Thursday, July 23, 2009

Economics to be required in Arizona high schools.

A few years ago the entrance of a center-liberal party called "Civic Platform" to a coalition government in Poland caught my attention--I'm always interested in seeing what the world's liberal parties are doing right that that libertarian party is doing wrong. One of their more notable platform planks was that economics be taught at all levels in schools. (An aside: If you're thinking about leaving a comment or sending me an e-mail in Polish, don't. The combination of the last two sentences and my obviously ethnic surname might get you thinking differently, but I neither speak nor read the language. European political parties have an interesting habit of translating some of their Web content into English.)

That's an idea we should try here in the States. Students, most of whom still go to public schools, grow up to be voters, and voters who believe strange things about how the economy works tolerate politicians who believe strange things, the equivalent of witch-doctoring about how the economy works. Beyond this, an economic education will likely enrich the students personally, by having them see opportunity in a world that would otherwise seem stifling, and having them think of themselves not as belonging to some class (workers, etc.) but universally, no matter how they put food on the table, as capable entrepreneurs seeking their comparative advantage.

It's gone largely unnoticed, but Arizona has partially adopted this idea. The state standards set forth an ambitious program that has students as early as the fifth grade thinking of their history lessons in economic terms (e.g. "Describe how specialization (e.g., division of labor) improved standards of living in the three colonial regions and the Pre-Civil War North and South.") and has high-school students expected to learn things most college-educated adults don't know (e.g. "Explain the effects of monetary policy on unemployment, inflation, and economic growth.")

I can't determine when it was decided, but just stumbled on a remark from a very credible source--the Arizona Freedom Center, which is affiliated with the University of Arizona's Department of Philosophy--stating that starting in 2012 Arizona's high school students will be required to take one semester of economics to graduate. (The standards I quoted appear already to be in effect, but no separate economics course or unit is required.)

Both this and the inclusion of economics in the "social studies" standards is a great idea, and if I could figure out who is responsible, praise would be in order. My only concerns are that schoolteachers lack enough prior exposure to the subject to meet the standards, and that some will take the mainstream ideas required by the standards to be some special ideological "free market economics", mistakenly think they're being required to propagandize, and either interject their own beliefs indiscriminately or simply shirk their duty.

I've dropped in on Arizona public-school classrooms as a guest speaker on two subjects, and think that despite social promotion, low expectations and an anti-intellectual culture (sometimes encouraged by parents--one of these days I'll pass on a story about this) students are capable of learning the material. My question to readers is: How is this working out? Are teachers following the standards? Are kids learning the material?

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