Economists in the School

 

Angela Breidenstein, Richard Butler, and Nipoli Kamdar

Americans believe that economic literacy is an essential component of a good education. In the most recent Standards in Economics Survey of the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE), 96 percent of U.S. adults surveyed stated that basic economics should be taught in high school.1 There are good reasons for this conviction. Economics is, as Alfred Marshall once said, “the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.” In our personal lives, and in our roles as citizens, we encounter numerous situations in which we need a command of economics. In addition, economics teaches a logical, structured method of reasoning that can help us solve problems throughout our lives.

But in practice, economic literacy is far from universal. The same NCEE survey revealed that half of all U.S. adults received a failing grade for their knowledge of basic economic concepts and that only 60 percent of high school students have taken an economics course. Even more discouraging, students who have taken high school economics have often commented that they never learned any economics. The situation is worse in states that rely on infusing economic principles into the social studies curriculum rather than teaching economics as a separate course.

We want to suggest a new, partnership-based model for achieving more inspired economic education and, therefore, improved economic literacy.

 

What Is Economists in the Schools?

Improved economic education depends on both top-down national and bottom-up local reform initiatives. At the national level, organizations such as NCEE and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) must continue to advocate and promote economic education. At the same time, local invention is crucial. At Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, we have developed a local initiative, Economists in the Schools (EIS), to work one classroom at a time to promote economic education. By creating partnerships between the university and the public schools, the EIS program reaches teachers, prospective teachers, school students, and economics majors to develop their conceptual understanding of economics and apply the knowledge in meaningful ways.

In spring 1993, the Department of Economics at Trinity University initiated EIS, an outreach program that places Trinity students as teachers in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms throughout San Antonio. Initially an experiment relying entirely on volunteers, the program has grown in size and concept and has been offered as a one-credit course since spring 1996.

Each semester, the Trinity students are grouped into teams of three and are assigned to a teacher and a class at a school. Students devote the semester to teaching visits, which we refer to as performances to distinguish them from the practice sessions or rehearsals. With advice and assistance from a student coordinator (a veteran of the EIS program) and an economics professor, team members formulate lesson plans and classroom activities that bring basic concepts, such as supply and demand, to life. When planning these lessons, students are encouraged to focus on a few key ideas, echoing Joseph’s belief: “It may well be that if we taught less, students would learn more.”2 With three student-instructors in the classroom, the EIS program is able to emphasize collaborative learning and small-group work.

Approximately a week before the performance, each team turns in a detailed lesson plan to the professor who is coordinating the program. Every team is expected to rehearse the plan in front of the professor or the student coordinator. These rehearsals allow students to do a dry run of their lecture, carefully strategize classroom activities, and receive constructive criticism that helps them polish their lesson plans. Final versions of the lesson plan are due to the professor, classroom teacher, and team members on the day of the performance. The teacher and peers get copies of the plan so they can evaluate the plan as they observe the lesson.3 Teachers are also given a form on which they evaluate the effectiveness of lessons and offer suggestions for improvement.

Armed with all of the assessment information, students can improve their performance the next time around. Students like being able to present a second time so they can learn from their first experience. (In fact, many of our students take the course multiple times.) At the end of the semester, all the teams meet together to discuss their experience and talk about the lessons learned.

 

The High School Model

In the high schools, the Trinity teams teach a lesson every other week for twelve weeks. Each student has a primary responsibility for planning and presenting two lessons, while the other two members of the team help with the lesson implementation. There is no fixed curriculum; the topics are determined jointly by the teacher and the college students. In our experience, students are most successful when they have considerable latitude in choosing the topics for their lessons.

The lessons focus on how to use basic economic concepts to understand and address real-world policy problems. To accomplish this, applications integrated with the teacher’s curriculum are presented in mini-lecture, small-group discussion, or role-playing activities. In one example of active learning, students put on an antitrust trial; the class was divided into three groups and asked to consider whether a company had violated antitrust statutes. The plaintiffs and defendants argued the case before the third group, which acted as a jury and rendered and explained its decision. In another lesson, students participated in a mock meeting of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee. The class divided into small groups, and each group received a list of economic indicators and some trend data, on the basis of which group members had to decide whether to raise or lower interest rates or whether to leave them unchanged.

