Quick, what's the hot topic among socially minded financiers? If you said financial literacy, you get a gold star.
Any number of banks, brokerages and other financial service companies are offering games and software that promise to help people, especially students, get smarter about money. The problem is, not many of these efforts have had much effect.
(Read more: Financial literacy games: tools or toys?)
Research by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, shows that financial literacy actually deteriorated slightly between 2009 and 2012, and the results were worst for the youngest group of people.
What would work better? Teens themselves have some ideas. Just listen to the students in Maggie Wohltmann's business education classes at New Jersey's Teaneck High School.
Many of the students at this large, ethnically diverse suburban school tend to prefer active learning. Keressa Morgan, a 10th grader, said the best part of Wohltmann's class so far has been a real-life simulation.
"We right now are doing a family budget," Keressa said, describing an exercise where Wohltmann pairs off her students into "couples" and has them use real-world prices and rates to manage scenarios like the arrival of a new child or the purchase of a car.
(Read more: Warren Buffett: How to teach your kids about money)
"It's nice to budget our incomes and mortgages and monthly expenses, things that are fixed and variable. It's really helpful. Now when I go out into the real world, I know how to do things for myself," Keressa said.
She said the partner exercise "gives you a real feel for real life and how things are going to go rather than have the typical classroom setting."
Students also like lessons about money issues that are relevant to them right now. Chris Lee, a sophomore at Teaneck, dreams of attending a top college and becoming an engineer. Since he is already thinking about careers, he wants to know "more about getting jobs and the availability of jobs, credit ratings and having good credit," he said.
Lessons with immediate, concrete value also resonate. Deja Marsh, a Teaneck junior, has a part-time job at ShopRite. She has been happy to have money coming in, since she is saving up for a car. But her paycheck was mystifying to her—until Wohltmann showed the class what all those deductions mean.
"I didn't know that since I was a minor I wasn't supposed to get taxes taken out of my check," Deja said. "After that class, I went to my boss and told him I learned this, and he said, 'Oh yeah, you can fill out this form.'"
(Read more: 8 tips to stick to your holiday budget)
Plenty of teens are less than sensible with their money, overspending on clothes and fast food and putting little or nothing away. But they respond much better to helpful suggestions for changing their ways than they do to negativism about their habits.
For example, Deja and Keressa appreciate the positive suggestions they've received to make saving easier. Deja now allows herself to spend every other paycheck, and she puts the other away. "Before, I used to always spend my money and never think about saving it," she said. Now, "I'm saving so much more. I have a check for one week, say $200, and I know that has to last." Wohltmann, she said, ""is really gentle with us and it sticks."
Keressa also appreciates the lessons on saving. "I had a bank account before the class, but this class helped me learn a lot more about it and how it's helpful to keep putting money in it."
These lessons are especially potent, since a recent report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that banks and financial institutions spend, on average, 25 times as much on marketing financial products as they do on financial education.
That is probably not the case at PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has created an extensive program to promote financial literacy, including enlisting managers to teach lessons on budgeting, credit and more at schools like Teaneck. (The initiative also includes training for educators.)
Lisa Schiff, a director at PwC who recently taught budgeting at Teaneck, sometimes starts sessions by asking students what they last spent money on so she can work those items into her lessons. "Hands on lessons" work best, she said, along with "interjecting personal stories. It kind of brings what's on a paper to their home."
Schiff also suggests that students bring home the budgeting handouts she brings to discuss with their families.
"To me, this whole concept of personal financial literacy is critical," she said. Taught right, the lessons will even stick.
—By CNBC's Kelley Holland. Follow her on Twitter