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Weekly Discussion #10:

Teaching Economics in High School

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M a r c h 2 0 0 9

Are High School Economics Teachers the
Same as Other Social Studies Teachers?
The Results of a National Survey
Mark C. Schug, David A. Dieterle, and J.R. Clark

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Economics is included, at least to •
some extent, in the educational stan-
dards of all states.

Seventeen states require students to •
take an economics course as a high
school graduation requirement (up
from 14 in 2004 and 13 in 1998).

Twenty-three states require the test-•
ing of student knowledge in econom-
ics, two fewer than in 2004.

Personal finance, the application of eco-
nomics to household decision-making,
appears to be of growing importance.
The same NCEE survey found that:

Courses in personal finance are now •
included, at least to some extent, in
the educational standards of 40
states (up from 34 in 2004 and 21
in 1998).

Twenty-eight states (up from 20 in •
2004 and 14 in 1998) now require
these standards to be implemented.

Seven states require students to take •
a personal finance course as a high
school graduation requirement (up
from six in 2004 and one in 1998).

Nine states require the testing of stu-•

dent knowledge in personal finance
(up from eight states in 2004 and one
in 1998).

Previous studies have focused on how
well students are learning economics, how
teachers are trained, and other outcomes
associated with improved understanding
of economics.2 However, almost nothing
is reported in the research literature on
economics teachers’ views of the curricu-
lum, how they teach their subject, their
views on public issues and professional
development. To improve our under-
standing of the teaching of economics
we surveyed 300 economics teachers as

part of a larger survey we commissioned
of 1,201 social studies teachers.

Why Do Economics Teachers Think
Economics is Important in the
When asked about specific reasons why
economics should be included in the
school curriculum, a large majority of
economics teachers (87 percent) empha-
sized that economics enables students to
better understand important current eco-
nomic issues. This suggests that macro-
economic content and international trade
issues are a high priority to economics
teachers. Economics teachers also agreed
that economics helps students become
well-adjusted, productive members of
society (80 percent), and enables stu-
dents to understand the basic concepts
and generalizations of the discipline (79

Social Education 72(2), pp 71–75
©2009 National Council for the Social Studies

Economics in the Curriculum and Economics Teachers
Economics has assumed an important role in the social studies curriculum. In a
2007 survey, the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE) reported the

We commissioned the Center for Survey Research and Analysis (CSRA) at the University

of Connecticut to conduct a survey of high school social studies teachers across the

nation. A nationally representative random sampling of public high schools was drawn

from the comprehensive, representative database available from the National Center for

Educational Statistics. Schools were stratified by size (number of students), region, and

urbanicity to ensure a representative sample. Telephone interviews were conducted from

December 2007 to April 2008. A total of 1,201 surveys were completed. Surveys were

conducted with 300 U.S. history teachers, 300 world history teachers, 300 economics

teachers, and 301 civics/government teachers. This article will focus on the responses of

the economic teachers. This research was supported by a grant from the Lynde and Harry

Bradley Foundation and a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to the National

Council on Economic Education (now known as the Council for Economic Education).

Special Section

S o c i a l E d u c a t i o n

percent). However, they do not find it
as important to teach students how to
be activists supporting economic poli-
cies using market-oriented solutions (45
percent) or to teach students how to be
activists supporting economic policies
that use the power of government (41

A somewhat different pattern emerged
when economics teachers were asked to
rate the reasons for including economics
in the curriculum in order of importance
(most important and second most impor-
tant). Encouraging these teachers to assign
priorities to goals adds insight into what
economics teachers actually think. Most
economics teachers appear to regard eco-
nomics content as an important tool in
developing critical thinking skills. On the
importance of critical thinking, they seem
to be similar to the other social studies
teachers who participated in the overall
study, although somewhat less enthusias-
tic. Table 1 shows that when asked which
of the reasons is the most important to
include economics in the curriculum,
economics teachers choose the objective
of forming critically-minded, reflective
citizens (48 percent). Both U.S. history
teachers and civics teachers ranked criti-
cal thinking as most important, but rated
it higher at 60 percent and 62 percent

Predictably, economics teachers stress
the importance of mastering basic eco-
nomic concepts. They ranked developing
an understanding of basic economic con-
cepts as the second most important rea-
son (42 percent) to include economics in
the school curriculum. The least impor-
tant reasons identified by the surveyed
teachers were developing activists using
the government (12 percent), developing
activists using the market (11 percent),
and helping students learn about other
countries (6 percent).

