The Region

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic ... and Economics?

The need for a much better understanding of economics by the American people is widely acknowledged. Many Americans ... have voiced agreement on the matter, and those voices have been increasing in number and grown louder in volume.

David Fettig | Managing Editor

Published September 1, 1991  | September 1991 issue

Those forthright words are from an introduction of a curriculum guide prepared by the Joint Council of Economic Education (JCEE), a
non-profit organization created in 1949 to enhance the nation's economic education. However, even though the volume of assent from economics advocates may be growing louder, it still pales in comparison to the silence of the majority.

According to reports by the JCEE, 75 percent of the country's elementary and secondary teachers have never taken a course in economics, and just 8 percent of American adults have received any schooling in economics.

"Our goal is to put ourselves out of business," says Bruce Dalgaard, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Economic Education, one of 50 state affiliates of the national JCEE. Dalgaard is referring to the councils' attempts to make economic education so prevalent that there will no longer be a need for special initiatives. But, as he concedes: "We have a long way to go."

The JCEE and the eventual state affiliates began their economic crusade in the years following World War II, when the United States began to fully realize its role as a world power—not only militarily but also economically. Leaders in business, education, labor and government began taking a keen interest in the education of Americans, believing that an economically informed citizenry was imperative to the country's competitive future.

Some of those leaders banded together with the singular goal of helping "the American people understand the American economy." The ad hoc group established a board of trustees that represented all business viewpoints and soon an organization was established, rules and plans were created and private grants were received. The JCEE was born.

And the question arose: Do Americans really need to know about their economy? After all, the economy has been chugging along quite nicely for over 200 years with a rather uninformed populace. What makes today so special?

Mark Schug, director of programs for the Wisconsin Economic Education Council and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says the need for economic education has arisen, in large part, from the emerging internationalization of the world economies. In the past, a person's "economic universe" was largely defined by his farmland, town, state or region. Today, consumers, farmers, workers and business owners are impacted on a daily basis by economic events beyond the country's borders, Schug says, and they must understand this new economy in order to make smart decisions.

"I can't imagine a high school student, in this day, not having some grasp of economics," Schug says.

Also, Schug makes the case for economic education on a more fundamental level: "It is very clear that students can learn it." That may seem like faint praise, but economics is typically viewed as an arcane subject matter best left to the inquiring minds of a few specialists, Schug says. Recent evaluations of JCEE programs, however, show that students, both primary and secondary, successfully learned economics fundamentals.

But in order for students to learn economics, their teachers must first be schooled in the subject. Hence, while the JCEE and its state affiliates provide support and materials for student and adult education courses, the focus of their efforts is on teacher education. Special workshops, seminars and conferences are scheduled throughout the year in every state, and the JCEE is trying to encourage pre-service teachers to study economics before they graduate.

"Teachers are the agent for change in the educational system," Dalgaard says.

Robert Reinke, executive director of the South Dakota Economic Education Council (SDEEC), says teachers typically give classes on the cultures and geographies of other countries and it is only natural to extend those lessons to the countries' economies.

And economics is easier to teach than most people think, Reinke says. "If you have good material and good training, eventually you'll have knowledge," he says. According to Reinke, every teacher that's been trained by the SDEEC has incorporated economics into their classroom: "I would say it's working very well."

The SDEEC's efforts are aided, in part, by the thrust of a recent state legislative initiative that calls for the integration of economic education into regular course work, either as a separate class or as part of another class. Thus far, about 25 percent of the state's districts have complied.

Other states have similar initiatives, but South Dakota has added a unique program by which the state will be divided into about 12 hub areas. A community within each hub area forms an economic education panel and procures a basic economics library; that library then provides the basis for a local teaching course by an economic education specialist who reports to the state council. Six such hub areas have been started so far, Reinke says.

While teacher education programs are the primary focus of the state councils, the long-run goal is to have economics become a part of institutionalized study, along with the so-called "three Rs." As it stands now, many school districts depend heavily on one or two teachers to provide economic education, according to Dalgaard. When those teachers retire, and many of them are nearing retirement, a district can lose its entire economics focus.

The state councils operate on a private budget, usually received in the form of grants from businesses and foundations, and operate from a "host institution," usually a university, where they maintain a library of educational products. In addition, the councils work in tandem with other schools and organizations; for example, the Minneapolis Fed and the state councils from within the Ninth District often work together on projects for both teachers and students.

Under the councils' funding arrangement, the level of support that each council receives is never guaranteed. Ironically, Dalgaard says, through the expansionary '80s when times were good, grants to the Minnesota council declined. He says there seems to be an inverse relationship between the economy and the perceived need for economic education: When the economy is up, interest in economics fades—and vice versa.

And that's unfortunate, according to Reinke. The South Dakota executive director believes that economic education has value beyond the classroom—when times are both good and bad. He says that the study of economics provides lessons in efficiency and optimality, "and that's something we could be better at as a society and as individuals. If people used economic reasoning in their daily lives, I believe people would make better decisions in all aspects of their lives."

Related content

Special study: The Economic Literacy Project