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Econ teachers want you to know that economics is all about decision making

Jordan Mangi Nov 6, 2023
October was National Economic Education Month, and this year the Federal Reserve celebrated by launching an Instagram profile. Getty Images

Econ teachers want you to know that economics is all about decision making

Jordan Mangi Nov 6, 2023
October was National Economic Education Month, and this year the Federal Reserve celebrated by launching an Instagram profile. Getty Images

A high school economics course is mandatory in 25 states, but many economics teachers, forever fans of a good ol’ cost-benefit analysis, say the price of stronger economics education across the U.S. is well worth it.

That’s because “every single decision that you’re making, it’s an economic decision,” explained Austin Green, who has taught high school economics in Georgia for over a decade. At curriculum nights, he emphasizes to parents and students that unlike some other subjects, economics is ever-present in daily life.

Recently, there’s been a big push to teach more personal finance in Georgia — a move Green feels may leave economics on the chopping block. To him, economics is the “why” behind personal finance and you can’t have the latter without the former, he said.

 Plus, most of his students are seniors and many have recently become eligible to vote.

“Time and time again, when we go through an election cycle … it’s always, ‘I’m concerned about inflation. I’m concerned about employment. I’m concerned about the state of fiscal policy,’” he said. “Our kids live in an economic world and they’re voting on matters of the economy.”

In short, economics has practical, real-world applications.

Michelle Foutz, an economics teacher in Carmel, Indiana, said that a basic understanding of economics is foundational to various roles her students are going to have down the road — as a saver, consumer, voter, employee, and maybe even business owner.

Foutz knows her students are making huge decisions about what they’ll do with their time and money after high school — in many school districts, economics is primarily a class for seniors. She encourages them to look at that choice through an economic lens.

“Are they going to go to college? Are they going to go to trade school and what is the cost? What is the financial cost and what are they giving up in terms of their time?” she said. “It’s very typical to make a choice about where you’re going to college without really thinking about the consequences and if you’re going to have debt and how much debt and how that will impact you down the road.”

And, she said, economic education should start before high school. Students in Carmel High School’s Economics Club — which won last year’s National Economics Challenge —  visit second graders at a local elementary school to lead a lesson on economic principles, like goods and services, opportunity cost, and scarcity.

In Indiana, economics is built into social studies curricula in grades K-12, and all high schoolers take a standalone economics course. Economics teachers say there is value in that singular focus on the economy.

For many of Matt Pedlow’s students in Chelsea, Michigan, his economics class is a lightbulb moment. It’s the first time they learn that everything has a cost. 

“As Americans in general, we’re such consumers that we literally just keep seeing benefits,” he said. “I always use examples like, ‘Well, if you bought a sweater, the benefit is you got a sweater, it stops there.’ When you take economics, you suddenly realize that you have to give something up.”

The type of thinking encouraged in economics isn’t being taught in other classes, Pedlow said. And it can be applied beyond purchases — a student tempted to stay in a harmful long-term relationship because they’ve already put in years of effort? That’s just bad economics, said Pedlow. (It’s also an example of the sunk-cost fallacy, which he covers day one in his class.)

Vann Prime, an economics teacher in Howard County, Maryland, knows that ten years from now his students probably won’t remember the specifics of monetary policy. But he hopes they remember what he calls the “fundamentals” of economics: 

“All choices involve costs,” he said. “Economics is not about money, it’s about all the choices we make in our lives.”

Teaching in Florida, where curricula has been revised in response to the Stop WOKE Law, Andrew Tillman finds himself in a unique position to discuss otherwise “controversial” topics thanks to economics’ data-driven nature. 

When going over monetary and fiscal policy, he shows mathematically how an increase in government spending or a decrease in taxes might affect the economy. One approach might be preferred by one side of the political spectrum, he said, but he teaches his students that there are no perfect choices — just ones with different consequences.

“That’s actually where the students struggle on some of this. They still want a right or wrong answer,” he said. “Economics is not going to give them that.”

Tillman also moonlights as the senior class sponsor, overseeing the process of planning prom and graduation. In a recent lesson on marginal costs and marginal revenue, the senior class president had a eureka moment, and decided they needed to break down the variable and fixed costs of this year’s prom ticket.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, God, I’ve created a monster,’” Tillman said.

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