Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics: 20 Enduring Concepts and Benchmarks for Beleaguered Teachers

Bonnie Meszaros and Laurie Engstrom

Teachers often question why it is necessary to introduce economics in the early grades, arguing that the discipline is more relevant to older students. Thus, even with the establishment of well-articulated economic education standards at the national and state levels, the discipline is inadequately represented in the elementary curriculum.

Inclusion of economics in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act showed a recognition that when students understand economic concepts, they’re better able to make sense of their world and better prepared for their adult roles as consumers, producers, and voters. Nevertheless, the Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics1 are not a mandate from the federal government. Rather, they provide guidance to states, local school districts, and curriculum writers who will ultimately determine what economics will be taught in the elementary grades.

The Content Standards volume itself explains the rationale for teaching economics in schools:

A better understanding of economics enables people to understand the forces that affect them every day and helps them identify and evaluate the consequences of private decisions and public policies. Many institutions of a democratic market economy function more effectively when its citizens are articulate and well informed by economics.

Children live in an economic world and bring economic knowledge and experience into the classroom. Some of this knowledge is correct, and teachers must build upon it in their instruction. Mark Schug points out, however, that some children “have an implicit understanding of the economic world that is quite different from the explanations offered by economics.”2 After a review of the literature, Schug and William Walstad concluded that teachers have a responsibility to understand and correct children’s confusion and misconceptions about economics.3

The Content Standards consist of 20 standards that encompass the most important and enduring ideas, concepts, and issues in the field. Each is a principle of economics that economists, economic educators, and teachers consider essential for students to know by the time that they leave high school. Individual standards are accompanied by a rationale, which explains to parents, educators, and citizens why it is essential for students to know this information and how knowing this will change their lives and that of others.

Benchmarks: Building Blocks of Learning

Because the standards themselves are written for a broad audience, they’re largely free of economic nomenclature. The language of economics—the jargon, if you wil#151;appears when the standards are broken down into benchmarks. For example, Standard 2 states:

Students will understand that:

Effective decision making requires comparing the additional costs of alternatives with the additional benefits. Most choices involve doing a little more or a little less of something; few choices are all-or-nothing decisions.

The benchmarks for this standard at the end of Grade 4 are:

At the completion of Grade 4, students will know that:

1. Few choices are all-or-nothing decisions; they usually involve getting a little more of one thing by giving up a little of something else.

2. A cost is what you give up when you decide to do something.

3. A benefit is something that satisfies your wants.

At the completion of Grade 4, students will use this knowledge to:

1. Analyze how to divide their time on Saturday afternoon when the possibilities are raking leaves to earn money, going roller skating with friends, and shopping at the mall with their aunt. Students will identify the possible uses of their time and explain how devoting more time to one activity leaves less time for another.

2. List the costs of buying and caring for a pet.

3. List the benefits of buying and caring for a pet.

To aid local school districts and teachers in developing the economics curriculum, the benchmarks spell out the concepts students need to know by the end of grades 4, 8, and 12. Individually, the benchmarks may appear as small pieces of knowledge that are insignificant. But when taken with other benchmarks within and between standards, it becomes clear that they serve as the building blocks fostering sequential, incremental learning that guides students toward the attainment of the overall standards.

The benchmarks contain the assumptions, intermediate conclusions, and elaborations of each Standard, and largely develop the economic reasoning behind the standard. By practicing the reasoning used by economists, students gain the skills that will enable them to analyze the complex economic issues they will face as adults.

At first glance, the elementary teacher might find teaching these economics standards an overwhelming, if not impossible, task. Not all Standards, however, are taught at all grade levels. Indeed, four of the 20 Standards have no benchmarks for grade 4 and three have benchmarks for grade 12 only. Nevertheless, the elementary teacher faces the daunting task of figuring out how to weave—into an already crowded curriculum—56 benchmarks by the end of grade 4 and another 67 by the end of grade 8.