What Content Is Most Important
in Economics?
High school economics texts reflect a
strong emphasis on core microeconomic
and macroeconomic content. Much less
content, only about three or four chapters

of textbooks, has been devoted to con-
sumer issues or personal finance. This
emphasis reflects that for years, the stan-
dard high school texts have been simpli-
fied versions of college textbooks on the
principles of economics.

In contrast to the emphasis of the text-
books, it appears that economics teachers
place a much higher value on personal
finance and consumer education. Table
2 shows that 62 percent of the respon-
dents ranked personal finance and con-
sumer education as the most important

content. This was followed by micro-
economic content and macroeconomic
content, which are widely regarded to
be the vast majority of the content in a
typical economics course, and which
ranked second (36 percent) and third
(31 percent) respectively, far below per-
sonal finance. Interestingly, while form-
ing critical thinking skills was the most
important reason for including econom-
ics in the curriculum, thinking critically
about free market institutions ranks very
low (30 percent). Perhaps most surpris-

Table 1: Most Important Reasons to Include Economics in the Curriculum



2nd most

Forming critically-minded, reflective

48% 28% 20%

Developing an understanding of basic
economic concepts

42% 24% 18%

Using economics to better understand
current affairs

34% 14% 20%

Developing an appreciation of core
economic values and freedoms

23% 11% 12%

Helping students adjust to society 20% 10% 10%

Developing activists to use govern-
ment to solve current societal prob-

12% 4% 8%

Developing activists to use market to
solve current societal problems

11% 6% 5%

Helping students learn about other

6% 2% 4%

Table 2: Most Important Topics to Emphasize in the Economics Curriculum

Question: Considering all the reasons we have discussed regarding where the
emphasis should be in the economics curriculum, which do you think should
receive the most/second-most emphasis?


2nd most

Personal finance and consumer

62% 44% 18%

Microeconomic concepts 36% 14% 22%

Macroeconomic concepts 31% 14% 17%

Critical thinking about free market

30% 15% 15%

How markets create prosperity 13% 5% 8%

International trade and institutions 13% 4% 9%

Injustice in the economic system 11% 3% 8%

Non-market economic systems 0% 0% 0%

M a r c h 2 0 0 9

ing of all, only international trade and
institutions—topics of heated debate in
the 2008 presidential election—ranked
even lower (13 percent).

How Do Economics Teachers
No national study that we know of has
been published which compares the over-
all pedagogy of high school economics
teachers and other social studies teach-
ers. Economics teachers have long been
regarded as using teaching methods of
instruction that are more or less like those
of other social studies teachers. There has
been little reason to think otherwise.

The results of this study reveal that
whole class teacher presentation/discus-
sion is the most widely used activity by
social studies teachers. However, some
differences do emerge. While seven in
ten economics teachers report using this
activity frequently, this is less than that
reported by the U.S. history (78 percent)
and civics teachers (77 percent). This
is further illustrated by the finding that
only 38 percent of economics teachers
reported using whole class teacher pre-
sentation and discussion in their most
recent class, while half of the teachers
in the other subjects used it. Economics
teachers spend more class period time
working in small groups, on problem-
solving activities, and on Internet-based
activity in comparison to the other sub-
ject teachers.

This suggests that economics teach-
ers are somewhat more activity-oriented
than other social studies teachers. This
finding might be due to the fact that a
variety of relatively short and widely

used simulations and problem-solving
activities are easily available to econom-
ics teachers. Two possible explanations
come to mind. The National Council
on Economic Education, which is rated
by teachers as a valuable source of cur-
riculum materials, has published many
materials that include simulations and
demonstrations in addition to direct
methods. Some of these—such as a mar-
ket price simulation in which students
replicate making trades on the floor of
a commodities exchange, and a trading
activity sometimes referred to as a “grab
bag,” where student exchange “gifts” and
calculate how satisfaction increases when
trade becomes freer—are popular simu-
lations that involve intense activity, but
take up relatively little class time. Second,
the fundamentals of economics include a
more precise set of agreed principles and
definitions than other social studies dis-
ciplines, which may make it easier to use
focused simulations and demonstrations
to demonstrate a specific concept.

