatives, where school districts join in and they then offer trainings in central locations. So our hope is that we get to visit those 15 co-ops and we are able to make an impact.

We certainly have that opportunity with some of our trainings this summer. And we continue to try to have that footprint across the state. And sometimes it is challenging, you’re right. But it is our goal that we hit every corner with this message. Kathleen, you may want to add to that. But I think the mode of delivery is the co-op system. It’s kind of been a go-to.
KL: And Marsha is right. I mean, the co-ops have definitely been a big avenue for us to reach teachers. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about and having conversations with folks around the state, is that I think for Economics Arkansas as we think about increasing impact, is to consider the 65,000 students that participate in a structured after-school program and how we can really leverage those settings as an additional place to teach students and to really get them engaged.

The Stock Market Game is a great example of that because there’s already a system in place for students to compete. So that’s really probably going to be our first area that we tackle. But, you know, I think and often with areas that face some of these challenges, there’s often a greater access to out of school programs. And so I think if we can consider ways to increase the capacity of those after-school providers to teach economics and personal finance, to do some entrepreneurship programming, I feel like we will have some great opportunity to make some additional traction there.

RH: And Kathleen, one last question, how is Economics Arkansas going to be better five years from now?
KL: That’s a great question because I’ve been on a listening tour across the state my first few months and I’ve asked that question to every board member and to a lot of potential community partners and donors. I’ll say, what do you want to see Economics Arkansas look like in five years? And I’ve had a lot of responses to that.

But I really just want to see greater impact. I’m really excited about our new partnership with Stephens, to provide the Pre-K-12 track around free enterprise education because I feel like that’s a big start that’s been really great where students can have multiple points of engagement throughout their K-12 experience with economic education. And I think if we can continue to build around this idea of a track and try to get, in every geographical part of the state, in every level of education, if we can really try to embed that program, I think that would be huge. And we know that we’ve got a really great start for that happening this school year.

RH: Bessie Moore would be pleased but I don’t think she’d be satisfied, not yet.

This is Capitalism and I’m Ray Hoffman.

About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.

About Ray Hoffman: Ray Hoffman, a veteran business journalist, is highly-regarded for his news and analysis features and insightful CEO interviews. Representing BusinessWeek on air for twenty-one years, Mr. Hoffman was the morning business news voice on the ABC Radio Networks from 1995 to 2006. Mr. Hoffman also represented The Wall Street Journal, on air, for eleven years. His daily WCBS CEO Radio feature was recognized by the New York Press Club as best radio business news report in both 2012 and 2015. In this podcast, Mr. Hoffman invites some of America’s most dynamic CEOs to share their stories as business builders and perspectives on free enterprise.