As adults, today's students will be confronted with
economic issues that require decisions, the consequences of which
will impact their lives and the lives of others. In the ordinary business
of life, they will make decisions about what to buy, how much of their
income they should spend, and how much to save and what careers to
pursue. As citizens, they will need to understand the fallacy in politicians'
promises to cut taxes and increase spending on a variety of public
goods. They will be expected to read newspaper articles on the actions
of the Federal Reserve Board and comprehend how these decisions affect
them as consumers, producers and savers. Students who are not articulate
and well informed about economic principles and who lack the ability
to apply economic reasoning skills will find the economic issues they
face both as young children, and as adults, complex and confusing.
Their decisions will be made based on incorrect assumptions, misunderstandings
and misconceptions that could have been corrected during their school
The need for economic literacy has been well stated by numerous
groups and individuals. James Tobin, 1981 Nobel Laureate, clearly
established the case for economic education and its benefits for
individuals and for society in a Wall Street Journal article. He said:
High school graduates will be making economic choices
all their lives, as breadwinners and consumers, as citizens and voters.
A wide range of people will bombard them with economic information and
misinformation for their entire lives. They will need some capacity
for critical judgment.1
In 1994 economics was included in the Goals
2000 Educate America Act as one of the challenging subjects in which
every student should demonstrate competency. It further stated that
every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge
and skills to compete in a global economy.2 The case for economic education is further strengthened by demands
from the business community for economically literate workers.3 The Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics, published in 1997, delineates the economic knowledge
and skills students should have upon leaving high school—knowledge
and skills without which students could be considered disadvantaged.4 If economics is such an integral part of people's lives and an understanding
of economics is critical in helping people comprehend the modern
world and make decisions that shape the future, then why isn't economics
taught in the schools beginning in the elementary grades?
Traditionally, teachers, particularly elementary
teachers, take few, if any, economics courses as part of their undergraduate
education. Walstad and Watts found at the elementary level that
over half of the teachers had no courses in economics and 25 percent
had only one course.5 Due to inadequate
preparation in economics, teachers are intimidated by the subject
matter and feel uncomfortable teaching that which they themselves
do not understand. This lack of understanding plays out in the school
curriculum in several ways.
When school districts and classroom teachers include economics
in the curriculum, the focus is often on minor economic concepts,
economics vocabulary or subject areas that are tangential to economics.
For example, elementary teachers spend an inordinate amount of time
distinguishing between needs and wants and fail to teach the fundamental
principle that there are limited resources available to satisfy
wants and, therefore, choices must be made. Teachers use economic
terms in history or geography lessons and conclude they have adequately
covered economic content. Games and simulations are used to introduce
economic concepts and teachers believe they have taught economics.
However, games and simulations without significant instruction and
follow-up discussion to explain the economic concepts experienced
are a waste of valuable classroom instructional time and result
in little, if any, economic understanding on the part of the students.
Intimidated by economic content, some teachers rely on individuals
from outside the classroom, usually representatives from the business
world, to teach economic content. This can work, if the teacher
has a clear understanding of the economic content students are required
to know and how a guest's presentation can help students attain
that knowledge. Additionally, the teacher must be able to brief
the guest on the economic content requirements. Given this preparation,
the outside speaker can introduce new economic understandings or
enrich that which has been taught in the classroom. However, such
structure and organization requires some understanding of economics
on the part of the classroom teacher. Without it, the end results
will depend upon the guest's topic, understanding of economics and
understanding of the cognitive ability of students at the age level
he or she is addressing. Moreover, if the guest does introduce some
economic understanding to the students, the teacher, with little
or no economic background, cannot extend or enrich students' understanding
after the guest has left the classroom. Isolated lessons, simulations,
games and talks by guest speakers must be linked to meaningful economic
content and objectives that are converted into rich economic lessons,
otherwise students leave school with fragmented understandings that
do little to help them make decisions now or in the future.
The elementary teacher is asked to teach many academic and nonacademic
topics beyond the traditional subjects of language arts, social
studies, science and arithmetic. Drug education, AIDS awareness,
health, nutrition and conflict resolution are but a few areas that
teachers are expected to squeeze into an existing curriculum. If
teachers fail to see the relevance of economic understanding to
their personal lives, they can't imagine how it could be relevant
to the lives of their students. When asked to include economics,
these teachers feel pressured to add one more thing to an already
overcrowded curriculum and view economics as an "add on" with little
relevance to their students.
