Thursday, May 15, 2014

The State of U.S. High School Education in Economics

Every two years the Council on Economic Education publishes "Survey of the States: Economic and Personal Finance Education in our Nation’s Schools."

With two high-schoolers and a middle-schooler in my own family, I'm well aware that class-time is tight, and it is impractical to just keep adding subjects and material.  Also, I have some qualms about how economics is sometimes taught at the high school level as a sort of watered-down intro college course, rather than as a subject with practical skills and lessons for everyday life as a consumer, worker, borrower and saver, insurance purchaser, manager, citizen, and voter. But it also seems to me that high school students face some genuine financial dangers in this world of credit cards and payday loans, rental agreements and lease-to-buy deals, choices among insurance policies with different deductibles, student loans and car loans--and these dangers that can seriously undermine their financial start as young adults. Thus, I do think it's worth finding some ways to squeeze in some additional learning about economics and financial health. What are the US states generally up to along these lines?

One eye-opener in the CEE report is that the question of whether a state "requires" economics in the curriculum often does not have a yes-or-no answer. Instead, the answer can be thought of as a set of questions: Does the state include economics in its standards? Is there a requirement that the standards be implemented? (Apparently, a "standard" and whether the standard is implemented are separate decisions!) Is there a requirement to offer a specific high school course? Is there a requirement that students take that high school course? Is there required testing of economic concepts?

Here's a table showing the trends in these categories since 1998. Economics is included in more standards, even in standards that are required to be implemented. However, fewer than half the states require offering a high school course in economics, or require that the course be taken by students.

What are the similar factors on the personal finance dimension? There was a huge jump in adding personal finance material to school standards from 1998 to 2000, and the requirements to implement these standards have grown over time. However, relatively few states require offering or taking a course in this area, and there is little testing of these topics.

My children joke about having yet another lecture on the perils of drugs, alcohol, and smoking, or about the need to stand up to bullies. Those subjects are worth addressing. But my suspicion is that many high school students will suffer from severe episodes of poor financial health in the 5-10 years after they leave high school--and that the prevalence of such episodes could be reduced with improved high school education in this area.