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(MCT)—To improve financial literacy, you have to reach children at an early age so they can establish a strong foundation.

Texas is off to a good start.

Starting with the current school year, students from kindergarten through eighth grade are required to take financial literacy lessons in their math classes.

And high school seniors get required lessons in financial literacy, economics and how to pay for college.

In addition, state standards for what students should know require that kindergartners through 12th-graders learn financial literacy, entrepreneurship and economics as part of social studies lessons.

Last week, teachers in the Dallas area were able to expand their knowledge during the 53rd annual Financial and Economic Literacy Conference.

The gathering convened educators, organizations and experts working to raise the bar for financial education.

The conference is designed to help teachers incorporate financial learning in the classroom.

“We need to give financial literacy the kind of respect that we give to other subjects,” says Nan Morrison, chief executive of the council. “We teach kids arithmetic when they’re little so they can take calculus when they’re in high school. Yet for financial literacy, we just expect that if we toss something at them in high school, they might be prepared.

“We should be teaching the concepts, the building blocks, from a very early age.”

Also needed are teachers qualified to teach financial literacy, she says.

“Instead, we assign somebody to it,” Morrison says. “We would never say, ‘You read great books, you can teach literature.’ We kind of throw them in there without the lessons or the training.”

Efforts to increase financial education in schools don’t let parents off the hook.

“The solution in building financial capability and capacity is to start young, with parents modeling positive financial decision-making,” says Laura Ewing, chief executive of the Texas Council on Economic Education. “Next, the schools reinforce the parental messages by adding more structured lessons and practices.”

These programs are sorely needed, as evidenced by a report this summer by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The report says just 1 in 10 teenagers around the world are able to make some key—but complex—financial decisions, including choosing among various loans or analyzing invoices and pay slips.

In the U.S., the OECD says, only 9.4 percent of 15-year-olds were able to answer the most difficult questions on an international test of financial knowledge and skills.

Financial literacy is an essential life skill for young people.

“Unless we can force change on these issues, millions of young people who lack the skills to make effective financial decisions will find it harder to become productive and capable citizens,” says Richard Cordray, director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“Unnecessary debt, missed opportunities to save money, poor credit history, and a general feeling of helplessness and desperation at finding themselves underwater throughout their lives will block them from the resources and opportunities that could improve their futures.”

Pamela Yip is a personal finance columnist for the Dallas Morning News.

©2014 The Dallas Morning News

Distributed by MCT Information Services