Arnold Kling  

High School Curriculum

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This is easy for Greg Mankiw to say.


I have long thought that a year of economics should be standard in high school, much as American history is now. I even have a good textbook to recommend.

I think that a whole year of economics in high school would be a bad idea. I would rather have students learn a few things well than a lot things not so well.

As someone who actually teaches in high school, I am somewhat impatient with people who come up with things to add to the high school curriculum. We need things to subtract. Since I was in high school,

--U.S. and world history have expanded by 35 years
--foreign languages and cultures are more relevant
--biology has advanced dramatically
--computer skills have become more important
--statistics has become much more important

In addition, over the past 35 years there has been a lot of "feature creep" in high school. Science courses try to teach more modern theories. Math tries to include more data analysis, use of graphing calculators, and so on.

So where can we cut back?

--I think that there ought to be a "trigonometry-free" track in mathematics. You could shave two semesters of math by taking the trig out of pre-calculus and calculus.

--Most students have not been convicted of any crimes, so they should not be forced to do community service.

--Limit high school sports to no more than one match per week. Limit practices to no more than 4 hours per week. Stop demanding professional-quality yearbooks from student editors.

With all that said, here is what I wish every high school student would learn about economics:

--the concept of opportunity cost
--how economic incentives affect behavior
--the gains from trade
--how prices allocate resources
--how entrepreneurs introduce innovation

If every citizen understood those things, the level of debate over economic policy could be much higher.


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (16 to date)
Gabriel writes:

Wait... won't teaching/learning those things require 1 year or so? Could you do all that, credibly, in 1 semester only?

John Thacker writes:

I know of some schools that do teach pre-calculus and calculus without trig. It still seems very odd to me.

Cat Pierro writes:

What's the purpose of public education?

First possibility: to make people good citizens. So, they should know how to read (already taken care of by the time they go to high school), they should know how to engage in political analysis (that's where econ comes in, and maybe history), they should be able to talk to people effectively, and they should be instilled with a desire to help society (that's where community service comes in).

Second possibility: to recruit scientists, mathematicians, etc.

Third possibility: to provide people with an important-seeming avenue of entertainment in an otherwise boring existence -- this was what I got from school; I'll never have nothing to do, because I can just read fiction and hold the illusion that I'm accomplishing something.

Fourth possibility: all of education is just a long examination so that employers can figure out who is smartest or can put up with the most shit.

Fifth: to keep kids off the streets.

Am I missing something? Econ is useful to create people who are better for the whole of society -- it doesn't help students as individuals except as entertainment. Community service is necessary for the same reason.

jurisnaturalist writes:

To give kids a god foundation in economics shouldn't take longer than a month. First, have them read the Uncle Eric series of books by Richard Maybury Then have them read Russel Robert's The Choice. Next, play Settlers of Catan for a week. Finally, give them Bastiat's The Law, and Hazlitt's Economics In One Lesson, then let them loose.
If necessary present an advanced class with Sowell's Basic Economics.

It worked for one group of kids in downtown Durham, NC.

TGGP writes:

Public education has its roots in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Prussia was determined to turn its children into good little Prussians and served as an example for many other countries, including the United States. The Puritans also insisted that children be educated so they could read the Bible, but most of the education was still private. This changed when many Irish and German immigrants started coming over. Americans didn't want them going to Catholic or Lutheran schools where they would be brainwashed by evil papists or would continue speaking German and avoid assimilation. The first time the phrase "separation of church and state" was used in a Supreme Court decision was by a klansman striking out at Catholic schools. Even though I'm not in favor of public education, I'm glad the nativists succeeded in breaking the immigrants will to stay apart and distinct. It is unfortunate that today the educational establishment is on the side of the multiculturalists and promotes "bilingual education" and rejects the "melting pot" (which Teddy Roosevelt felt was offensive for implying the immigrants were going to contribute to American culture at all) in favor of the "salad bowl" where nobody has to assimilate.

TGGP writes:

Speaking of trigonometry, have any of you heard of rational trigonometry? I came across it about two years ago, and I always disliked trig because of the transcendental functions in it, but I don't know how good of a replacement this would make.

High School Econ Teacher writes:

I teach high school economics. It is a year long course, even though Georgia only requires ½ credit. The course contains five units: Fundamental Concepts, Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, International Trade, and Personal Finance. Here are the curriculum standards: GeorgiaStandards.org

The problem with teaching economics in high school is that few people have the economics background to do the job adequately. Most high school teachers have a Social Studies Education degree, which means that at best they had 1 or 2 economics courses in college. They are forced to teach a subject that they don’t understand or enjoy. This means that few students get anything out of the course.

