When former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell recently launched an initiative designed to put economics in the junior-high-school curriculum, he was bolstering a trend that has already made the topic the second-most-required subject area in the field of social studies.
Only U.S. history is required by more states than economics instruction, according to recent surveys.
Spurred in part by the reform movement and a growing involvement of business in education, the effort to raise the economic literacy of American young people has advanced, in some cases, to include children as young as preschoolers.
"When I used to talk about teaching economics to 8th graders, eyebrows went up,'' says Ronald A. Banaszak, vice president of the Foundation for Teaching Economics, a group helping direct the four-year effort Mr. Bell will lead. "Now, people say, 'How do we do it?'''
Twenty-seven states now require some form of economics instruction, according to Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council of the Social Studies.
Though most of these requirements involve the incorporation of economics coursework into other subject areas, a survey by the Joint Council on Economic Education has found that, between 1981 and 1986, the number of states requiring a separate course in economics more than doubled, to 15.
The demand for instructional resources in the field, educators say, has sent hundreds of thousands of teachers to economics-training workshops, and caused a proliferation of curriculum-development efforts by private organizations.
But according to Mr. Bell, such efforts have not yet gone far enough. In announcing the new junior-high-school initiative in February, he said that too much of the current economics-instruction movement is concentrated in the high-school years, reaching students too late to have an impact.
In addition, he said, instruction generally fails to link economics with other areas of the curriculum.
"Most modern civics courses do an adequate job of teaching about the structure of government,'' Mr. Bell told the American Association of School Administrators in February, "but the importance of our economic system and our social institutions receive too little attention in the classroom.''
Both areas are essential, he said, in preparing students "for the future they will face as citizens of the 21st century.''
The effort Mr. Bell is helping lead will include the development, field-testing, and evaluation of curricular materials. It is being directed by the Constitutional Rights Foundation and the Foundation for Teaching Economics, of which Mr. Bell is a trustee.
The materials will place economics in a "real world'' context, making the subject more understandable and enjoyable to students, according to Mr. Banaszak, who is the foundation's vice president for educational programs.
The materials will also help students develop their decisionmaking skills, which Robert W. Reinke, director of product planning and marketing of the Joint Council on Economic Education, calls the ultimate aim of economics education.
"We should end up with better decisionmakers as time goes on,'' he said in an interview last week.
While economics is not new to the school curriculum, its popularity began rising in the late 1970's, when the nation's economic problems signaled a need for greater economic awareness.
"Traditionally, we used to say that when the economy is not doing well, people are interested in teaching economics,'' said Mr. Banaszak.
The subject's momentum grew during the early 1980's, when several surveys, including one by the Hearst Corporation, showed that most Americans were unfamiliar with such basic concepts as the Dow-Jones industrial average.
At the same time, education-reform reports, including Mr. Bell's ANation at Risk commission study, urged economics education as a way not only to help students grasp a body of information essential to their lives and citizenship, but also as a means of developing their thinking skills.
"It was viewed as a subject that could bring up the level of general literacy,'' said Mr. Reinke.
Another factor in the subject's growth, said Ms. Haley of the social-studies council, has been the increasing involvement of businesses in education.
"This is part of the larger picture of business and industry's concern with knowledge that will help people as economic citizens,'' she said.
The growing number of states mandating economics instruction, however, has created an overwhelming demand for teacher training, said Sanford Gordon, executive director of the New York State Council on Economic Education.
"The average high-school social-studies teacher had a one- or two-semester course [in economics], and it was taken 20 years ago,'' he said. "There is a desperate need for training.''
When the New York State Board of Regents mandated economics instruction in 1985, Mr. Gordon said, scores of districts, including the state's five largest cities, contracted with the council to provide training.
The Joint Council on Economic Education, through its network of 50 state councils and 270 university-based centers, has, since 1949, provided graduate-level courses and inservice workshops for teachers. Though most are privately funded, some receive state funds.
Some state councils also provide other services. The New York council, for example, will make available "human resources,'' Mr. Gordon said, such as economists, bankers, industrialists, and labor leaders willing to visit economics classrooms.
The New York council has also produced a textbook on the state's economy, which has been used as a model by other states, he added.
But even in states without mandates, such as Missouri, teachers have been signing up in increasing numbers for council workshops. The Missouri council trains 6,000 teachers a year, according to Stephen G. Buckles, director of the University of Missouri's center for economic education. That represents an eighth of the state's total teaching force of 48,000.
"There is an increasing realization on the part of many teachers that they have been missing opportunities in history and civics to teach economics,'' Mr. Buckles said. "The demand for our courses has increased significantly.''
David Martin, executive director of the Georgia Council on Economic Education, said that workshops are open to teachers from all grade levels--including those from the Head Start program--since some teachers in all grades incorporate economics into their lessons.
Even students in preschool programs can be taught rudimentary economic concepts, he said, such as scarcity and money as a means of exchange.
Likewise, teachers in the elementary grades are providing a market for the economics curriculum materials developed by private groups. For example, "Return to Mocha,'' an animated film produced by the Amoco Foundation, attempts to explain the concepts of international trade to students, beginning in grade 6. It has been well received since its release in January, according to company officials.
"The response has been tremendous,'' said Judith Kaminsky, a program-development analyst for the Amoco Corporation. "Teachers are looking for a good tool to use.''
But despite such heightened interest among elementary and junior-high-school teachers, most economics instruction continues to occur in high school, where it is usually taught as a watered-down college subject, said Mr. Banaszak of the Foundation for Teaching Economics.
What led the foundation, created in 1975, to consider teaching the subject in the junior-high-school years, he said, was the fact that these are the years when students first become aware of their role in the economic system.
To help introduce the subject at that level, the foundation produced a textbook--Our Economy: How It Works, published by Addison-Wesley--which has been used by an estimated 500,000 junior-high-school students over the past decade.
The new project announced by Mr. Bell is expected to help more schools at that level provide economics instruction, he said, by formally integrating it into the existing curriculum. Because of limited resources and other factors, schools often cannot add a complete new subject to the curriculum, Mr. Banaszak noted.
"Most materials [at the junior-high-school level] are either straight civics, with much of the attention on the structure of government, or economics, just the nature of that discipline,'' said James E. Davis, director of the project.
If successful, the project will improve instruction in both disciplines, he said.
"Students will gain information and skills that will help them become participating citizens,'' said Mr. Davis. "Not just participants in governmental matters, but in the economy and the social institutions as well.''