Are Economics Teachers More
Market-Oriented Than Other
Social Studies Teachers?
High school economics teachers are
responsible for teaching about the pri-
vate sector and how markets work as
well as the role of government in a mar-
ket economy. We wondered whether
high school economics teachers are
more market-oriented in their attitudes
than other social studies teachers. The
results reported in Table 3 suggest that
when it comes to voting in the 2008
election, economics teachers are not so
much different from their social studies

colleagues. For example, 34 percent of
the economics teachers planned to vote
Democratic compared to 35 percent for
the other social studies teachers in our
survey. However, Table 3 also shows
that 26 percent of economics teachers
planned to vote Republican compared
to 22 percent for all social studies teach-
ers. This suggests that economics teach-
ers are slightly more conservative than
other social studies teachers. It is also
interesting to note that economics teach-
ers are less likely to view themselves as
Independents than their social studies

Economics teachers appear to diverge
from other social studies teachers when
it comes to their views on specific issues.
Table 4 reveals that economics teachers
have views about economic issues that are
distinctly different from those of other
subject area teachers. Economics teachers
are more likely to agree that the strength
of this country is mostly based on the suc-
cess of American business (74 percent)
and that government regulation of busi-
ness usually does more harm than good
(47 percent). They are also less likely to
agree that the rich just get richer while
the poor get poorer (51 percent) and busi-
ness corporations make too much profit
(49 percent).

The same pattern emerges in terms of
support for certain policies. Economics
teachers, for example, are less likely to
support the U.S. government guarantee-
ing health insurance for all citizens than
teachers of other subjects (51 percent,
compared to about 60 percent of the
U.S. history, world history and civics

Taken together, the responses reported
in Tables 3 and 4 suggest that teachers of
economics are somewhat more market-
oriented than are their colleagues who
teach in other areas of social studies.
Perhaps this is to be expected since the
content of economics stresses the impor-
tance of markets in allocating goods and
services. It is nonetheless another finding
that makes high school economics teach-
ers somewhat distinctive.

Table 3: Anticipated Vote—By Subject

Question: In the upcoming national election of 2008, do you anticipate that
you will vote mostly…

Total US History World History Civics Economics

Democratic 35% 36% 35% 37% 34%

Republican 22% 22% 22% 19% 26%

Independent 16% 17% 14% 19% 13%

Haven’t decided yet 17% 18% 20% 17% 14%

S o c i a l E d u c a t i o n

Sources of Supplemental
Curriculum Materials and
Professional Development
Economics teachers, like other social
studies teachers, are interested in find-
ing supplemental curriculum materials
and attending professional development
events to keep them up-to-date on content
and to enliven their teaching. The eco-
nomics teachers in this study were asked
about the value of specific economic
organizations in terms of supplemental
curriculum and professional develop-
ment they provide. For both supplemen-
tal curriculum and professional develop-
ment, the National Council on Economic
Education was viewed by teachers to be
extremely, or very, valuable (54 percent
and 43 percent respectively).

Economics teachers also value materi-
als from the Federal Reserve as well as
state councils on economic education
and their affiliated university-based
centers. Forty-five percent of teachers
rate the Federal Reserve’s supplemental
curriculum as extremely, or very, valu-
able, and 33 percent rate it similarly for
its professional development opportuni-
ties. Thirty-four percent of teachers rate
the supplemental curriculum from state
councils and university-based centers
for economic education as extremely or
very valuable, and 35 percent say the
same about the professional development

Conversely, economics teachers find
both Junior Achievement and Jumpstart
Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy
as not too, or not, valuable for supple-
mental curriculum (42 percent and 38
percent, respectively) or for profes-
sional development (45 percent and 43
percent, respectively). It is important to
note some teachers are unfamiliar with
the Foundation for Teaching Economics
(19 percent), Junior Achievement (18
percent), and Jumpstart Coalition for
Personal Financial Literacy (32 percent)
and, therefore, could not rate the value of
the materials and opportunities provided
by these organizations.

Discussion and Conclusions
How should we reconcile the views of
economics teachers regarding why eco-
nomics is important as a discipline and
what content within economics they
believe to be of greatest importance?
A surprising finding is that personal
finance and consumer education content
are regarded as being more important
than basic principles of economics. We
suspect that high school economics teach-
ers view personal finance and consumer
education as something very distinctive
that they can offer—content of practical
and immediate value to students that is
perhaps different from the somewhat
more abstract content offered in the
other parts of the economics course as
well as in other social studies courses.

