Published Online: January 15, 1997


Voluntary Standards for Economics Released

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America's schoolchildren will be better equipped to handle personal-finance decisions throughout their lives, from managing their allowances to making sound investments, if the new voluntary national standards for economics are adopted in schools countrywide, authors of the guidelines say.

"This is a framework for students to analyze problems that come up in their lives, from buying a house to getting married ... to making career choices," said John J. Siegfried, the chairman of the writing committee for the standards and a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Released at the American Economic Association Conference in New Orleans this month, the document identifies in layman's terms 20 overarching standards that outline what children need to know and be able to do in the discipline by the time they graduate from high school.

It also brings to a close the effort to create voluntary national subject-matter standards.

Led by the New York City-based National Council on Economic Education, economists and educators representing a coalition of organizations, including the National Association of Economic Educators, the Foundation for Teaching Economics, and the American Economic Association's Committee on Economic Education, worked for two years revising drafts of the standards before releasing the final document. Dozens of teachers from all grade levels were also consulted for the project, especially in establishing the benchmark criteria.

The project was almost derailed when the U.S. Department of Education discontinued funding national-standards efforts. However, the NCEE, a private, nonprofit organization that trains teachers, gained more than $250,000 in financial backing from the Calvin K. Kazanjiam Economics Foundation Inc. of Oneonta, N.Y., the AT&T Foundation in New York City, and the Foundation for Teaching Economics in Davis, Calif.

Enduring Concepts

The standards are based not on facts about the economy, which are subject to constant change, but on essential and enduring concepts.

Like most of the other standards, the economics document is broken down into achievement levels for grades 4, 8, and 12. For instance, 8th graders should be able to demonstrate their understanding of the principle of incentives by predicting how their study habits would change if they received pass/fail grades or no grades instead of letter grades.

Authors of the standards do not expect to stir up the same interest or debate that surrounded the release of national guidelines for some core subjects, such as history. Instead, project leaders hope that the standards will highlight the importance of economics education for all students and help states and teachers infuse the discipline's principles into the curriculum.

"National standards [in other subjects] serve as guides for states developing their own standards," said Bonnie T. Meszaros, the associate director of the Center for Economics Education and Entrepreneurship at the University of Delaware and the co-author of the document. "If they didn't have national economics standards [to guide them], it would probably be omitted."

About half of all high school students take at least one economics course, according to William Walstad, a professor of economics at the University of Nebraska and a project consultant. Sixteen states mandate economics education, with about a dozen more incorporating the subject into other courses, Mr. Walstad said.

Macroeconomics Slighted?

By all accounts, the effort to achieve consensus was a successful one because most economists agree on the most basic and essential principles, said Michael K. Salemi, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Mr. Salemi chaired a committee of leading economists that reviewed the standards and recommended changes.

"There were folks with strong right-wing sympathies and those with strong left-wing sympathies, and they reached friendly agreement," he said.

But compromise was still necessary to satisfy all who worked on the project. For instance, a separate standard on interest rates was added after the review committee suggested that the record-high level of investment in the stock market and the influence of the Federal Reserve warranted it.

Some economists and educators were dismayed that only four of the standards emphasize macroeconomic principles, which consider all the forces at work in national and global economies. The authors said that decision was made to arm students with information most essential to their own economic literacy.

But even scholars critical of some of the decisions made in crafting the standards praised the document overall.

"They produced a very comprehensive and detailed statement of what should be taught in schools," Mr. Walstad said. "But there is too much microeconomics and not enough macroeconomics. Students should know what is going on in the national economy, what is talked about on television and reported in the newspaper."

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