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Much of Populace Found Deficient in Knowledge of Economics

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A new survey by the Gallup Organization has found high rates of "economic illiteracy'' among 12th-grade students, college seniors, and the general public.

According to the results of the poll, which were released last week by a national economics-education group, the general population could correctly answer only 39 percent, and high school seniors only 35 percent, of 19 multiple-choice and open-ended questions about fundamental economics issues. The results were somewhat better for college seniors, who could correctly answer slightly more than half of the questions.

"Data like these show us we have a long way to go in economics understanding,'' said Stephen Buckles, the president of the Joint Council on Economic Education.

"We're a nation that does ask its citizens to participate in economic affairs,'' he continued. "Yet, if you don't have an underlying knowledge of these issues, it's very difficult to participate.''

Only 4 percent of the high school seniors polled, for example, knew that the current rate of inflation is about 3 percent. Only 26 percent of that group could correctly define the federal budget deficit and slightly fewer knew that it was estimated at $400 billion for fiscal 1992. More than one-quarter of that group put the national unemployment rate at more than 23 percent--more than three times the actual rate of 7 percent. Fully one-third had no idea of what the unemployment rate was.

The survey was conducted by Gallup with the National Center for Research in Economic Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It included interviews last spring with 1,005 heads of households, 300 high school seniors, and 300 college seniors around the country.

Education Is Key

The apparent lack of economic understanding highlighted by the survey was readily recognized by the majority of those surveyed. Among the general public, 83 percent characterized their own economic understanding as fair or poor. Nearly all of that group--96 percent--said schools should do more to teach students about how the economy works.

And, predictably, those who fared best in the survey said they had taken an economics course in high school or college.

Nationwide, however, Mr. Buckles estimated, only about half of all high school students ever take an economics course. He also noted that the national education goals crafted by President Bush and the governors do not list economics among the five subjects targeted for improvements in student achievement.

"We've put together an education system that does not give enough time and attention to economics,'' said William B. Walstad, the director of the University of Nebraska's economics research center.

Although economics is not universally required, Mr. Buckles said, the subject has made inroads in schools in recent years. Once omitted from the curriculum, economics is now required in 16 states. A number of other states have taken steps to infuse economics teaching in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The National Assessment Governing Board this summer also voted to begin testing students on their economic knowledge as part of the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In an attempt to give the subject a higher profile, Mr. Buckles said the 43-year-old economic-education council has revamped its program for teaching economics and is changing its name to the National Council for Economic Education. The new teaching program, known as EconomicsAmerica, identifies six student outcomes for economics education.

Through the program, the group also plans to help state education departments and local school districts set standards for economics teaching, train teachers in the subject, develop curricula, produce teaching materials, and develop ways of assessing student achievement in economics.

The group's national standards for economics education, developed in the early 1980's, are already widely incorporated in high school economics textbooks.

More information on EconomicsAmerica is available from the National Council on Economic Education, 432 Park Ave. South, New York, N.Y. 10016.

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