U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka listened yesterday to Al Landon, chairman of Bank of Hawaii, at the 2004 Economic and Financial Literacy Conference in Waikiki.

Education dilemma

Question: What do budget deficits and inflation have in common?
Answer: Many Hawaii students do not know what those terms mean

HAWAII youths lack some of the basic knowledge of economics needed to cope in today's financially sophisticated world, and the problem is getting worse, local business and community leaders said yesterday.

Basics not understood

A multiple-choice test asked Hawaii high school seniors to select the correct definition for economics and finance concepts. Here are some results:

Correct "Don't know"
Stock market: 44.9% 32.2 %
Inflation: 22.5% 40.2%
Budget deficit: 28.7% 36.7%

That downbeat assessment followed the release of a study that found seniors in local public high schools could correctly answer little more than half, or 53.5 percent, of the questions on a multiple-choice economics and finance test.

The results of that test were unveiled yesterday at the 2004 Economic and Financial Literacy Conference in Waikiki.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who opened the conference, said the findings show that many Hawaii youths are ill-equipped to make ends meet and avoid financial pitfalls such as excessive debt.

"Our students are entering the work force unprepared to deal with the tough financial decisions that they will soon face," he said.

The gathering was attended by bankers, educators, politicians and social workers, who blamed inadequate school curricula and lack of student interest. They also linked financial ignorance to everything from business failures to poverty to drug abuse.

The survey, conducted in February and March by the Hawaii Council on Economic Education and the state Department of Education, tested 521 students in 19 public schools that offered economics courses.

This year's survey results are down from 2003, when students were correct an average 59.8 percent of the time.

Twelve out of the 20 questions on the test were correctly answered by more than half of students, but several questions gave students problems, mainly in macroeconomic issues.

For example, only 44.9 percent of students chose the correct definition for "stock market"; just 28.7 percent did the same for "budget deficit"; and only 22.5 percent displayed a basic understanding of the effect of inflation on personal finances.

The study also found that just 15 percent of the seniors said they had taken a full economics class, while 43 percent had had no classes with any economics or consumer education component at all.

"We're slipping and it's showing," said Denise Konan, chairwoman of the University of Hawaii-Manoa's Economics Department.

On several questions, substantial percentages of students selected "don't know," including 40.2 percent on the inflation question.

"The fact that students didn't even know enough to venture a guess is a real wake-up call," Konan said.

Bank of Hawaii Chairman Al Landon lamented economics' image as the "dismal science" in his keynote speech, but teachers said this image will remain unless the Department of Education replaces its hidebound, optional economics offerings with courses that are more relevant and personally compelling to students.

"You gotta get them to buy into it. If you just call it 'Economics 101' and throw a bunch of charts at them, you're going to lose them," said Michael Staszko, a teacher at Honokaa High School, whose elective economics class suffers from "horribly low" enrollment of just six students.

Some new course offerings may be made available in the future, said Katherine Kawafuchi, assistant superintendent in the DOE's office of Curriculum and Instruction. New economics courses could result from a department effort to revise standards for its social studies offerings, but the curricula likely wouldn't be seen until the 2006-07 school year.

Central Pacific Bank Chief Executive Clint Arnoldus told the conference that financial illiteracy is a key factor in the failures of many of the small businesses that form the backbone of Hawaii's economy. He said it creates a subpar labor force and an inability of businesses to handle their own success.

"A lot of companies just grow themselves to death. They're good at one thing -- making their product --but they have little knowledge of how to marshal their resources, and eventually run out of cash," he said.

Hawaii Council on Economic Education


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