One of our most successful macroeconomics lessons was a Trinity team’s approach to the classical/Keynesian debate. After a brief review of the classical school of thought,4 students read a few excerpts from Studs Terke#146;s Hard Times, a chronicle of the Great Depression in the words of people who lived through it. Students were asked whether the experiences in Hard Times were consistent with the predictions of the classical model that all markets would clear. They quickly saw that massive unemployment and near-zero interest rates were evidence that markets were not clearing. As students discussed these observations in small groups, their responses (including price and wage rigidities) helped build a foundation for Keynesian macropolicy prescriptions. The Trinity students made the point that macroeconomics was a developing discipline that evolved as it tried to explain the changing economic times. Thus, they focused on the reasons for the disputes among conflicting schools of thought rather than on the mere existence of these disputes. The lesson is a wonderful example of inductive reasoning in the economics classroom.

In one class, a team tried to keep the class’s attention on a single topic for fifty minutes without success. The student in charge of the next lesson decided to do something different. She asked how many of the high school seniors planned to move out of their homes the following year, either to pursue college or employment. She also asked students to come up with a list of four or five requirements that they had for a house or apartment. This generated a buzz in the classroom as students talked about what they wanted in a home. She then handed out apartment guides and asked them to identify apartments that they might want to live in and to estimate what percentage of their budget would be required for housing. Students were free to modify the original list of criteria to decide on a suitable apartment.

Right away, students thought about cost–benefit analysis and marginal utility per dollar, though not in those terms. Most students felt that housing was very expensive. Next, half the students assumed the role of tenants and the other half posed as landlords to debate the pros and cons of rent controls. After a discussion, the college student used supply and demand graphs to illustrate the arguments and pointed out that rent controls had the unintended consequence of creating a housing shortage. Students then discussed price ceilings and the black-market activities that people engaged in to circumvent these price ceilings. In one lesson, the Trinity student had covered concepts of scarcity, opportunity cost, cost-benefit analysis, supply and demand, and price controls.

The lesson was a huge success. Most students paid close attention because they felt that they were learning things that they could use in their immediate future, rather than abstract and intimidating theoretical concepts. Indeed, the more relevant the selected applications, the more engaged the students and the more animated the discussions. One of the primary goals of the program is to get high school students to go beyond merely acquiring content knowledge and actually use the knowledge to understand the world around them.

 

The Elementary Model

Elementary school students are capable of learning and understanding basic economic concepts.5 Still, most states do not require economic instruction in elementary schools, and if economics is taught, it is a small part of the social studies curriculum. Teachers typically have little or no preparation in economics and receive little guidance on what principles to teach.

The EIS elementary program has a clearly defined elementary curriculum that was developed with fifth grade teachers at our pilot school, Harmony Hills Elementary, in San Antonio. The EIS group identified four key economics topics: scarcity/choice/opportunity cost; specialization and trade (including the notion of comparative advantage); supply and demand; and the economics of a business.

We find that students at the early grades respond well to a variety of activities and examples and to a multisensory approach to teaching. For example, students have played musical chairs before discussing scarcity; made (and eaten, when permitted) peanut butter sandwiches as they talked about inputs, outputs, and complementary goods versus substitute goods; and participated in role-play activities as buyers or sellers of goods (usually candy) to understand demand, supply, surpluses, shortages, and equilibrium.

