A green chalkboard with the alphabet written on it © Ocean, Corbis

If the U.S. education system can't teach Johnny how to read, it's not surprising it can't teach him how to balance his checkbook or calculate compound interest.

A report out this month from the Champlain College Center for Financial Literacy (CFL) in Vermont finds that the vast majority of states are doing a poor or mediocre job of educating high school students in key financial skills. The report card, which awarded each state a letter grade, gave 60% of the states a C or less; 44% of those received D or F grades.

John Pelletier, director of the CFL and author of the 2013 National Report Card on State Efforts to Improve Financial Literacy in High Schools, argues that to make programs successful at the high school level, "financial literacy topics must be taught in a course that students are required to take as a graduation requirement."

The other essential ingredients for success are increased teacher training, funding to ensure that classes are offered to all high school students, and standardized assessments that insure that training is working.

A generational 'money' gap

In the aftermath of the 2008 banking and real estate crises, experts say financial education is critical to helping young adults better handle everything from credit card debt to student loans, and to make more complex choices about investing and mortgages. Since there's no national curriculum standard for teaching financial literacy, questions remain about who should teach the classes and even whether funding should come from public or private sources. As a result, the quality of financial education varies wildly from state to state and from district to district.

A-rated states like Virginia, Utah, Tennessee and Missouri are the only ones in the report that require a one-semester stand-alone class in personal finance as a graduation requirement. Tennessee, Georgia and Idaho (the latter two also received A's) require students to be assessed on their knowledge of financial topics.

Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Washington, on the other hand, all received failing grades because they have few or no requirements for personal-finance education in high school.

A low priority

For some schools, financial literacy is just not a top priority. "If your (students) can't read, or you're struggling with gang problems (in your neighborhoods), financial literacy is fairly low on the list," says Carol Roth, a former investment banker and the author of The Entrepreneur Equation.

So how does financial education fight its way in, when every subject in cash-strapped school districts is competing for its own piece of the dwindling budget pie?

Not easily, according to Todd Harrison, founder and CEO of Minyanville, a New York-based financial education and media website. Harrison's company has developed a financial literacy curriculum that has failed to gain entry into public schools. He blames a "labyrinth of politics in the school systems" that are hesitant to experiment with alternative teaching methods and that undervalue financial education.

"A financial framework is entirely more important then just an elective program," he says. "It should be mandatory."