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SU Project Advance fills the gap for high school economics teachers - economically

April 09, 2010

Mehvesh Shereef

Over the last several decades, the emphasis on economics at the high school level has drastically increased; teacher preparation for the subject, however, has lagged behind. Though lawmakers have been attempting to reverse this trend, the truth is that a substantial number of high school teachers are unprepared to instruct basic economics courses.

That is where Syracuse University Project Advance (SUPA) comes in.

Professors Don Dutkowsky and Jerry Evensky, who teach economics in the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, along with Jerry Edmonds, director of SUPA, recently received a grant that will cover teacher costs for ECN 600, an online course that will be given at SU this summer. The grant will provide teachers the opportunity to learn about various principles of economics for no charge. ECN 600 will be taught over a six-week period and will be overseen by Dutkowsky and Evensky.

According to a report by the Council for Economic Education (CEE), the number of states mandating an economics course in order to graduate high school increased from 13 in 1998 to 21 in 2009. Though these states make up 65 percent of the U.S. population, research indicates that the majority of high school students are still graduating without an understanding of the most fundamental economic concepts.

Another study conducted by the CEE found that 97 percent of adults believe that economics should be included in high school curricula. The study, designed to gauge economic literacy in the United States, also analyzed the results of an economics quiz that was based on elementary aspects of economics. The study reported that 93 percent of high school students believe that it is important for Americans to have a good understanding of economics. Despite this finding, 60 percent of high school students received a failing grade on the quiz.

“In the past two years, there have been even more efforts to bring economics to every high school,” says Dutkowsky, a professor of economics. “However, effort is one thing and quality is another.”

Economics is generally a component of the social studies curriculum at most high schools. But according to Dutkowsky, the infusion of economics into such a program doesn’t do the subject matter justice. Many states now require that high schools offer economics as a separate class. Unfortunately, only a handful of high school teachers have the credentials to teach these courses. Often, the burden of meeting the economics mandate is placed on unqualified social studies teachers, further exacerbating the problem.

“Nobody wants to do it because they don’t have an economics background,” says Evensky, a professor of economics and author of “Economics: Ideas and Issues for a Sustainable World” (2nd edition, Pearson Custom Publishing, 2008). “So they take the least senior person and say, ‘Here is your book. Go teach.’”

Unfortunately for students, the majority of social studies teachers just don’t have the training, resources or educational background to teach economics.

“Research has shown that many colleges and universities require minimal, if any, elementary economics courses in order to obtain a degree in secondary social studies,” Dutkowsky says. “The consensus among the teachers we’ve spoken to on a continuous basis is that those who have to teach it just try to survive it.”

Determined to address the serious need for well-trained economics teachers, Dutkowsky and Evensky have created a free three-credit graduate course in economics. The goal of the initiative is to properly prepare New York’s high school teachers to teach this material.

“We are trying to create an environment that weds basic comfort with the content with a sense of how to teach it,” Evensky says. “The course will be as efficient as possible, but as effective as necessary.”

New York public high schools are required to offer and staff economics courses for every institution. In addition, new mandates require that the areas of personal finance and entrepreneurship be addressed in the classroom. To complicate matters further, New York State Gov. David Paterson recently proposed a state budget that would result in the largest cut to school aid in more than two decades.

“The economy is like a soap opera in the sense that it’s literally ‘on the air’ a lot,” Evensky says. “What separates it from a soap opera, however, is that it actually matters. You can’t turn it off and it’ll go away. It affects our lives. So to understand it in more meaningful ways makes the world a much more interesting and fun place to observe above and beyond all the functional reasons for understanding it.”

While organizations like CEE have started to offer one-day workshops in New York City, they primarily focus on pedagogy rather than teacher’s needs. “What you see is rather sporadic here,” Dutkowsky says. “You have some regional teaching centers that will have workshops on teaching methods, but content help is rare.”

Dutkowsky and Evensky recognize this issue and are determined to make this course more worthwhile for teachers. The goal of ECN 600 will be to provide instructors with not only innovative lesson plans, but also a more firm understanding of the material they will be teaching.

“When teachers graduate from this course, they can go back to their classrooms and teach students for the next 10 years about what they’ve learned,” Evensky says. “That is a lot of students becoming better educated in economics.

All course expenses–from the textbook to the required three-day stay at Syracuse University–are covered, thanks to Project Advance and a grant from the Council of Economic Education. And the course is designed to accommodate teachers’ schedules, which is why it is being offered in the summer. Interested teachers can register at

In addition to completing the required tutorials and homework assignments, participants will be able to ask questions during online office hours. At the end of the course, participants will meet with experienced high school economics teachers during an onsite workshop at SU to discuss lesson plans and pedagogy. Applications will be accepted until May 2010, and only teachers certified in New York with full-time teaching contracts can apply.

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