Because attention spans are shorter at earlier grade levels, we emphasize hands-on activities. For example, students learn the benefits of specialization and the idea of comparative advantage by making bags of candy for Valentine’s Day or assembling pens at a make-believe pen factory. Students typically divide into small groups of four or five, each group representing a factory. The groups receive the materials and instructions to make a product. For instance, students in one class observed how many bags of candy each person, working alone, could manufacture within a given time period (about five minutes). They repeated the activity with each member specializing in one part of the process (i.e., counting out the candy, filling it in the bag, tying a ribbon). The groups generally produced many more bags in round two, post-specialization. These production differences became dramatic when teachers imposed significant capital constraints on the group, such as allowing just one pair of scissors or one stapler for each group. The students were asked why they thought division of labor and specialization increased productivity and who should specialize in which activity and why. This led to a discussion of absolute and comparative advantage and the benefits of trade.

In another example, fifth graders made a product that they could sell to the rest of the school on Market Day, held at the end of the school year. Throughout the semester, they planned what to make, how to make it, and how to advertise it. They kept track of their costs so that they could calculate their profits or losses at the end of the year. Trinity students emphasized the need to take into account implicit costs, such as the cost of using an oven to make cookies and the opportunity cost of their labor, as well as the explicit costs of chocolate chips or butter. Trinity students walked the fifth graders through a worksheet that helped them calculate costs, estimated revenues, and profits or losses. Students were encouraged to think about the law of demand, the extent of competition, and their costs before they determined the price of the product. They were also introduced to market structure, competition, and the power of advertising.

When discussing these difficult concepts, Trinity students made the terms more concrete by relating them to common experiences, such as running a lemonade stand. Students in one class actually made lemonade and tried to sell it to their teacher. In other classes, students focused on creating advertisements for similar products (such as a variety of cookies), hence learning about product differentiation and the power of advertising. Students remembered the lessons and applied them when producing, pricing, and advertising the product they made for Market Day.

Market Day was a pre-existing and enormously popular annual event at Harmony Hills, our pilot elementary school. When we discovered that Market Day was a wonderful capstone experience for Harmony Hills fifth graders, we promoted the idea at other participating elementary schools. The Harmony Hills faculty helped their colleagues make their Market Days successful. Among the benefits, these schools have experienced an increase in parental involvement, something that inner-city schools find especially challenging. Linda Darling-Hammond’s plea for “new horizontal efforts that support cross-school consultation and learning” has been answered in the spread of Market Day among the elementary schools.6

 

The Middle School Model

The middle school program is the newest addition to Economists in the Schools. Trinity teams have taught economics principles to all three grade levels (sixth, seventh, eighth) in our pilot school, Pease Middle School, in San Antonio. Over the years, all the social studies teachers at Pease have participated in the program.

As in the high school model, middle school teams make six teaching visits to their assigned class. The middle school program is a composite of the elementary and high school versions, with some hands-on activities to teach the basic concepts, plus additional applied lessons tied to portions of the middle school social studies curriculum. In the eighth grade, EIS teams visit one (or more) of the U.S. history classes; in the seventh grade, they go to a class on Texas history; and in the sixth grade, they teach economic principles as part of a class on world cultures. Recognizing that a knowledge of economics can improve students’ understanding of the historical events, EIS teams highlight economic applications within the relevant historical context. For example, in seventh grade, Texas history students learn about the episode of the redbacks. When Texas was an independent republic (1836-1845), President Mirabeau B. Lamar ordered the printing of large amounts of additional currency (printed in red, hence the name) to pay the government’s bills. Not surprisingly, this produced inflation and a decline in the value of the currency. Students learned to apply their knowledge of supply and demand to the historical event and realized that they were more knowledgeable about monetary policy than President Lamar.

One of the EIS teams used a Gilligan’s Island theme throughout its teaching visits at a sixth grade class. For the first lesson on scarcity and opportunity cost, Gilligan was shipwrecked and stranded on a deserted island with nightfall soon approaching. Students were given an array of activities, such as fishing or building a shelter, which Gilligan could undertake, and the amount of time each would take, structured so that he couldn’t complete all the activities within the allotted time of six hours before complete darkness. Students then divided into small groups, each group choosing what Gilligan should do before nightfall. The lesson was successful because all the students felt comfortable voicing their opinions and learned about limited resources (time), unlimited wants, and opportunity cost. As the semester progressed, Gilligan was joined by Mary Ann and others to discuss concepts of comparative advantage and trade, markets, shortages, and surpluses, ending with a macroeconomic lesson on unemployment.

