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Canadian kids earn high rankings on financial literacy

Comparison of developed nations show Ontario teens near the top of the class in PISA test results.

Canadian teens earn high rankings in financial literacy — including in Ontario, where changes to the curriculum have paid off in the latest round of international testing.

The seven participating provinces outranked almost all other jurisdictions in the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, coming in third overall after China and the Flemish community in Belgium.

“We are pleased that Ontario students performed among the top jurisdictions in the world in financial literacy,” said Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter of the test written by 15-year-olds. “I want to thank all of our educators for their hard work in helping students reach their full potential. Ontario believes preparing students to be financially literate is essential to student success and a brighter future.”

In 2011, for the first time, the province began adding financial literacy to a number of different areas of the curriculum starting in Grade 4. It is also now piloting a project in 28 high schools to include the topic in the mandatory Grade 10 careers course.

“In the classroom, students are learning about saving, spending and investing money, and to develop the critical skills needed in today’s complex financial world,” Hunter also said in a statement. The Grade 10 changes would help teens specifically “plan for their future jobs and map out a financial path to get them there.”

The PISA study found 87 per cent of Canadian teens have reached a level 2 — the minimum level of financial literacy needed to function in society, which is well above the average of the other countries that included the United States, Russia, the Netherlands and Australia.

About one-quarter of teens tested level 3, some 24 per cent reached level 4, and 22 per cent performed at the top level 5.

Level 2 includes skills such as keeping a bank book or paying off bills, said Mary Reid, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, who instructs future teachers on math strategies.

“Ideally, we want to work toward level 5 — it’s a high sophistication level, solving your financial problems and how it impacts not just yourself, but society — the decisions you make in your purchases really have implications on so many levels,” she said.

“The coffee you drank this morning — were the beans harvested under humane labour laws? That’s all financial literacy . . . these are critical consumer decisions that we make.”

Financial literacy is now embedded in all areas of the curriculum — in literacy, character development, ethics and social justice. “It’s more than counting pennies and dollars,” Reid said.

“We’ve got kids who are going to go into debt because they have to pay university fees — is that worth it? That’s a level 5 decision. It’s a huge investment — four years, tuition is expensive, you have to live away from home — but are you going to get a good career out of it? Those are complex financial decisions that are relevant.

“It goes beyond counting your money and spending within what you have.”

Dan Lang, also a professor at OISE, believes the push for better knowledge has been fuelled by the economy.

While five or six years ago, such strong results would have been a surprise, teachers and schools have been responsive.

“The gap between identifying the problem (and fixing it)” has meant a “rapid catch-up,” Lang said, adding the province benefitted from projects in the U.S., which has a similar economy and had been developing lessons in the area for some time.

The PISA study also found that while Canadian children whose parents attended college or university performed best — mirroring most standardized test trends — there was no difference between immigrants and non-immigrants.

It’s good news that Ontario is doing so well, Reid added.

“Level 1 is being able to recognize the difference between needs and wants,” said the math expert. “That’s your first really big foundational idea, and that’s embedded in a lot of our curriculum as teachers — as teachers we work really hard on that big idea.”

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