SALT LAKE CITY — Students in Syd Lott's financial literacy class this week started playing what he calls "the national stock market game."
Each student is given a figurative amount of $100,000 to trade real stocks with each other in almost-real time, mirroring what goes on in the stock exchange every day. At the same time, they learn the basics of investing and financial management.
It's a fun way to fulfill graduation requirements and state law.
"Kids just think it's the greatest thing on earth," Lott said.
Utah isn't the only state that teaches the basics of finance in school, but some of the policies behind the state's general financial literacy course is drawing high praise from national audiences.
Utah was the only state to get an A+ on a report released Tuesday by Chaplain College, which examined each state's efforts to teach financial literacy in their schools. Utah earned the grade for implementing policy that goes well beyond what other states require their students and teachers to do when it comes to financial learning.
"They stand head and shoulders above any other state," said John Pelletier, director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College in Vermont. "There is no other state in the nation that is taking this as seriously as they are" in Utah.
Four other states, including Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, got an A on the annual report, and nearly half the country overall got either an A or a B. Almost 1 in 4 states got an F in their efforts to provide personal finance education to their high school students.
It's an improvement from two years ago, when only 20 states got an A or a B, and 11 states got a D, eight more than this year.
"It's a mixed bag. There are some states that are doing a great job. There are some states that are doing an OK job, and there are some states that are really not doing much at all," Pelletier said.
So what sets Utah apart?
Financial literacy has been taught as a high school course in Utah for more than a decade. During that time, education leaders have developed specific standards for the course, with curriculum that covers goal setting, income and careers, savings, investing, retirement planning and other subjects.
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that called for updating the standards, requiring students to pass an online 72-question finance test in order to graduate, and requiring instructors to obtain up to 16 credit hours of training in order to teach the class. The law also provided $450,000 to implement the changes and bring teachers up to speed on the new policies.
The standards and curriculum are publicly available on Utah's financial literacy website, financeintheclassroom.org.
Those elements put Utah beyond other states, most of which only require students to take a course or complete personal finance curriculum as an integrated part of another general education course.
"The state of Utah should be commended for its efforts," the report states. "General financial literacy is a funded mandate in Utah."
Lott teaches several subjects at Skyline High School in Salt Lake City, including basic and advanced versions of economics and personal finance. For him, being able to help his students understand why the Great Recession happened, how to manage and avoid debt, and why they should plan for their future is a way to make a long-term impact in his students' lives.
"I love that it's required," he said. "We have a huge bankruptcy problem in the state. The number of homes that are getting foreclosed during the recession was abnormally high for what our population is as a middle-class state. It was because people just didn't know any better."
But he said he has mixed feelings when it comes to the state policy requiring teachers to take — and pay for — up to 16 credits beyond what some teachers needed for a teaching certificate.
Those credits could include personal finance, economics, math and related electives offered through the Utah Education Network and accredited through Southern Utah University. Teachers can take the classes online at $21 per credit hour.
Teachers do not have to have the extra training until September next year. If, by then, they have nine credits completed, they can be put on a state-approved endorsement plan that will give them another two years, according to Dawn Stevenson, coordinator for career awareness, dropout prevention and financial literacy at the Utah State Office of Education.
Lott is currently working toward the certification, but it's a heavy load to bear in addition to his normal work in the classroom, he said.
"We probably need something, and probably, teachers should go through some training in order to teach the class. I think as a state, we went way overboard," he said. "I'm killing myself right now taking multiple online courses, trying to do it. I won't be fully qualified when they expect us to be next year. At this point, as far as we can tell, it's impossible for anybody to do what they're asking."
Other schools have had difficulty finding instructors to teach the class and have had to administer the program entirely online, Lott said.
Stevenson said state education officials have tried to offer the credits at as low a cost as possible. She said "many" teachers already meet most, if not all, certification requirements based on what they took in college. That especially includes instructors with a business license or those who teach family and consumer science.
"Many of the teachers are kind of anxious about the endorsement," Stevenson said. "I do think that we have many good and dedicated instructors. They have been doing a good job, and we're just asking them to continue to hone their skills, upgrade their expectations and improve education."
With ongoing changes to rules and necessary practices of financial well-being, Pelletier said it's becoming more important for students to understand how to navigate it all. And other states have much they can learn from Utah, he said, such as teacher training and the state's financial literacy website.
"You have a program where you're trying to make sure educators have the confident skills and curriculum tools to be successful in the classroom," he said. "You're giving the educators who are responsible for teaching a whole bunch of tools right there at their fingertips.
"When I look at what Utah has done, they've done so many things right," he said.
Local support for financial literacy education remains strong, and teachers hope it will benefit families in all levels of economic health.
They also hope it will contribute to current successes, including the fact that Utah is 17 percent below the national average in the portion of college pupils that take out student loans, and 21 percent below the national average in the amount they borrow, according to a Utah System of Higher Education report.
"I know it's made a difference in the choices a lot of my students have made, in terms of staying in state instead of going out of state" for college, Lott said. "It is a really important thing for these kids."