An unemployment lesson exemplifies how to use deductive reasoning to transform a potentially dull lesson. After a fifteen-minute lecture defining the terms (employed, unemployed, and labor force), the various types of unemployment, and an explanation of how the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the unemployment rate, students received an expanded version of Table 1.

The team created one character for each student and used the students’ names to encourage active participation. Working in small groups, students determined the labor force status of each worker and calculated the unemployment rate and labor force participation rates for the class. As the teacher put it, to complete their assigned tasks, “students had to think—and they wanted to.”

 

Results

Measuring the success of the program poses some challenges. Its goals lend themselves to only a limited degree of quantitative measurement. As economists are fond of noting, however, the ultimate test of success is the market test: Given alternatives, have the participants—Trinity students, teachers in the schools, and their students—found the program to yield benefits in excess of its opportunity costs? On this point, we have evidence that all would answer a resounding “yes.”

How well does the program serve Trinity students? We have both qualitative data (a written evaluation that students submit at the end of the experience) and quantitative data (enrollment and “repeat business” over the five years that the program has been offered for credit). In the evaluations, the students stated that the program increased the depth of their understanding of concepts they had already learned. Most participants believed that their facility in economic reasoning was strengthened. As one student said, “You have to master something in order to teach it.” Others mentioned the program’s effect on their communication skills. One said, “It helped me learn how to put very abstract ideas into simple language. I’ll use that skill all my life.” Students also responded that teaching is not nearly as easy as they thought it would be and that they can, for the first time, understand and appreciate the rewards of being a teacher.

The enrollment data reflect a strong demand for the course. Capacity for the year is normally forty-two students; of the ten semesters that the course has been offered, enrollment has reached capacity seven times and has never been far below it.7 More telling is the number of students who repeated the experience. Excluding those who took the course as seniors, more than half the students repeated the course at least once, and more said that they would have done so had their schedule permitted it.

Does the program improve the quality of economics education in the schools that it serves? In a state that stresses test-based accountability, teachers would not idly sacrifice four to six class periods each semester unless they anticipated that the gains in student learning would outweigh the potential gains from using that time in other ways. The teachers have been overwhelmingly positive about the program and the impact that the Trinity students have had in their classes.

One reason that the teachers like the program is that their students retain the ideas and concepts. Elementary teachers have remarked that they can raise an economic concept weeks after it has been presented and get detailed, knowledgeable responses from their students. At the middle school, eighth grade teachers have commented that they easily can tell which of their students took the program in the seventh grade. At one of the high schools, the teacher compared final exam results between the class that had EIS and another comparable class; her EIS class had a significantly better performance on the exam. There are several causes for improved retention. Students are excited and enthusiastic about different people talking to them, especially college students, and thus become easily engaged. Still more important is the program’s emphasis on active pedagogy and relevant curriculum.

What impact does the program have on teacher capacity? The program provides teachers with detailed lesson plans on basic economic concepts, examples highlighting the economic issues involved in other areas of the social studies, such as history and government, and demonstrations of experiments, simulations, role-paying activities, discussion exercises, and other active-learning strategies. The most persuasive evidence comes from our experience at Pease Middle School. When we started, only two out of the eight social studies teachers had ever taken a college economics course, and most were apprehensive about how they would teach the economics strands in the new state curriculum. After four semesters, the department head reported that some of her most fearful colleagues had begun teaching a two-week block of economics on their own, relying heavily on the lesson plans that we left them. One of our long-term goals is to make this kind of teacher development more effective, both by making a library of lesson plans accessible to participating teachers and, ultimately, by designing schoolwide teacher in-service components.

