Is It Time to Overhaul the ‘Classic’ Economics Course? This Researcher Thinks So.

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 21, 2020 5 min read
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In 2012, U.S. 12th graders who had come of age in the shadow of the 2008 housing bubble and subsequent market crash showed no better understanding of the economic forces that shaped that recession than their peers in 2006, based on their performance on the national economics assessment. And federal education data suggests that economics continues to be a field that struggles to attract more women and students of color.

Harvard economist and equity researcher Raj Chetty believes updating the organization and instruction of classic economics courses can significantly improve students’ understanding and engagement, particularly for those historically underrepresented in the field.

Though many states have waived specific course requirements for the Class of 2020 in the wake of pandemic-related school closures, half of states legally require students to take economics to graduate high school, and in the past year, Chetty and colleagues at Swarthmore College and Stanford University have successfully piloted a new approach to embedding math and theoretical concepts in the subject in ways that help students engage and apply them immediately.

A pilot in the past year significantly improved the number of women taking college-level economics, and the researchers are now working to expand the curriculum for high school students, including an online version.

“The traditional economic textbook is called ‘Principles of Economics,’ and I think that embodies a traditional approach that I think comes across as kind of daunting,” Chetty said, “where it’s like, we’re going to teach you 10 principles, concepts first, and the application. And I think that can turn off a lot of students.”

Instead, the curriculum is organized around a series of current policy problems, from health care to tax policy and economic development, for which students study existing research papers and develop their own scientific experiments to analyze large data sets. The course covers the same math procedures as a typical economics course, but the conceptual and math lessons are embedded in the laboratory work. Students were asked to do more application of the math as part of developing their own hypotheses and projects.

For example, students used the Opportunity Atlas, a free web site based on U.S. Census data that allows students to compare the effects of different indicators of poverty and affluence on children in different neighborhoods.

“They are coding and they’re solving problems and analyzing questions that are not just things we’ve made up for a problem set, but are literally data from recent studies that are informing current policy decisions,” Chetty said, “like how to help low-income families move to better neighborhoods, or how being in a small versus a large classroom affects kids’ long-term outcomes. They’re analyzing those questions with the methods that we learned in class and they’re talking about their own personal experiences in the neighborhoods where they grew up in relation to the data and so forth.”

Equal numbers of male and female students completed the pilot course, called “Using Big Data to Solve Economic and Social Problems"—by contrast, women made up only 19 percent to 42 percent of any other economics classes at the college from 2019-20.

Remote Learning Potential?

The course may also provide a smoother transition for teachers to remote learning, as students and teachers access lectures, slides, and projects online.

Andrew Housiaux, an economics instructor at the private Phillips Andover Academy, one of the high schools testing a short version of the curriculum for secondary schools, said teachers have been feeling out how easily students can adapt to learning the math, economics, and data visualizations altogether through the projects rather than as separate units.

“And what [teachers] realized was, you know, some students had a real knack for thinking about infrastructure or thinking about other solutions, and other students had maybe [more] practice thinking about how to think of a solution to a public policy issue or how to design an experiment,” Housiaux said. “The next phase of our work is really going to be ... thinking about how we can take that approach of problem-solving, natural-based experiments that you can uncover and big data patterns, and make that pedagogy more central to how we teach economics.”

Maya Shkolnik, an 11th grader who was one of about 100 students in six classes who took the course at Andover this year, said she had never taken statistics or economics and was intimidated at the start of the class. But she enjoyed hearing about and sharing research projects with her classmates. “I really liked using the Atlas and hearing what other people found in their research. While we learned more of the graphical aspects to economics, using the Atlas, for me, helped provide a broader understanding of factors that contribute to upward mobility and how economics can play out in real life.”

The researchers laid out common aspects of the college-level class that boosted the likelihood of students, and particularly women and minority students, engaging in the material:

  • Examining issues that had been experienced by the student or those in their community;
  • Exposing them to real-world problems;
  • Nurturing a sense of scientific inquiry; and
  • Focusing on ways that the course would build skills that would be valued both by future employers and by their communities and society at large.

“Economics, specifically, is a very white-male-dominated field, and I think it’s important to show why this should not have to be the case,” Shkolnik said. “I think that if schools can emphasize the importance for diversity in these fields and the impact that these fields have in society, then more people would be interested in joining them.”

Photos: At top, Harvard economist Raj Chetty presents a topic to students in a pilot economics course. Above: Students at Phillips Andover Academy, participate in a short version of the curriculum.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.