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Videos respond to economic illiteracy

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Gary H. Stern - President, 1985-2009

Published December 1, 1993  |  December 1993 issue

Over the years, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has worked hard to develop active relationships with a number of communities external to itself. Not surprising, among these are bankers, community leaders and journalists; all of whom we work with frequently. Relating to these groups is something we take seriously and to which we commit considerable time and energy. We treat it as part of our role as the country's central bank.

Also among our valued communities is one that most would not guess. We consider economic education tremendously important and have chosen to support those who provide that education. In most cases, that means high school economics teachers, but it's not limited to high school and at times may also include higher education and more broadly social studies.

We know from surveys and from our own experiences that economic literacy is a problem in the United States. Some have an accurate and quite sophisticated understanding of how our economy works, but the sad fact is that most do not; furthermore, few have a clue about the Federal Reserve's role in monetary policy and the regulation of banks, or of the financial services that we provide. Worse yet, some have a quite bizarre picture of our institution that defies any logical understanding. It's simply wrong.

We reason that helping to support economics teachers improves economic literacy, and to that end we have embarked on a number of economic education projects over the years. With minimal budgets, across the country we have conducted workshops, drafted newsletters, guest lectured, developed curricula, sponsored essay contests, hosted meetings, constructed electronic bulletin boards, and so on. The list is long and every entry represents a venture designed to help the teachers, usually at their request.

Two years ago, the presidents of the 12 Reserve banks collectively decided that we should produce a set of videos and related teaching materials for high school economics teachers. This was part of our ongoing concern about economic literacy, but represented a much larger undertaking than most of our past efforts. One that the presidents asked that I oversee.

First, we assembled a team of Federal Reserve "experts" and set out to create four videos that teachers could use in their classrooms, especially when they came to the textbook chapter on central banking—if it were indeed a full chapter.

Before writing the script we talked with teachers. We asked them for their thoughts about our ideas as they were taking shape and we asked them generally about made-for-the-classroom videos. We learned a great deal.

With that information we began writing the scripts, a critically important stage of the process. Many made-for-the-classroom videos have failed because they were dull: There is no other way to say it. We wanted our story to be an engaging one that the students would tune in—not out. Of course that's easier said than done, and we were always mindful that if we went beyond the capability of the medium, which meant loading too much information onto the story line, then our attempt would probably also get tossed on the great scrap heap of failed made-for-the-classroom videos. Video has its limitation, and that was one of our important guidelines. It can tell a wonderful story that may interest and inform a student, but it's less likely to serve well as an encyclopedia.

Two years later, after sorting through questions of proper emphasis and varying points of view, we finally filmed, edited and reproduced a large quantity of what is now our most current (and we believe significant) offering to economic educators. These now complete videotapes represent our best effort to explain ourselves in a mainstream way to America's students.

Frankly, we are feeling good about the videos thus far. That's based on early reactions from screenings with teachers across the country, but the acid test is yet to come. What will happen when the gatekeepers (i.e. the teachers) order the new set of videos from our warehouse in Kansas City and actually try them in the classroom? Will the videos hold the students' attention long enough so that they can understand a bit more about our complex economy? Perhaps with teachers' help they may begin to grasp some of the basics of how our banking system works, or who knows, even why the banker's bank exists.

Working with groups like economic educators is something we choose to do and is not in any way required of our institution. Like most labors of free choice, projects like our videos take on a special importance. We want them to work, to make a difference. We hope they do.

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Special study: The Economic Literacy Project

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