TCS Daily

Teaching Anti-Economics

By Joanne Jacobs - July 22, 2002 12:00 AM

Economics is:

a) about balancing your checkbook.
b) the study of how capitalists exploit the poor and rape the earth.
c) not very nice.
d) dismal.

Just as environmental science is no longer taught as science, high school economics turns to mush when taught by a social studies teacher who neither understands nor likes the subject.

"Nobody is comfortable teaching straight economics," says Tim Taylor, a Macalester economics professor. "You get Inequality and Poverty - how capitalism is bad -- or Globalization -- how trade is bad."

Or Environmental Factoids Taken Out of Context, which could have been the title of my daughter's not-much-economics class.

In many states, high school students are required to take a semester of econ -- or a class labeled "Economics," to be precise. These classes are taught by social studies teachers who've taken, on average, two college econ courses. And forgotten most of what they learned.

"If they're not ready to teach real economics they fall back on current events or something else," says Taylor. "It gets squishy."

Each summer, Taylor conducts a class at Stanford for prospective econ teachers. He's also working on a video series for high school econ teachers and a revision of what's called the capstone curriculum of the National Council on Economics Education.

It's a challenge to reach teachers who are ideologically unprepared to appreciate the market. Teachers do not work in enterprises where it's necessary to satisfy the customer or go out of business. They belong to a powerful union, which sees for-profit as synonymous with for-evil. Every business is Enron. Like biblical literalists who want to teach creationism in biology class, liberal teachers want to teach social justice in lieu of supply and demand.

"What if I don't believe in GDP?" a teacher asked.

Taylor sighs at the memory. "That's a toughie. I can discuss why GDP is a partial measure of social welfare. A lot of teachers at a gut level just don't believe this."

When he introduced the idea that a high minimum wage creates unemployment, a teacher said: "I just don't like to think of it that way."

"Well, OK, says Taylor. "It's a free country. But if you¹re going to teach economics, you have to think about it."

The question is whether teachers will teach economics. "There's a real danger of anti-economics," says Taylor. An unprepared physics teacher may not teach very well, but she's not trying to change physics to fit her preferences. "She doesn't say, 'We're going to invent perpetual motion today'."

Sometimes it's possible to "smuggle in expertise" in the structure of an economics game, Taylor says. Most commonly, teachers use no-tech role-playing games, though there are some business simulation games such as Gazillionaire, Profitania and Zapitalism, for young tycoons.

But games can be a waste of time without a teacher to help students make the leap from the game to reality.

"While simulations are sometimes based in a general way on supply and demand or on earning profits, the explicitly economic lessons are fairly opaque to most students," says Taylor. "Students can be very good at playing games and be clueless if you ask: If there's a drought, what would you expect wheat prices to do? They need to apply it outside the game."

Stock market games are popular but pernicious, says Russell Roberts, an economist at Washington University in St. Louis. "The biggest thing that would improve (high school economics) would be to stop doing stock market simulations, which encourage bad investment behavior -- high-risk individual stock-picking -- and have only a little to do with economics."

Is there a techno-fix for anti-economics? The Foundation for Teaching Economics, which runs seminars for teachers and students, is piloting an online course for high school students. The Jefferson County, Colorado school district provides credit, though there¹s no guarantee the student's school will accept it. Designed by a master teacher in the Colorado district, the course requires 7 to 10 hours a week of work, with about half of that online. Students pay a $100 deposit, which they get back when they return the CD-ROMs. Otherwise, it's free.

"Students have to be focused," says Cecily Bailey, program manager for the foundation. They don't have to be especially bright.

Naturally, there's resistance from principals, who don't want to lose control, and from teachers, who don¹t want to lose their jobs to technology. It will take time to see whether the average high school student has the maturity and motivation for distance learning. The course also requires students to have a computer at home or easy access at school, which can be a barrier.

Schools are more likely to turn to online sites that give teachers links and lessons, such as ECONnections and EconEd's Cyberteach. There are more and more resources to support unprepared econ teachers.

But teachers have to work harder to learn and teach real, unsquishy economics. They earn the same pay whatever they teach and however well they teach it. With those incentives, the future looks dismal for high-quality high school econ.



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