When teachers, parents and students think about civics in the classroom, first and foremost they imagine social studies, Constitution Day and the Pledge of Allegiance. It is, of course, part of our responsibility as educators to train students in the history, values and norms inherent in our constitutional system of government and to better prepare them to protect their cherished rights. But if we limit our definition of civics education to only these elements, we’re sending our students out into the world short-handed.
Economic literacy, meaning the understanding of basic economic principles and the ability to apply this understanding to everyday life decisions, must also be considered a key aspect of well-rounded civics education. After all a free-market economic system is a key foundation of American life and the source of this country’s prosperity. On a whole host of issues—including taxes, government spending, entitlement programs and the minimum wage—students must understand economic concepts in order to be informed participants in the political process.
Unfortunately, our system hasn’t done a stellar job of teaching economics. Poll after poll shows that most Americans have a tenuous grasp of basic economic concepts. Still, it isn’t too late to begin preparing students to be future leaders of our society.
First, we must teach economic literacy in ways that students will find relevant, and even exciting. Economics has long been referred to as the “dismal science.” In some classrooms, it continues to be taught that way. Many students have grown up considering economics to be a remote and inaccessible course of study. But the same thing was once said about U.S. history. As evidenced by hundreds of millions of dollars spent and numerous awards won, the “Hamilton” musical proved that history could actually be cool.
The same is true of economics. It is the study of how we as human beings make life choices, including the seemingly non-economic and relatable decisions that students make every day. Take, for example, the choice between studying for an exam or spending an extra hour playing video games—a prime lesson for students on opportunity cost and how to apply “the economic way of thinking” to their everyday lives.
We need to employ creativity and empathy to make students see how relevant and interesting economics can be. HipHoponomics, a curriculum created by teacher Greg Caskey, also known as MC Caskey, engages students in the study of economic concepts using the medium of rap and hip hop music. Caskey has earned national attention for his unique approach to teaching. Certainly, every educator doesn’t need to go to such extremes. But by taking into account the student’s perspective first and meeting them where they are, we can devise other innovative ways to better engage students.
But there are more fundamental roadblocks to the promotion of economic literacy in schools. Unfortunately, teachers often don’t have the time to prioritize economics education. In the push to streamline budgets and align classroom instruction to tests, there are fewer resources than ever before for anything that isn’t strictly related to math or English language arts. Economic literacy falls in the uncomfortable middle ground between these two disciplines. Worse, many teachers simply don’t have the credentials to teach economics at anything more than the most basic level.
Fortunately, many teachers have taken it upon themselves to tackle these issues head-on. In just one example, The Fund for American Studies, through its Foundation for Teaching Economics programs, hosts in-person and online programs for high school teachers, equipping them with the tools to teach economics. Currently, more than 15,000 high school teachers have participated in these economic education training programs, educating an estimated 200,000 students annually.
To bring engaging economics to every U.S. high school student, there’s no doubt that structural reforms are needed. But these programs are a start. When excellent professional development meets the passion and creativity of teachers, I’m confident we can rewire our education system to prioritize economic literacy as part of civics education and set our children and grandchildren on the path of future leadership.