When pressed to include economics, elementary teachers rely on
social studies textbooks. Unfortunately, these books all too often
include incorrect or insignificant economic content. Traditionally,
social studies textbooks for the elementary classroom do not include
economics. That which is included is often wrong. For example, one
popular fourth-grade textbook identifies people as natural resources.
Many textbooks focus on categorizing needs and wants, rather than
decision making, regarding limited resources and trade-offs. Others
emphasize money as a factor of production instead of a medium of
exchange. Some emphasize natural resources and neglect to discuss
the other factors of production such as capital resources, human
resources and entrepreneurial ability. Textbooks frequently misstate
information. For example, one leading social studies series states
that in Scandinavian countries, health care and education are free.
Are they? Later, the same textbook mentions that citizens of Scandinavian
countries pay high taxes. However, the book fails to connect the
high rate of taxation with the "free" services the citizens receive.
Today, publishers of elementary social studies textbook series
provide teachers with a matrix indicating that economics is woven
throughout the books. Upon closer inspection, a few economic terms
are interspersed without adequate explanation or integration into
the content of the chapters. Other books address economics by devoting
a single chapter to economic content, thereby teaching it in isolation
with no connections made to the rest of the social studies curriculum.
Finally, elementary teachers feel that economics is a subject
best taught when the children are older and in high school. Unfortunately,
not all students will take a high school economics course and those
that do may not gain an understanding of the necessity to make careful
choices. With so much content to cover in a semester economics course,
high school teachers spend little time teaching unlimited economic
wants and limited resources, choices and trade-offs involved. If
these concepts are covered, it is done so through theory. Teachers
fail to apply the theory to practical everyday examples relevant
to teenagers. For example, they may teach production possibilities,
but never show students how this model has application to choices
they make as teenagers or in the future as adults.
Young children learn early that they cannot have everything they
want. Unfortunately, they do not always understand why this is the
case or why each choice involves a cost. When asked about the dilemma
of making choices, they respond that it is the fault of someone
else, that this individual is just prohibiting them from getting
their desired choice or that when they become adults, choices will
no longer be a problem. As one young third grader told the authors
of this article, "When I'm an adult, I can have everything I want."
Children live in an economic world and bring economic knowledge
into the classroom. Some of this is correct, providing an opportunity
to build upon student understanding. Other information is incorrect,
based on misunderstandings. This requires correction and reteaching.
In a review of the literature on how children
reason about economics, Schug and Walstad observed that teachers
of economics need to understand and correct the confusion about
economic concepts that young people bring into the classroom.6 Schug states that failure to address children's confusion about
economics will result in economic misunderstandings that will likely
persist even if economics is taught in the elementary classroom.7
Despite the stumbling blocks, implementing sound
economic instruction into the elementary classroom is possible.
The Voluntary National Content Standards
in Economics will help.8 This document provides guidance for states charged with developing
standards and school districts responsible for implementing them.
In those states where economics is an essential component of the
state testing program, economics will become part of the schools
curriculum and assessment agenda. But, will it be taught by teachers
grounded in the principles of economics?
In a review of the literature, Becker and
Hallows found that most studies concluded that the number of economics
courses a teacher has taken has a significant impact on teacher
knowledge, and consequently, on students' performance.9 There is also a positive effect on student performance when students
are taught by teachers attending in-service courses.10 Unfortunately, many teachers prefer to attend noncredit workshops.
Attendance in these programs shows no significant positive effect
on students' learning.11 Teachers must
take economics courses. To attract teachers to these courses, they
need to be designed specifically for educators with a focus on teaching
economics in grades K-12. Such courses are available through the
National Council on Economic Education's (NCEE) network. This network
includes over 250 centers for economic education located on college
campuses throughout the United States. Each offers a menu of economics
courses for teachers.
It is a fallacy to think that armed with this
knowledge of economics, teachers, particularly elementary teachers,
will then teach economics in their classrooms. This knowledge will
increase their comfort level with the discipline. To see a transfer
of this knowledge into their teaching, teachers need textbooks that
provide comprehensive and correct economic coverage, pedagogical
and economically correct curriculum materials, and guidance on when
and where economics should be placed across the curriculum. 12
The national economic content standards provide
assistance in that they offer districts a scope and sequence for
the economics students should know at the end of grades 4, 8 and
12. Districts and teachers must then determine the placement of
economics across all grades so, ultimately, economics is taught
in a systematic and sequential manner.13 The NCEE network again provides assistance to schools through its
EconomicsAmerica schools program, formerly the Developmental Economic
Education Program. This program helps schools or districts tailor
a K-12 economics education program to meet their needs. The standards
also offer guidance regarding which concepts should be stressed
early. Because students' reasoning about some economic ideas develops
over time, not all content standards have benchmarks at all grade
levels. Some are heavy with benchmarks for the lower grades and
others, such as fiscal and monetary policy, include none for the
An added issue for the elementary teachers is the overcrowded
curriculum. To counter this concern, teachers need good examples
of ways to integrate economics across the curriculum in social studies,
mathematics and language arts. Weaving economics across the curriculum
helps students make linkages between disciplines, provides a context
for learning and enriches the curriculum. Without this, economics
becomes an add on. If viewed as a burden, economics can easily be
dropped from the curriculum and when taught does little to help
students see the relevance of economics to their daily lives.
