Social Education 58(4), 1994, pp. 226-229
National Council for the Social Studies
Previous research on teacher training suggests that the instructors who teach high school economics have typically received inadequate preparation (Walstad 1984; Walstad and Watts 1985; Baumol and Highsmith 1988; Bosshardt and Watts 1990). These studies, however, failed to distinguish between teachers who majored in economics and those who did not. The distinction is important, since the problem of inadequate training is clearly concentrated among the cross-disciplinary teachers. Indeed, it is the existence of the cross-disciplinary teachers that, in the words of Bosshardt and Watts (1990, 273-274), "may well make economics teaching in these grades a different kind of problem from say, teaching English or Math, where instructors typically have a more extensive subject-matter background." The present study therefore uses disaggregated survey data to distinguish between economics majors and nonmajors who teach economics. This procedure allows us to measure the proportion of economics teachers who have majored in subjects other than economics, and to determine the adequacy or inadequacy of their training.
The results of the study suggest that a large majority of high school economics courses are taught by cross-disciplinary instructors; and that cross-disciplinary teachers have had, on average, only half as much training in economics as needed to be effective. As a consequence, they experience greater difficulty in teaching economics than do instructors who were trained in the field.
Methodology and Results
To assess the extent to which cross-disciplinary teaching occurs, we surveyed 178 economics teachers in 114 high schools in an eight-county region of Western New York State. New York is one of the states that currently requires a one-semester course in basic economics for all high school students (New York State Department of Education 1987). This implies that the demand for high school economics teachers is particularly great in this state. The survey covered public and private schools in city, suburban, and rural school districts. The survey response rate was 40 percent.
We sorted the sample by undergraduate major and graduate field of concentration. For the purposes of this study, we adopted a rather narrow definition of an academic "discipline." Economics teachers were classified as cross-disciplinary if neither their undergraduate major nor their graduate field was economics; own-disciplinary teachers were defined as those with either an undergraduate major or a graduate degree in economics. By this definition, we classified as cross-disciplinary even teachers with degrees and majors in related fields such as business administration.
The Extent of Cross-Disciplinary Teaching
Several measures indicate the extent of cross-disciplinary teaching. First, only 6.9 percent of the respondents had majored in economics as undergraduates, and another 5.6 percent listed economics as their graduate field of study. Thus, a mere 12.5 percent of the economics teachers surveyed were teaching in their own discipline (excluding other courses they may teach); the remaining 87.5 percent were teaching economics on a cross-disciplinary basis. The undergraduate and graduate fields of the cross-disciplinary teachers are shown in Figures 1 and 2. The most common undergraduate major was history (44.4 percent), followed by social science education (19 percent). The most common graduate field was education (36.5 percent), followed closely by social science (33.3 percent). These findings are broadly consistent with those reported by Highsmith (1990).
Second, we found that each own-disciplinary teacher was teaching an average of 2.72 economics classes per semester, whereas the average for each cross-disciplinary teacher was 2.39 classes. But the disproportionate number of cross-disciplinary teachers implies that they teach most of the economics classes offered in the schools. Indeed, when we weight the average number of classes per teacher by the respective sizes of the two groups, we find that cross-disciplinary teachers account for 86 percent of the economics classes being taught by the entire sample.
Third, the average number of years own-disciplinary teachers had been teaching economics was 7.4, whereas the mean for cross-disciplinary teachers was only 5.6 years. Thus, on average, the newer economics teachers were coming from among the cross-disciplinary group. Indeed, roughly half (49.2 percent) of the cross-disciplinary teachers began teaching high school economics within the last three years, compared with 22.2 percent of the own-disciplinary teachers. This finding suggests a disturbing trend in the secondary schools, and indicates that the shortage of own-disciplinary teachers has become more severe in recent years. Thus, a large and growing majority of the secondary economics courses is being taught by cross-disciplinary teachers. We cannot attribute this to deliberate hiring practices; rather, it reflects the staffing constraints faced by schools. Smaller schools are particularly constrained because they may not have enough classes to justify a full-time economics teacher. It then becomes necessary to employ a cross-disciplinary teacher to handle economics. The severity of this problem depends on the teachers' level of preparation and degree of teaching effectiveness.
Differences in Training
The variable used to measure the economics training received by the teachers is simply the number of courses taken in the subject. Various studies have suggested that this is a relevant measure of a teacher's knowledge of economics and a useful predictor of student learning. According to Walstad and Soper (1988, 254), "Teacher coursework in economics improves the economic knowledge of students." Importantly, however, the first few courses taken by teachers appear to have little or no effect on teacher or student performance. Lynch (1990) found that four courses represent minimally sufficient training for effective teaching, and Walstad and Soper (1989) recommend five courses or more. By these standards, the own-disciplinary teachers, with a mean of 12.3 courses, are certainly well qualified to teach economics.
The cross-disciplinary teachers, however, were much less qualified. At present, New York has no certification of coursework requirements for its economics teachers, so that teachers can cross disciplines into economics without any formal preparation. The distribution of economics courses taken by cross-disciplinary teachers is given in Figure 3. An alarming 12.7 percent of cross-disciplinary economics teachers had never taken an economics course. More than 79 percent of this group had taken three or fewer courses, and the mean was only 2.49. On average, therefore, cross-disciplinary teachers had taken five times fewer courses than own-disciplinary teachers, and only about half as many courses as recommended for teaching high school economics.
