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Teaching critical life skills: Corporate America takes on the missing learning layer

May 17, 2021, 9:00 AM UTC
Tom Davidson asks, “Why not teach young people, as part of their school day, how to open accounts, access student aid, manage loans, navigate their credit, and access the on-ramp to the ownership society?”

The pandemic has cast a bright light on the inequities in America’s education system. These have manifested in many ways, including the lack of equal access to broadband and vast disparities in school funding. Poverty levels, lack of access to the systems that provide societal advantages, and woefully disparate investments have created a symphony of crises for children in American schools. 

We are better than this. 

As schools are reopening—following a year that gutted many to the core—administrators, teachers, and parents are contemplating what education will look like in the fall. There is some good news. School districts have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink their curriculum and focus on building a foundation that begins to close the gap on systemic inequities. It can begin with this generation of students.

There is an infrastructure opportunity here. We must build the missing layer of education—the instruction that prepares students with the skills to build more vibrant and healthy lives. Central to the debate over education innovation is the question: What should be included in the core curriculum? Currently, it is a combination of subjects like reading, math, and science, but when do we teach students about the building blocks of personal economic and financial security, mental health and wellness, sustainable lifestyles and environmental protection, to name a few? Have we given them the tools to build wealth and economic opportunities for themselves and their families? How are they being prepared for the jobs and skills of the future like data science and understanding cryptocurrency? We need a more comprehensive, structured road map for all students to ensure long-term success and drive ecosystems of change. 

This gaping hole is society’s missing learning layer. Our schools and teachers are doing the Herculean work of educating children, feeding children, and advocating for children. However, in order to fully prepare students for an ever-changing future, parents and teachers are left to harvest the far corners of the Internet for guidance and answers. To build this missing layer of education—one that’s been absent for decades—schools will need the resources to extend learning beyond the current core curriculum. 

I learned lessons on critical skills through trial and error. I graduated from high school with a semi-thorough understanding of calculus and physics, but no appreciation for the implications of credit card debt, accessing and managing student loans, or understanding the health system. I learned, by mistake, the costs built into this widespread illiteracy. It hits us in our pockets and knocks us down by undermining our health. And it often becomes a cycle handed down from generation to generation. This is not a unique story. 

Even before the pandemic, Americans of all ages were living without the critical knowledge to build a stable financial future. Today, only 21 states require personal finance coursework as a condition for graduating from high school. Match this with the fact that there is a $150,000-plus racial wealth gap in household net worth in this country. With a foundational understanding of personal finance, including stocks and securities, students can start to understand financial tools and learn how to build wealth. The financial system can be dynamic and perilous. Why not teach young people, as part of their school day, how to open accounts, access student aid, manage loans, navigate their credit, and access the on-ramp to the ownership society? 

The pandemic has also exacerbated issues related to mental wellness and health care, two additional crises that reside within the missing learning layer. According to the World Health Organization, half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age. If quarantine has taught us anything, it’s that loneliness weighs on our young people. Prescription drugs taken nonmedically are among the drugs most commonly used by 12th-graders. And, nearly 46 million Americans say they would struggle to afford quality health care. Why not educate students on these critically important issues at scale? 

There is a system of interconnected crises facing our youth when they are in school and as they enter the workforce. Now is the time to reimagine our system of education and put more focus on reaching students with a proven educational road map to tackle these systemic issues and teach life’s most critical skills. 

As a former state legislator turned entrepreneur, I have spent my career researching, advocating, and building technology solutions for the democratization of critical-skills education. Like many I have expected that the government will lead the charge in solving society’s biggest problems. But it’s no longer the case that the public sector can do this, at least not alone. Governments change, philosophies change, political priorities change, and this results in a whiplashing of students and families with inconsistent policies and programs that are funded one year and gone the next. This churn, combined with tightening education budgets, only contributes to the list of growing problem sets and the lack of meaningful ways to combat these issues. 

However, there is a way to address this: by democratizing education and recognizing the vital role of Corporate America. To ensure these critical skills are part of the core curriculum across the country, the private sector must step up with its vast resources, both financial and nonfinancial. Simply put, we need more private funding to tackle these issues in the classroom. 

The good news: This model of inviting corporations to invest in K–12 education works. For more than 13 years, EverFi has worked with corporations and organizations— including Beyond Meat, MassMutual Foundation, Mastercard, Truist, and UBS, among hundreds of others—to deliver the road map of digital critical-skills education into the classroom. EverFi has succeeded in these efforts through the development of a scalable educational software solution and close collaboration with school districts, schools, and teachers, along with a maniacal focus on tracking knowledge gain. The result: To date, more than 46 million learners have received at least one course related to the missing learning layer. 

The learning outcomes are impressive and worthy of significant discourse, as they play a critical role in a student’s long-term stability and success. According to a recent study of middle school students who took one of our financial literacy courses, students reported a gain of as much as 22% in knowledge on that subject. This data is powerful because the gain is consistent across the board, despite any differences in age, gender, school year, or socioeconomic status of the student. So why not ensure that every single middle school student in the country benefits from this education? After all, it is available to schools at no cost and is funded by the private sector.

EverFi has collected an impressive repository of student learning data to prove our thesis of impact—that reaching students at a young age can drive ecosystems of change. We have aggregated data from the millions of learners who have taken our educational courses, and for the first time, we will be sharing this data to inspire a fresh look at how education on critical skills can benefit students in the long game. This data will also showcase insights we have gathered from students, educators, and school districts nationwide on the societal advantages provided by education on the missing learning layer. EverFi has partnered with Fortune to offer readers an exclusive view of this data through a 10-part “report card” titled The State of Education in Americaa series of reported stories that will launch on Fortune.com this fall.

Although this moment in our history will be marked by painful and challenging times, I am inspired by new collaborations that will reimagine education. We can build this missing learning layer of critical life skills and break this cycle, starting today.

Tom Davidson is the founder and CEO of EverFi. 

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