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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What was your high school economics experience like?

As I mentioned in my last post, I am asking my Econ for Teachers students to reflect on their reading by responding to discussion prompts. It occurred to me that it wouldn't be a bad idea for me to share my thoughts on those issues here and see if anyone wants to chime in. For this week, the students were asked to read the California and national content standards, an article by Mark Schug and others about why social science teachers dread teaching economics and how to overcome the dread, an article by William Walstad on the importance of economics for understanding the world around us and making better personal decisions (with some evidence on the dismal state of economic literacy in this country), and another article by Walstad on the status of economic education in high schools (full citations below). The reflection prompt asks the students to then answer the following questions:
What was your high school econ experience like? What do you remember most from that class? How does that relate to the readings (does it relate)? If you did not take economics in high school, why not (e.g., was it an elective that you chose not to take (why not?) or was it simply not offered? what state did you attend high school in)? Do you recall any economic content specifically incorporated into other classes (such as government or history)? Also note here any questions or thoughts that came up as you read through the content standards and articles.
For me, the only things I really remember about my high school economics class is learning about the different types of businesses (e.g., that corporations are "like people") and playing a stock market game, which seems to be a common experience, judging from my students' responses. I believe the requirement that all California students must take a semester of economics was adopted right before I started high school (please, no one needs to do the math); at least, I don't remember it being an elective. I really liked my teacher, who had also been my freshman history teacher; Mr. Goudy even wrote one of my college recommendation letters. I have the impression that he knew what he was doing but I just wasn't that interested in economics at the time, maybe because the emphasis seemed to be on business. I did have a strong interest in public policy (I was planning to major in International Relations) and I wonder if that economics class would have made more of an impression on me if there had been more discussion of social policy. I don't think there was a lot of math because I liked math - one of the things that drew me to economics in college was the math so I have to think my high school class wasn't quantitative at all.

When I first saw the California content standards for 12th grade economics, my first thought was, "I don't think I saw much of this in high school." My second thought was, "There is no way this is being taught in most high schools - if it were, my Principles class would be way different." That's a big part of what led me to create this Econ for Teachers class, by the way. I was also really surprised to see that economics is mentioned so explicitly in the standards for some of the early grades. For example, in Grade 1, one of the standards says, "Students understand basic economic concepts and the role of individual choice in a free-market economy," with standards about money and the work that goes into making and marketing goods and services. I'm sure we learned about money but no one mentioned the word 'economics' until many years later. Economics is mixed into the standards for later grades as well but more in the form of economic history (e.g., students learn about the economies of ancient civilizations or economic events like the Industrial Revolution) and there doesn't seem to be any connection to economics as a discipline. So I suppose it's not surprising that many students get to 12th grade and don't even realize that they already know a lot about economics.

Although California requires students take a one-semester course in government AND a one-semester course in economics, it appears that many high schools combine them into one semester, or give students the option of taking one or the other (that may reflect confusion over the state requirements, which are written sort of oddly). But I suppose half a semester is still better than in a lot of states where economics is not required at all. I assume that means that there are lots of schools that do not even offer it but that also makes me wonder: in the schools that do offer an economics course, are the teachers better? I'd be curious to hear what the high school economics experience is like in other states. Wherever you went to high school, feel free to share your experience in the comments...

Schug, Mark C., Jane S. Lopus, John S. Morton, Robert Reinke, Donald R, Wentworth, Richard D. Western. 2003. “Is Economics Your Worst Nightmare,” Social Education, 67(2), 73-78
Walstad, William. 1998. “Why it's important to understand economics,” The Region, 12(4), 22-26.
Walstad, William. 2001. “Economic education in U.S. high schools,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 15 (3), 195-210.


  1. I remember my high school econ class like it was...well, like it was 47 years ago.

    The course had very little theory, and was mostly descriptive...what a firm is, what a corporation is, what a bank is, what the major industries of the US economy are. (In a piece somewhere Woody Allen described an economics class: "How to balance your checkbook." My HS econ class was more like that than like a real econ class.) Of course, at the time, all college economics professors were radical, subversive Keynesians.

    The teacher was the freshman football coach, a very nice man, but with no background or preparation for the course. It was not a graduation requirement, but was strongly recommended for anyone planning to attend college. (Back then, we had the "college prep" track, the "general ed" track, and the "vocational" track in my high school.) So the students were largely above average, and, if i remember correctly, probably half or more of us were concurrently taking calculus. My memory is that we learned very little in the class. What's amazing is that most of us did take econ in college, and that two of us went to grad school in econ.

    Times have definitely changed.

  2. Very informative blog for the teachers as well as for students. Students and teachers must visit this blog to enhance their economics knowledge.


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