I have been to conferences where there are AP Economics teachers who have never had a formal economics class. I don’t think economics is a subject that high school can’t grasp. It is more of a systemic problem that there a relatively few teachers qualified to teach economics compared to U.S. History.

[link fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Julianna writes:

I have been taught economics in 2nd grade, 8th grade and 9th grade (the year I just completed).

The first two were because the teachers felt it was important. They taught 3 out of the 5:
--how economic incentives affect behavior
--the gains from trade
--how entrepreneurs introduce innovation

My 9th grade Civics and Economics course taught, in only April, all 5 of the points satisfactorily. I think this is a reasonable request, as it is already implemented in my school.

Though, professional yearbooks are also expected and achieved at my school. I don't see why that is a problem.

Biomed Tim writes:

Isn't it also possible to teach economic philosophy in English classes?

I personally have never read Adam Smith, Hayek, or Bastiat (and no, I don't feel good about that...) but I would think that some of what they wrote would be entirely appropriate for English classes. I guess we would still run into the problem of not having enough teachers who are versed in economics.

But out of curiosity, what do you guys think? Which economic writings do you think can be appropriate for a high school English class?

Julianna writes:

I took 9th grade Civics and Economics last year. We covered all the points you mentioned sufficiently in the month of April.

quadrupole writes:

Cat Pierro,

You leave out the real purpose of public education: to employ.

It is pretty clear that public education is not primarily to keep kids off the street, else why release them onto the street for 2-3 months a year.

It is also pretty clear that public education is not primarily about keeping kids off the street when you see situations like Rhea County Tennessee giving kids two days off school due to rising gas prices, when dismissing 1.5 secretaries (of which most elementary schools have 7) would have paid for the increase in gas prices.

Look at how schools actually behave and it becomes pretty clear that the constituency they serve is their employees.

Horatio writes:

TGGP writes:
"Speaking of trigonometry, have any of you heard of rational trigonometry? I came across it about two years ago, and I always disliked trig because of the transcendental functions in it, but I don't know how good of a replacement this would make."

It looks like it can replace our current method of trig, but the current system is used throughout mathematics and the sciences. Students who learned rational trig would have to learn regular trig when they take calculus, mechanics, electromagnetism, etc.

Chris writes:

I think foreign language requirements are a waste of time unless the second you graduate from high school, you plan on working in a foreign country. The U.S. economy is still 90% closed, meaning the vast majority of high school students will deal almost exclusively with Americans. Learning a language isn't exactly like riding a bike. If you don't continually practice it, you'll soon forget it. Plus, language requirements assume you know what language you will need to be speaking in the future. Two years of Spanish doesn't do you much good if you end up taking a lot of business trips to France (not to mention that most Europeans speak English anyway, since it is a common denominator for the numerous languages spoken on the continent).

I'd like to see all language requirements replaced with two classes. First, a basic economics class that spends nearly the whole time talking about markets. Second, a personal finance that spends nearly the whole time talking about the miracles of compound interest.

Boonton writes:

I agree about foreign language. I tell kids I come into contact with not to take Spanish. Why? Because there is already a huge population of native Spanish speakers who are also good English speakers. They are going to have an advantage for any job that requires both languages andit will be tough to match that with 4 years of HS Spanish. Other countries have it easy because they can just require English to be the foreign language taught. There is no obvious 2nd language for American schools to require.

That being said, I think it was valuable to be exposed to trying to learn a foreign language....just as it was valuable to be exposed to trying to play a musical instrument. At least I know there's a structure to both & it can be learned if needed. I think I'm like many people in that I regret I didn't make more of both music and language while I was in school.

Arnold's 100% right about trig, though! Yes it has value but statistics is getting to be much more important.

Steve Sailer writes:

Thanks, excellent post.

Pablo H. writes:

You might be interested in this:

"The Nation's Report Card: Economics 2006," the first-ever evaluation on economics conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also found 42 percent of 12th graders performed at the proficient level, and 3 percent showed advanced knowledge of economic principles.

Via: You might be interested in this:

"The Nation's Report Card: Economics 2006," the first-ever evaluation on economics conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also found 42 percent of 12th graders performed at the proficient level, and 3 percent showed advanced knowledge of economic principles.

Via: http://www.inc.com/news/articles/200708/economics.html?partner=rss

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