It is possible, of course, that among the population of cross-disciplinary teachers, the mean number of economics courses taken lies above the sample mean, in which case the average cross-disciplinary teacher may be sufficiently trained to teach economics. We therefore tested the hypothesis that the number of economics courses taken by cross-disciplinary teachers follows a Poisson distribution with a true mean of four or more. (A Poisson distribution is suggested by the discrete nature of the variable and its lower bound of zero.) A Kolmogorov-Smirnov test conducted at the one percent level of significance rejects this hypothesis. Indeed, construction of a 99 percent confidence interval around the sample mean runs from 1.75 to 3.24. We are therefore 99 percent confident that the average cross-disciplinary teacher has taken fewer than four economics courses.
Differences in Teaching
We next examined the coverage of course material and the ease with which instructors teach economic topics. The amount of material covered in high school courses appears to be fairly consistent across the two groups of teachers: cross-disciplinary teachers reported covering an average of 86.6 percent of the material from the New York State syllabus, whereas own-disciplinary teachers covered an average of 88.6 percent.
Substantial differences, however, were reported in the level of difficulty the two groups experience in teaching economics. We asked the teachers to indicate the level of difficulty they have in getting students to understand a variety of economic topics. In particular, the teachers were given a list of topics from the New York State syllabus, and asked to indicate whether they experience "much difficulty," "moderate difficulty," or "no difficulty" in getting students to understand each issue. This survey method creates the possibility of self-reporting bias, since some teachers, both own-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary, may have been hesitant to admit to having difficulty. We attempted to alleviate some of this tendency, however, by posing the question in terms of student understanding rather than in terms of teaching per se. Although no objective and consistent measure of student knowledge was available, this survey question did provide a means of relating teacher preparation to student performance.
The responses of the teachers are reported in Table 1. In general, proportionately more cross-disciplinary teachers reported having "much" or "moderate" difficulty with these topics. There are, of course, some exceptions. A greater proportion of own-disciplinary teachers than cross-disciplinary teachers reported experiencing much difficulty in getting students to understand concepts such as comparative advantage and externalities. These, however, are among the most complex issues in the field, and at least two explanations for such anomalies seem plausible. First, own-disciplinary teachers may be more aware of the subtleties of these topics, and may attempt to teach them in greater detail, consequently experiencing greater difficulty. Second, own-disciplinary teachers may have higher expectations of student understanding of these topics, and thus find it more difficult to reach these goals. But such cases appear to be exceptional.
On average, cross-disciplinary teachers reported much difficulty with 9.34 percent of the material, whereas own-disciplinary teachers reported having much difficulty in teaching only 6.87 percent of the material. Moreover, the cross-disciplinary teachers experienced moderate difficulty teaching 32.42 percent of the topics, in contrast to the own-disciplinary teachers, who found 20.6 percent of the topics to be moderately difficult. These differences in the "much" and "moderate" difficulty ratings are statistically significant at the 5 percent and .5 percent levels, respectively. That is, the cross-disciplinary teachers were significantly more likely to experience difficulty in getting their students to understand economic concepts than were own-disciplinary teachers. These results clearly suggest a positive relationship between the level of training and the degree of success in teaching economics.
The greater difficulties experienced by cross-disciplinary teachers suggest that we are doing both students and teachers a disservice by mandating high school economics courses in the face of a growing shortage of qualified faculty. Shortages, however, are economic phenomena, and even the basic supply and demand model offers three potential solutions to the teacher shortage. The first option involves reducing the demand for economics teachers by removing economics from the high school curriculum. This approach, however, avoids the problem rather than solving it. The second alternative requires increasing the pay scales for economics majors in the teaching profession. Perhaps the best solution, however, involves increasing the effective supply of qualified instructors by providing additional economics training to the cross-disciplinary teachers. More than three-quarters of the cross-disciplinary teachers surveyed expressed a desire to learn more about economic subject matter through in-service seminars and summer workshops. Clearly, states that mandate high school economics courses need to be sensitive to the particular problems faced by cross-disciplinary teachers, and support a variety of professional development programs to help them progress in the subject they teach.
It is important to note that the use of cross-disciplinary teachers as a response to teacher shortages is neither new nor unique to economics. More than 25 years ago, the National Commission on Teacher Education and Professional Standards (1965) reported that the "misassignment" of teachers was a major problem. More recently, a joint report by the Council for Basic Education and the American Federation of Teachers (1985) confirms that the practice is nationwide. Clive Dimmock (1980) has documented shortages of teachers in the natural sciences and modern languages, and Ward and Kilpatrick (1991) have described the difficulty of finding qualified faculty to teach business courses. But because the social sciences encompass a broad range of disciplines, it is perhaps inevitable that teachers will lack training in one or more of the social sciences, yet engage in teaching across disciplines. A recent study by Cirrincione and Farrell (1988), for example, shows that only 19 percent of social science teachers had taken more than three undergraduate courses in geography. What distinguishes the situation in economics, however, are state mandates requiring entire courses in this one subject. States and local jurisdictions that have established such curriculum mandates and those contemplating such moves must provide pre-service and in-service teacher preparation programs that will help teachers accomplish the curriculum's objectives.
We can summarize the results of our study as follows:
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Joseph G. Eisenhauer is assistant professor and Mark P. Zaporowski is associate professor of economics and finance at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York. The authors wish to thank Donald I. Bosshardt, Salvatore J. Natoli, and two anonymous referees for helpful comments. We are solely responsible for any remaining errors.