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The Case for Economics in the Elementary Classroom

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?

December 1, 1998


Bonnie Meszaros Director, Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship, University of Delaware
Mary Suiter Associate Director, Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education, University of Missouri-St. Louis

Article Highlights

  • Economic literacy essential for decision making

  • Elementary curricula should include economics

  • Courses, learning materials available for instructors

The Case for Economics in the Elementary Classroom

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 experience.

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 early years.

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.

End Notes

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.

4 National 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.

6 Mark 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.

7 Mark C. Schug, "How Children Learn Economics," The International Journal of Social Education 8 (Winter 1993-94): 25-34.

8 National Council on Economic Education, Voluntary National Content, 1-41.

9 William 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.

10 William Walstad, "Economics Instruction in High School," Journal of Economic Literature 30 (December 1992): 2019-51.

11 William Bosshardt and Michael Watts, "Instructor Effects and Their Determinants in Precollege Economic Education," Journal of Economic Education 21 (Summer 1990): 265-76.

12 Walstad, "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.

14 National 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, Supplement 2.

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 transitional economies.

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.