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Economics Standards Nearing Completion

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For many Americans, such terms as supply and demand, cost-benefit analysis, entrepreneurship, incentives, and gross national product were unfamiliar throughout their elementary and secondary school years.

Now, however, educators have nearly completed a document that asks students, beginning in their elementary years, to learn about these concepts, if not the nomenclature that older students might be expected to know.

Economists and economics educators last month began applying the finishing touches to the final piece of the voluntary national content standards, which will be released formally in January.

Once they are completed, the economics standards will mark the last of a dozen projects at the national level to set subject-matter standards outlining what students should know and be able to do.

Unlike most of the other national-standards efforts, economics was hampered by reneged promises of federal funding. The New York City-based National Council on Economic Education eventually obtained backing of $250,000, principally from the Calvin K. Kazanjiam Economics Foundation Inc. of Oneonta, N.Y., and the AT&T Foundation of New York City.

"We firmly believe if we give up on the standards effort ... we reduce our schools to expensive day-care centers," said Robert F. Duvall, the president of the council, a not-for-profit corporation that develops economics teaching materials for the K-12 classroom and trains teachers at 250 university-based centers.

Even before the economics developers complete their task, however, the focus on standards shifted to the states. (See "Summit Accord Calls for Focus on Standards," and "Text of Policy Statement Issued at National Summit." April 3, 1996.)

Few advocates of national standards believe any longer that all students will be exposed to the same high standards that the national movement had intended. But they hope that many state and local officials rely on the voluntary national documents as resources to write their standards.

Relevance Sought

The economics draft includes 20 overarching standards. Similar to almost all of the other disciplines' standards, economics is broken down into achievement levels at grades 4, 8, and 12. It also includes sample activities for teachers.

In general, the language is clear and comprehensible; little of the jargon of economics has found its way into the draft. In fact, some of the economists who reviewed the standards initially fussed about the exclusion of words peculiar to their profession but relented when they realized the concept was embedded, project leaders said.

And the drafters have attempted to make the content relevant to the students, especially at the elementary and middle school levels.

For example, on the topic of limited resources, 8th graders are expected to know that "when people choose to do one thing, they simultaneously reject all other alternatives." Students are asked to "choose an alternative from a list of after-school activities and explain that by choosing one activity, they reject all other activities." They then are supposed to be able to apply this concept to government policy and pretend that they are city council members who must decide how to allocate the budget, describe the trade-offs, and identify the consequences.

'Neoclassical' View

The economics writers have based the standards on what is known as the neoclassical perspective: Individuals and companies respond to incentives to achieve their goals. They make decisions based on self-interest. They are profit maximizers.

The perspective does not deal with issues of fairness. As economists, "we say that's just the way it is. It's not our job to determine fairness," said John J. Siegfried, the chairman of the standards-writing committee and a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

But even though the neoclassical philosophy is held by the great majority of economists, he said, the drafters have run into their share of ideological complaints.

"We have had suggestions from the radical left that we're not paying enough attention to the proletariat," Mr. Siegfried said. "And on the right, we're criticized [for making the point] that the government should have any reasonable role to play. As long as they are shooting at me from both directions and I can duck, let them hit each other with the bullets."

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