When it comes to teaching economics, Mira Loma High School teacher Chad Posner seemingly has a golden touch.
On Tuesday, Posner learned that his 34 economics students, a class of juniors and seniors, had scooped up the state's top honors in a national financial literacy competition.
It wasn't even close. Divided into teams of three and four students, Posner's students earned nine of California's top 10 spots on the National Personal Finance Challenge a timed, online test covering banking, taxes, investing, savings and other personal economics topics.
"It's amazing. It's never happened to have one school take all the top spots," said Elle Charles, spokeswoman for the California Council on Economic Education, which sponsored the online exam taken by teams from 70 high schools statewide. "This is an incredibly hard test, even for adults."
How'd he do it? "To be honest, I have a hard time figuring out how it happened. I'm really still shocked," said Posner, whose students took the 30-question, 60-minute online test without calculators in mid-March.
But he shouldn't be. The last two years, his economics students scored extremely well on a different financial literacy exam the "financial capability challenge," sponsored by the U.S. Treasury.
That contest wasn't offered this year, so Posner searched online and stumbled onto the alternative, the national personal finance challenge. It's sponsored by a group of university centers, private foundations and state councils focused on economics education.
This year, his top-scoring team four girls who are all 17-year-old juniors will compete May 2 against winning teams from 42 other states at the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis. The four Jia Lee, Hang Liang, Jennifer Tan and Kayla Umemoto earned a combined near-perfect score.
In phone interviews, all four confessed they hadn't studied much but were happily surprised that Mira Loma swept the competition.
"When (Posner) teaches, he uses real-world experiences, so we are more informed. It's not theoretical," said Hang Liang, who said she learned about practical needs such as renter's insurance and how to shop for student loans with the best interest rates.
Mira Loma's acclaim comes during "national financial literacy month," which focuses on the need for more money-management skills among Americans of all ages.
A majority of teens 53 percent say they want to learn more about how to manage their money, according to a 2010 back-to-school survey of parents and teens, by Capital One Financial Corp.
In California, legislators such as state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, have been pushing bills for years to make personal finance a mandatory requirement in high school. Currently, California high school students are required to take one semester of economics to graduate, but personal finance is not mandated as part of the curriculum.
"If we had a lot more teachers like Posner, we wouldn't need any more bills like mine," said Lieu, whose most recent financial literacy bill was held up in committee last year. "If you view K-12 education as preparing students for life, then every school district in the state ought to be teaching financial literacy."
Posner spends about a month focusing on personal finance during his yearlong economics course, part of Mira Loma's rigorous International Baccalaureate program.
He brings some real-world financial background to his classroom. About a decade ago, while teaching high school, he felt burned by bad financial advice on his 403(b) teacher retirement plan. Bothered that he'd been misled, he enrolled in a UC Davis personal finance certificate program and eventually got licensed to sell insurance and other financial products.
He spent more than a year as a financial adviser, but eventually decided that sales wasn't his passion and returned to the classroom.
Knowing that economics can be dry as toast, the married father of a 13-year-old peppers his curriculum with real-life examples taken from his own life, as well as his former clients. He gives his students hypothetical situations on taking out a mortgage, getting a student loan, investing in a 401(k), then lets them problem-solve the answers.
His beyond-the-textbook approach apparently works.
"(The class) really opened my eyes," said Jennifer Tan, who said the economic concepts she's learned will help her make "more informed decisions" once she's old enough to vote. And, she said, it underscored the importance of knowing how to save money during college, as well as for her far-in-the- future retirement.
SMARTER THAN A HIGH SCHOOLER?
If you want to test your smarts on personal finances, here are sample questions from the 2008 National Personal Finance Challenge, an online test given to participating high school teams. For details: financechallenge.org
1. Rising interest rates are beneficial to:
A. Businesses buying new equipment or building new facilities.
B. People buying a new home.
C. Savers and lenders.
D. Consumers with credit card balances.
2. John is buying a car: one costs $20,000 and the other $18,000. If sales tax is 8 percent and he is financing the entire purchase at 10 percent simple interest for one year, what is the actual difference in cost of these two cars?
SMARTER THAN A HIGH SCHOOLER?
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3. Over two-thirds of all income earned in the U.S. is what kind of income?
A. Profits from small businesses and corporations.
B. Dividends and interest earned on stocks and bonds.
C. Wages and salaries from selling labor services.
D. Rents and royalties earned from selling land/natural resources.
4. An employee works 40 hours a week at $10 per hour and has $50 in federal income taxes, $20 in state taxes and $30 in Social Security taxes deducted each week. In addition, the employee saves $20 per week. What is this employee's net pay?
5. "Pay yourself first" means which of these?
A. Pay all your bills before setting aside any savings.
B. Budget your income for things that give you the most satisfaction.
C. Allocate part of your income to savings before budgeting your spending.
D. Pay off credit card balances before buying more on credit.
6. Steven's monthly net pay is $1,200. He wants to save 15 percent each month. If his monthly expenses (except entertainment) are $800, how much can he spend on entertainment?
7. The best indicator of the cost of a loan is:
A. Amount of monthly payments
B. Number of payments
C. Finance charges
D. Annual percentage rate
8. What 3 criteria are typically most important in choosing an investment?
A. Collateral, credit and convenience
B. Rate of return, risk and liquidity
C. Dividends earned, interest paid, taxes owed
D. Stocks, bonds and real estate
9. What does a credit bureau do?
A. Grants loans to people with low credit scores.
B. Provides advice on how to lower credit card debt.
C. Tracks the bill-paying habits of consumers
D. Sends warnings to people with debt problems.
10. How much would Bill save each year if he switches from a $4 cup of coffee each morning to a cup of tea (50 cents for teabag/hot water)?
Call The Bee's Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance blog, www.sacbee.com/personalfinanceblog.