The Content Standards do not spell out for teachers which benchmarks should be taught and when. This was never the intent of any of the national standards. Rather, decisions concerning which benchmarks should be taught at which grades are best made at the local level.

Unlike content standards in other disciplines, however, benchmarks in economics are tied to specific lessons from curriculum materials developed by the National Council on Economic Education.4 Thus, teachers have a built-in curricular cross-reference for teaching each benchmark. This is a helpful and unique feature, as classroom teachers often want guidance in how to help students meet each benchmark.

A Curriculum’s Logical Progression

If the benchmarks are the building blocks with which to weave economics into the curriculum, then the next piece of the puzzle is figuring out where exactly to place these building blocks by grade and subject. Any such plan must take the benchmarks for each Standard and lay out a logical progression for teaching economic concepts. Although each benchmark is tied to particular lessons that provide some guidance for the teacher, local schools will still need to develop a curricular plan that ensures complete coverage of the benchmarks without repeating the same lessons year after year.

Logically, the benchmarks can be taught at increasing levels of sophistication. In general, some of the content standards and their benchmarks are best taught in grades K, 1, and 2. Others are much more appropriate for grades 3 and 4.

For example, Standard 1 states that Students will understand that:

Productive resources are limited. Therefore, people cannot have all of the goods and services they want; as a result, they must choose some things and give up others.

Students will be able to use this knowledge to:

Identify what they gain and what they give up when they make choices.

Subsumed in Standard 1 are 15 benchmarks that indicate exactly what students should know and be able to do by time they complete grade 4. Table 1 lists these benchmarks and identifies specific lessons that may be used to teach each one. Each of these grade 4 benchmarks can be taught, at varying degrees of sophistication, in grades K, 1, and 2.

In addition, these benchmarks provide the foundation for many of the grade 4 benchmarks within other Standards. For example, the two grade 4 benchmarks for Standard 16 state students will know that:

Governments provide certain kinds of goods and services in a market economy, and

Governments pay for the goods and services they use or provide by taxing or borrowing from people.

Based on a comparison of the grade 4 benchmarks for Standards 1 and 16, Standard 16 logically should be taught once students understand economic wants, the difference between goods and services, the choices consumers make about what goods and services to buy, and what types of resources are used in producing goods and services. All of this is covered in the grade 4 benchmarks for Standard 1.

If the benchmarks from Standard 1 are taught in grades K, 1, and 2, then those in Standard 16 could be taught in grades 3 and 4 where they are more developmentally appropriate. This is not to say that a teacher could not teach all of the benchmarks in grade 1 or 2; but when time is scarce, the teacher should develop a plan that spreads the burden (and the joy) of teaching economics across all grades.

A Guiding Strategy

Table 1 shows one strategy for breaking down the fifteen grade 4 benchmarks for Standard 1 and the two grade 4 benchmarks for Standard 16. This layout indicates at which grade level each benchmark is introduced, and then suggests a grade-appropriate lesson that the teacher could use to teach that benchmark. This type of articulated plan, developed using the Content Standards as a guide, is essential in ensuring that students have achieved all grade 4 benchmarks when they complete grade 4.

It is also important to note that each benchmark need not be taught in isolation. Many can and should be taught together in one lesson. For example, Standard 1’s grade 4 benchmarks 9, 10, 11, 12, and 14 (see Table 1) can all be taught using the lesson, “Uncle Jed’s Barbershop,” from Economics and Children’s Literature Supplement 2.5 This lesson uses Margaret Kay Mitchel#146;s children’s book Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, a story about an African American barber in the segregated South who saves enough money to fulfill his dream of owning his own barbershop.6 Students examine the productive resources that Uncle Jed needed to open his barbershop. There are three types of productive resources: natural resources, capital resources, and human resources. The land needed for the shop is an example of a natural resource. Capital resources needed for the shop include such items as chairs, cutting stations, sinks, lights and scissors. Human resources include Uncle Jed himself and any other barbers that he hires. Uncle Jed’s initiative can be presented as an example of entrepreneurship, a special type of human resource. The lesson also focuses on savings, which is a grade 4 benchmark from Standard 10.