 

Challenges and Obstacles

Building relationships. Because EIS is a partnership, we go only where the teachers want us. Indeed, the one school where we did not succeed was also the one where the principal imposed us on the teachers. We have since tried to rely on word-of-mouth recruiting by teachers with whom we have collaborated. At the very least, we meet with teachers and ask whether they are interested in the program. Our experience teaches us that there is no substitute for building mutually beneficial relationships with our partner teachers.

Scheduling. Matching school schedules to those of college students, especially allowing for travel time to and from schools, is difficult. Having compatible teams (including, if possible, at least one EIS veteran on each team) complicates the logistics further. The professor in charge needs real patience and organization to make the scheduling work.

Inexperience. Because EIS relies on teams of college students with little or no teaching experience, the risk of inexperience is noticeably greater than with traditional student-teacher models. But to a large degree, students compensate for their inexperience with creativity and enthusiasm. Nonetheless, our participating teachers need to accept the tradeoff between creativity and inexperience, and they must be willing to offer constructive help to aid the group in improving its performance as the semester goes on.

 

Inspiring Partnerships

The first principle of good teaching is the ability to inspire in students a dedication to the subject, by whatever pedagogical means. Inspiration means giving students a lasting appreciation for a subject and inducing them to learn about it.8

The EIS program strives to inspire in college students, school students, and teachers a dedication to economics and to learning. Since its inception, the program has reached thirty-eight teachers in fifteen different schools, which span the socioeconomic range of San Antonio, from the richest of our fifteen school districts to the poorest. Over a five-year span, EIS teams have reached between 1,500 and 2,000 San Antonio students.

The partnership continues to evolve. Three aims form our agenda for future work: more systematic whole-school saturation at the middle school level; deeper connections with teacher preparation at Trinity University; and a continued commitment to the education of students in more disadvantaged schools that thirst for precisely the benefits of the program—strong academic content, engaging academic experiences, meaningful curriculum, committed and capable teachers, and college students as teachers and role models.

Economic literacy is essential, yet in the United States we have had a hard time teaching economics. Although large-scale national remedies are far off, EIS is a good example of how universities and schools can make a real difference. The EIS model need not be unique to the discipline of economics either: We encourage our colleagues in other disciplines to use EIS as a model to inspire learning. Our program encourages university students to apply their learning and to engage in curricular service-learning, professors to work with their colleagues in the public schools, and school-age students to learn difficult concepts more actively and retain what they have learned.

 

Notes

1. National Council on Economic Education (NCEE), The Standards in Economics Survey (Washington, DC: NCEE, 1999). Available at www.nationalcouncil.org/poll/results.html.

2. Myron L. Joseph, “Role-Playing in Teaching Economics,” American Economic Review 50, no. 2 (1965): 556-565.

3. Teachers are given two copies of the lesson plan–one to return to the Trinity students with their comments and one copy to keep.

4. Classical economists held that markets will always adjust to any changes in the economy through the mechanism of supply and demand. They therefore argued that government intervention in the economy is at best useless and at worst an impediment to this natural adjustment process.

5. Kim Sosin, J. Dick, and M.L. Reiser, “Determinants of Achievement of Economics Concepts by Elementary School Students,” Journal of Economic Education 28, no. 2 (1997): 100-121.

6. Linda Darling-Hammond, The Right to Learn (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 1997), 211.

7. EIS displaces another course in the teaching load of the supervising professor only in the spring semester. Because the fall version is an overload, the number of participating students has to be limited.

8. Sidney Hook, as cited in J. Epstein, ed., Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 24-46.

 

Angela Breidenstein is an assistant professor of education in the Department of Education, Richard Butler is a professor of economics in the Department of Economics, and Nipoli Kamdar is an associate professor of economics in the Department of Economics, Trinity University, 715 Stadium Drive, San Antonio, TX 78212.

 

 

 

Table 1

Character Employed Unemployed Not in the labor force

Skylar the Retro Hairstylist
has 15 appointments
scheduled tonight.

Luke, a high school student,
works one hour a week in
the library.

Hunter, a graduate, sits at
home searching the
want ads.