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Promoting Economics: The Course Good for a Lifetime

<i> Laviola is a View intern from Cal State Fullerton</i>

The status of economic education in California is a textbook example of supply and demand.

With the passage of state legislation last year that requires all high school graduates after 1988 to complete a semester of economics, the demand for qualified instructors to teach economics is enormous. So the nonprofit Economic Literacy Council of California has been rallied to prepare large numbers of teachers.

The Legislature has provided $450,000 for the council’s Centers for Economic Education to train 500 to 1,000 high school teachers this spring and summer and an additional 2,000 teachers next year. In addition, more than 50 California corporations have contributed $200,000 to the council for teacher training to supplement state funds.

“The word economics scares the hell out of a lot of people,” said L. Arthur Womer, Huntington Beach’s Marina High School economics teacher who spoke at a teacher training seminar held by the council for high school teachers recently at Los Alamitos High School. “But it’s not hard--you live it.”

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Womer told his teacher-students that economics is the one course that will affect their students “every single day of their lives.”

Womer sets up a situation in his high school classes in which half the students are stranded on a desert island with a limited amount of resources and the other half are stranded several miles away on another island with other materials. Their immediate concern is survival, but through that need, societies are formed, with problems of production and distribution solved. Eventually, said Womer, they set up a trading system between the two islands and then he is ready to begin teaching an international monetary system.

Cannot Be Separated

Economics teachers say economics cannot be separated from politics and geography, that one cannot understand government, history or world civilizations without studying economics.

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“Who discovered America? When did he do it? But when you ask why-- that is when learning really begins,” said Carl Rogers, an economics teacher at Gahr High School in Cerritos. Rogers, who was not at the workshop, was cited by the council as an example of a good teacher currently teaching economics. “There are a lot of different answers and ramifications . . . When students can start answering why, they can pick up the paper and understand what is happening in the world.”

Honor students in Rogers’ classes debate issues such as socialism versus capitalism and the use of food as a negotiating tool in foreign affairs and public employee strikes. They also discuss personal finances.

When students calculated the cost of their parents’ homes on a 10-year mortgage as opposed to 30 years, “most thought their computers were broken,” Rogers said.

“I told the kids, ‘If you can save your parents $100,000, they shouldn’t object to paying your way through college.’ When you can take learning from school and apply it to their home situation, that is something they will never forget,” he said.

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The Economic Literacy Council, a private, nonprofit agency founded in 1976 to improve the quantity and quality of economic education in California schools, has been providing materials and teacher training for every grade level from kindergarten through college for the past decade.

According to a recent nationwide poll by the Hearst Corp., fewer than 5% of all teachers have had one course in economics, although half of all high school social science teachers--those who, for the most part, will be teaching the newly required courses--have had at least one.

‘Just as Important’

“I’m not saying that economics is more important than reading or math or health, but it is just as important,” said Douglas L. Miller, executive director of the council, a program of the California State University Foundation. “And for the same reasons. We learn math and reading because those are things we use our entire lives to make a better life style for ourselves, our families and our society.

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“Most people are not comfortable making economic decisions, but it doesn’t stop them from making them anyway,” Miller said. “Relatively few people have had a formal course in economics. With most of it taught at college, that automatically leaves the majority of the population completely out of economic education, except those lessons from the school of hard knocks that we all get.”

The council has been promoting programs like Kinder-Economy--designed to teach children as young as 5 principles of real-world economics by letting them establish their own miniature society, with challenges of scarcity, inflation, and distribution--and continues to push for economics to be taught as a cohesive part of every child’s entire education.

For instance, the Economic Literacy Council is recommending and providing teachers with a videotape series starring teen-agers learning to set up their own business as opposed to working for someone else. It also provides computer software packages dealing with production and distribution decisions for a space colony.

Required by the state to teach economics as part of a semester American civics course since 1983, some school districts have set up independent economics courses, especially for college-bound honor students. Most also provide some form of consumer economics being taught largely by home economics teachers. Now, however, students will be required to learn 16 economic concepts and 25 terms.

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Interest by Business

According to GTE president David E. Anderson who is on the council’s business advisory committee, business is interested in funding the teaching of economics to help students become better consumers and employees.

Those responsible for training emphasize that the workshops are established in an attempt not just to train teachers in economic principles, but to give them the capability to make their courses interesting and relevant to high school students.

Noted Rogers, the high school economics teacher: “Would you believe sex education can be boring? It depends on the way it is taught. If you teach economics so it is pleasant and relevant, they will learn.”

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One of the fears many teachers have is for the slow student who will be required to pass an economics class in order to graduate. However, Womer said, “even the little dumb kid at the bottom” is going to have to make economic choices in his life.

“I hope we can help teachers discover that economics is not a course in checkbook accounting skills nor is it a bunch of theoretical information the kids have to memorize, but rather it is practical and interesting and can be a very entertaining course,” Miller said.

Miller pointed out that each school district will determine its own program and the materials it will use, conforming only to the model curriculum standards set up by the state board of education.

“I don’t see how we can push a capitalist system when students have no idea how it works,” said Glen Percey, a social science teacher from Bell Gardens High School and a participant in the Los Alamitos workshop. “Most students don’t feel they are part of the system, they think it acts upon them. They don’t realize they are part of the action.”

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