Teaching of Economics Is on the Rise in Nation's Schools
Detroit--About 10 years ago, only a handful of students--primarily college-bound seniors--received instruction in economics, and of those, most were enrolled in special accelerated programs for the gifted.
But with inflation, high interest rates, and a troubled marketplace making the headlines almost daily, that classroom situation is drastically changing. The increased public awareness of the nation's economic ailments has filtered into the schools, challenging social-studies teachers to find new ways of convincing their students that the "dismal science" is not so dismal after all. And according to two recent studies, their efforts have been paying off.
Kindergartners playing musical chairs in Seattle, for example, receive a lesson in the concept of scarcity at the same time. Young viewers of the "Romper Room" television series are exposed to film segments on such topics as capital resources and the division of labor. And a computer game being developed at the University of Texas will teach high-school students about the concepts of supply and demand, profit and loss, and the function of the marketplace in the free-enterprise system.
Educators discussed these and other techniques of introducing economic theories to students during the annual meeting of the National Council for the Social Studies held here late last month.
According to Anthony F. Suglia, a director of the Joint Council on Economic Education, there is a tremendous interest in the area right now because "people have come to realize how important it is to have a basic understanding of economic principles.
"This is a complex world that demands that people have the tools of economic analysis available to them," Mr. Suglia said. "Every student in this country should be able to understand how the nation's economy functions, and they should be able to use that information in the decision-making process."
Two studies released this year indicate that economics is rapidly approaching the status of a core-course offering in the nation's junior and senior high schools.
The first study, conducted by Dennis C. Brennan of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., found that 24 states have passed laws or regulations requiring the teaching of economics in all high schools.
The second, conducted for the Phillips Petroleum Company by the Yankelovich, Skelly and White polling firm, reported that 48 percent of the junior and senior high-school teachers questioned said that economics is now a required course in their schools.
Economics Available as Elective
In another 39 percent of the schools, according to the survey, economics is available as an elective to all students who wish to take it, suggesting that 87 percent of the nation's junior and senior high-school students may now have access to a course in the subject.
The overall level of education among teachers of economics is also much higher today than it was a decade ago, according to the survey. In studies conducted in 1967, less than half of the social-studies teachers surveyed had ever taken a college-level course in economics. In contrast, more than 80 percent of today's social-studies teachers have completed either college- or graduate-level courses in the subject, according to the new survey.
Subject matter in economics courses ranges from so-called "survival skills," such as checkbook balancing and comparison shopping, to abstract theory. Practically all teachers responding to the Yankelovich survey said that they brought current events into their lessons, with the most common subjects being: inflation, the value of the dollar, interest rates, recession, unemployment, government regulations, business profits, and corporations.
Industry finances a substantial portion of curriculum development in economics education, according to Mr. Suglia. In one sense, that situation is fortunate, he said, because the programs are practically immune from the effects of federal reductions in education spending.
On the other hand, he said, the industry funding causes some teachers concern because they feel that the materials will be disproportionately favorable toward business and industry.
"Typically, many of the teachers attend in-service training sessions that we sponsor, not because they wanted to, but rather because they were told to by their principal," Mr. Suglia said. "Quite a few of them are wary when they arrive because they avoided economics during college. But once the session begins, they start to realize that the concepts that we're presenting aren't that difficult to master, nor do they [the concepts] make any value statements about the economy."
Mr. Suglia said he is convinced that most students and teachers misunderstand the point of view of business and industry regarding economic matters because they limit their perceptions of the nation's economy to a consumer viewpoint.
"I think it's important that we get people to see through the producer's eyes if they are ever to understand fully how the economy works,'' he said. "When a person is ignorant, he will formulate simple answers to complex questions. But if a person is well-versed in economics, and has the proper tools of analysis, he'll have a pretty good idea of the true dimensions of the problem."
The question of balancing the views of industry against those of opponents turned up in the Michigan House of Representatives recently when members passed a bill encouraging the teaching of economics in state high schools. The bill was passed only after liberal legislators tacked amendments to it that toned down its praise of the free-enterprise system.
Although almost half of the states in the nation have laws like Michigan's that eithere or strongly recommend that students be instructed in economics, the field's expansion could be stifled by several factors, according to Mr. Brennan.
"The first, and probably most important, factor working against us is general opposition from local school boards to state mandates of any kind," he explained. "Also, surprisingly, there's been a lot of opposition to state mandates from persons in other social-science disciplines. They say, 'If you can mandate instruction in economics, then why don't you require instruction in anthropology, psychology, or geography as well?' State boards of education and state legislatures will shy away from mandates of any sort rather than face that sort of pressure."
Finally, he concluded, "The existence of a state mandate does not guarantee that the state is monitoring the amount of money that is being spent to fund economics-education programs. Just because a law exists doesn't mean that it's being enforced to its fullest extent."