Connections and Overlap

Once students have mastered the grade 4 benchmarks in Standard 1, they are better able to learn those in Standard 16. This connection to Standard 1 holds true for many of the grade 4 benchmarks in other Standards. Figure 1 shows how the benchmarks from Standard 1 provide the foundation necessary to learn the content of benchmarks for the other standards specified.

Seeing how the Standards and the benchmarks connect and overlap is important to the teachers who are responsible for developing a curriculum plan to implementing them. Standard 1, for example, provides the background for many of the other standards. Once the connection is made, a teacher is able to see that, although there are 56 grade 4 benchmarks for all standards combined, not all need to be introduced at one grade level; many can be taught together in one lesson, and some become extensions of previously covered benchmarks. By seeing the benchmarks in this light, the prospect of introducing economics into the yearly curriculum for the first time becomes less overwhelming.

A scope and sequence layout, such as that shown in Table 1, should be developed for each Standard at all grade levels. This is necessary so that teachers know what prior knowledge to expect students to have upon entering their classrooms, and what knowledge they are responsible for covering before their students move on to the next grade level.

The lessons in Table 1 are merely suggestions, but a teacher with minimal economic content knowledge will be able to use these sample lessons while gaining experience in economic education. Teachers who are more comfortable with the economic content may use all of the lessons, substitute others, or develop their own.

Content Guidance in an Age of Competition

The educational reform movement and, ultimately, the development of national standards grew out of the concern that today’s students were unprepared for their adult roles in society. One influential expression of this concern was the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk. Business and education leaders who adhered to its viewpoint saw American graduates as being ill equipped to deal with the demands and challenges they would face in the 21st century. If the United States was to retain international leadership, students needed to be prepared to compete in a global economy. The American educational system had to produce students who could apply the knowledge and skills acquired in school to complex issues in the local, national, and international arenas, and make decisions affecting themselves, their families, and even their country. To achieve this goal, the United States needed to establish world-class academic standards in several disciplines, including economics.7

The recent calls for educational reform have placed many demands on classroom teachers. Recent emphasis on standards-based instruction in core disciplines means, for many, the introduction of new content, new instructional materials, and new pedagogical techniques and assessment strategies.

The Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics provide the guidance teachers need. Without this articulation, the responsibility of covering the economic concepts suggested by the Content Standards may fall entirely on those teachers in the grades where students are assessed on state level or district level tests. Economics, along with many other content areas, may be taught in a hit or miss fashion.

The Content Standards can be a valuable tool in helping teachers to determine the goals of economics instruction and in providing needed instructional materials. The final step is for local districts, working with teachers, to determine how this will play out at each grade level.


1. National Council on Economic Education, Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics (New York: NCEE, 1997): xi.

2. Mark Schug, “How Children Learn Economics.” The International Journal of Social Education 8 (Winter 1993-94): 25.

3. Mark Schug and William Walstad, “Teaching and Learning Economics, in Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning, ed. J. Shaver (New York, Macmillan, l991): 411-49.

4. Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics and the instructional packages correlated with the benchmarks are available from the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE). They are also available on the CD-ROM Virtual Economics, which ties to the economic standards all the NCEE publications as well as many from the Federal Reserve Banks and those of other publishers. Virtual Economics can also be purchased from NCEE at 1140 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10035. The economic standards document can also be purchased from National Council for the Social Studies (1-800-683-0812).

5. Barbara Flowers, Bonnie Meszaros, and Mary Suiter, Economics and Children’s Literature Supplement 2 (St. Louis: SPEC Publishers, Inc., 1998).

6. Margaret King Mitchell, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1998).

7. National Commission on Educational Excellence, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, DC: Author, 1983).

About the Authors

Bonnie Meszaros is Associate Director of the Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship, University of Delaware. She was project director and a member of the writing committee for the development of Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics. Laurie Engstrom is Program Coordinator, Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship, University of Delaware.