Thursday, July 21, 2016

Economics is cool but not taught a lot in school

Tyler Cowen, economist at George Mason University and noted blogger, was asked a question regarding why Economics isn’t taught more in schools.  In the United States only 20 states mandate Economics education, which goes a long way in explaining why people continue to make questionable choices. 

What does Cowen say?

  1. K-12 teachers do not themselves understand economics.

This is true.  During my second year of high school I went with a colleague to the Buck Institute’s Economics Problem Based-Learning course.  A good 2/3 of the teachers in that room had limited knowledge of what it actually meant to teach Economics.  There was a lot of politics in the room, some personal finance, and a whole lot of insistence that free markets were terrible and shouldn’t be taught, even though there seemed to be limited understanding of how the market actually functioned.  Social Studies teachers are usually History teachers and Economics is not a History course.  My degree at California State University at Chico was in History/Social Science, meaning I had to take Government and Economics courses to get my degree. 

2. It is much easier to teach and test historical facts and Spanish grammar than economic concepts.  Note that many high school economics classes seem to devote a lot of attention to business taxonomy rather than actually thinking like an economist.

Meh, this might be true but more related to #1.  Economic concepts are actually super engaging and fun to teach but many teachers are either unfamiliar with Economics or so against the ideas of free markets that they simply won’t teach it.  I think APUSH is tougher to teach than Economics, and I’ve found that many students that struggle in Social Studies classes do much better in Economics because it is relevant and personal.  When you structure it from scarcity regarding individuals and build up to communities, governments, business, and the world, Economics becomes an enjoyable class.

3. K-12 administrators may be hostile to economic reasoning, since said reasoning may paint some of them in a less than flattering light.

The same could be said about Government but the impact is usually not that dangerous to the administration.  Showing school district financials and cost/benefit of things like Homecoming Week doesn’t really get the students attention.  Know what takes on that less-than-flattering light?  Teachers.  When you talk about the market for employment and the concept of voluntary exchange it becomes rather difficult justify the concept of tenure, especially when there is a teacher that students know is lazy or checked-out.  It also makes students question other teachers when they go on political rants about things like universal health care, “free college tuition”, and policies revolving around GMOs.  The answers that students receive are usually political not economic, or the student is often vilified for being against human rights or against the poor or just flat out ignorant.  This creates skeptical students.  This is a good thing in a class like Government or Economics but can be a bad thing if you have a teacher in a non-Social Studies class using students as a sounding board.   


I think that Economics is still one of those subjects that is shroud in mystery and skepticism from teachers that are unfamiliar with Economic theories or unconvinced that the those theories are valid.  Many think that teaching about free markets implies an immediate bias towards conservative politics and thus it pushes the buttons of political progressives that often teach with agendas.  But people fail to grasp the idea that Economics teaches people to think in a different way.  It doesn’t work in absolutes but requires students to slow down and look at positive and negative consequences of decisions.  It should be a requirement at all schools in all fifty states but until the myth and controversies around Economics are shattered, expect it to lay low in the background. 

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