In spite of this, it seems that high school
economics teachers spend the majority
of their time teaching basic micro- and
macroeconomic concepts.

A number of factors suppor t this
interpretation. First, the 2006 National
A s se s sment of E conom ic Pro g re s s
(NAEP) found that about two-thirds of
twelfth-grade students reported taking
either an advanced or a general econom-
ics course. The NAEP results showed
that 79 percent of twelfth-graders per-
formed at or above Basic, 42 percent at
or above Proficient, and 3 percent at
Advanced. While caution must be used
in comparing NAEP results in econom-
ics to performance of students on other
tests, this level of achievement was much
higher than the levels attained by stu-
dents in history, geography, or civics. It
would seem difficult to attain this result
if economics teachers were not stressing
basic economics principles in the high
school course.

Second, most of the content of stan-
dard, high school economics textbooks
remain devoted to basic principles of eco-
nomics. Leet and Lopus,3 for example,
found that all eleven high school eco-
nomics textbooks in their study cov-
ered most of the standards identified in
the Voluntary National Standards in
Economics published by the National
Cou nci l on Econom ic Educ at ion .4
These standards rest firmly on main-
stream principles of economics. Finally,
the emergence of Advanced Placement
economics courses in high school, as dis-
cussed by Sally Meek and John Morton
in this issue of Social Education, also
suggests that standard economics content
remains dominant even while teachers
regard personal finance as being highly

We note, however, that high school
economics teachers do not seem to place
much importance on international eco-
nomics. The results here show that con-
tent involving international trade and
institutions, as well as the need to help
students learn about other countries,
were ranked relatively low. Given the
importance in international trade and the

Table 4: Economics Teachers Opinions on Issues

Question: For the following questions, please tell me if you strongly agree,
agree, disagree, or strongly disagree. (Percent agreeing)

Total US History

Civics Economics

The strength of this country is
mostly based on the success
of American business

67% 64% 68% 62% 74%

Government regulation of
business usually does more
harm than good

38% 30% 40% 36% 47%

Business corporations make
too much profit

59% 64% 63% 61% 49%

Today it is true that the rich
just get richer while the poor
get poorer

61% 65% 65% 61% 51%

M a r c h 2 0 0 9

many other changes related to global-
ization, this is alarming. It again raises
questions about the structure of the
typical high school economics course.
If high school economics teachers are
spending a great deal of time on mat-
ters related to personal finance—how
to balance a checkbook—while ignoring
content regarding the benefits of trade,
how international trade is measured,
and international economic institutions,
this represents a serious imbalance at a
time when a proper understanding of
the global economy is more important
than ever.

1. National Council on Economic Education, Personal

Finance and Entrepreneurship Education in our
Nation’s Schools, 2007: A Report Card: Survey of
the States (New York: National Council on
Economic Education). See www.ncee.net.

2. Please see Steven L. Miller and Phillip J. VanFossen,
“Recent Research on the Teaching and Learning of

Pre-Collegiate Economics Education,” in Handbook
of Research in Social Studies Education, eds. Linda
L Levstik and Cynthia A. Tyson (New York:
Routledge, 2008), 284-306 and Michael Watts,
What Works: A Review of Research on Outcomes
and Effective Program Delivery in Precollege
Economic Education (New York: National Council
on Economic Education), which can found at www.
ncee.net/eee/research/WhatWorks .

3. Don R. Leet and Jane S. Lopus, “Ten Observations
on High School Economics,” Citizenship, Social and
Economic Education: An International Journal 7,
no. 3 (2007): 201-241; National Council on
Economic Education, Voluntary Content Standards
in Economies (New York: National Council on
Economic Education, 1998).

4. National Council on Economic Education,
Voluntary Content Standards in Economies (New
York, NY: National Council on Economic Education,

Mark C. Schug is professor emeritus at the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He can be
reached at mschug@uwm.edu. David A. Diet-
erle is president of the Michigan Council on Eco-
nomic Education at Walsh College in Novi, Mich-
igan. He can be reached at david@mceeonline.org.
J.R. Clark is Probasco Chair of Free Enterprise
at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He
can be reached at j-clark@utc.edu.

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