To ensure meaningful economic instruction through
the infusion approach, teachers need access to quality materials.
NCEE and many of its council and center affiliates publish a wide
array of instructional units. Materials are available for all grade
levels and numerous subject areas. Most of the lessons for grades
K-8 offer a variety of examples for integrating economics that go
beyond the traditional subject areas. One publication for the primary
grades makes connections to music. An intermediate unit uses the
zoo to teach science and economics. A middle school publication
focuses on art and world cultures. All of the NCEE publications
and individual lessons are correlated with content standards and
benchmarks. NCEE's Virtual Economics, a CD-Rom, includes
all of its publications, plus quality economic education materials
produced by the Federal Reserve banks and other organizations.14
To ensure that in the future Johnny can choose, economics instruction
must begin early. The research indicates that students can learn
economic concepts in the primary grades provided their teachers
are knowledgeable in economic content and their teachers employ
quality economic education materials in the classroom. Economic
educators, curriculum developers and classroom teachers working
together can improve the quantity and quality of economics taught
in the schools. Such efforts will make it possible for students
to leave school with the ability to make choices and understand
the consequences of those choices on themselves and others.
1 James Tobin, "Economic Literacy Isn't Marginal Investment," Wall
Street Journal, 9 July 1986.
2 U. S.
Department of Education, America 2000: An Education Strategy (Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education, 1991): 38-40.
3 U. S.
Department of Labor, What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS
Report for America 2000 (Washington, DC: U. S. Department
of Labor, l991); National Academy of Sciences, National Academy
of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, High Schools and
the Changing Workplace: The Employers' View (Washington,
DC: National Academy Press, l984): 25-26.
Council on Economic Education, Voluntary National Content
Standards in Economics (NY: National Council on Economic
Education, l997): 1-41
5 William Walstad and Michael Watts, "Teaching Economics in the Schools:
A Review of the Survey Findings," Journal of Economic Education 16 (Spring 1985): 135-46.
C. Schug and William Walstad, "Teaching and Learning Economics," Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning,
ed. J. Shaver (NY: Macmillan, 1991): 411-49.
C. Schug, "How Children Learn Economics," The International
Journal of Social Education 8 (Winter 1993-94): 25-34.
Council on Economic Education, Voluntary National Content,
Becker and Karen Hallow, "What Works and What Doesn't: A Practitioner's
Guide to Research Findings in Economic Education," The International
Journal of Social Education 8 (Winter 1993-94):87-95.
Walstad, "Economics Instruction in High School," Journal of
Economic Literature 30 (December 1992): 2019-51.
Bosshardt and Michael Watts, "Instructor Effects and Their Determinants
in Precollege Economic Education," Journal of Economic Education 21 (Summer 1990): 265-76.
"Economics Instruction," 2019-51.
13 Bonnie Meszaros
and Laurie Engstrom, "Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics:
From Standards to Classroom Implementation," Social Studies
and the Young Learner (Washington, DC: National Council for
the Social Studies): forthcoming.
Council on Economic Education, Virtual Economics: An Interactive
Center for Economic Education/Version 2.0 (NY: National Council
on Economic Education, 1996).
Meszaros is associate director for the Center
of Economic Education and Entrepreneurship at the University of
Delaware. She also was project director for the National Content
Standards in Economics and has served as co-editor of Economics
for Kids, on the editorial board of The Senior Economist and most recently co-author of Economics and Children's Literature,
Meszaros has a doctorate in curriculum and development and
a master's in social studies education from the University of Delaware.
Suiter is associate director of the Center for Entrepreneurship
and Economic Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
She was a member of the National Voluntary Standards in Economics
Writing Committee and has written and co-authored numerous economics
curriculum units, among other publications. Suiter also has worked
with educators in Bulgaria and Ukraine on teaching economics in
Suiter has a master's in economic education from the University of
Delaware and a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Missouri.