An investment in pupils' futures

Economics: Younger children are learning more about the subject as part of a movement to toughen U.S. schools.

April 14, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Marguerite Forte-Hondroulis teaches economics, holding forth on complicated concepts like scarcity and opportunity cost. Her pupils need to know these things, she said. Even though they are only 8 years old.

Economics is part of the studies in Forte-Hondroulis' third-grade classes. So is the poetry of Robert Frost, along with probability and statistics.

Elementary education isn't what it used to be.

At Timonium Elementary School, Forte-Hondroulis still takes her pupils outside to play, but she also teaches about specialization in the American economy and capital resources.

"I went to school 35 years ago," said Forte-Hondroulis, who is in her 32nd year of teaching. "It's very different now."

And much more rigorous.

American education is getting tougher - even at lower grades - after years of poor comparisons with instruction abroad, stricter government standards for schoolwork and standardized tests gauging mastery of more difficult schoolwork.

It has also been toughened with a decade of brain research showing that young minds can handle advanced work.

"We're trying to be more challenging," said Susan H. Fuhrman, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, "because we understand that students can understand more challenging material earlier."

Now, elementary school pupils study physics, learn PowerPoint presentation and ponder the handiwork of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and other economists.

Economics has long been a high school subject, a unit in a history class or a social studies elective. But corporate chief executives, chambers of commerce and other supporters have spent years advocating more - and earlier - coursework.

In the 1980s, their lobbying began paying off as politicians and educators realized children should at least learn about finance before getting a credit card and checkbook.

A national trend

Now, Maryland and 47 other states require discussion of supply, demand and other concepts in social studies classes. Thirteen states make taking a high school economics course a graduation requirement.

Last year, 53,000 teen-agers took advanced placement economics exams, which were first given in 1989. The U.S. Department of Education is developing a national economics test.

"It's not just in Maryland - this is a national movement," said Carol Jarvis, executive director of the Maryland Council on Economics Education at Towson University, which trains 3,000 students a year to teach economics.

The Baltimore County school system, the only one in Maryland requiring high-school students to take a half-year economics class, has one of the state's more advanced economics curricula. Kindergartners must learn about wants and needs.

For third-graders, economics is its own unit. Pupils learn the meaning of basic concepts, like production and consumption.

At such a young age, the finer points of net profits can be difficult. So teachers at Timonium Elementary try to make the abstract as memorable as possible. Vocabulary, for example, is introduced through a song, "Heart and Soul of Economics."

Pupils have been learning personal finance this year by leasing their desks and microeconomics by making and auctioning purses out of old cigar boxes.

The limited number of colored beads, tassels and lacquer that pupils have to decorate the purses is an example of scarcity, they learned. The scissors used to cut the fabric lining is, they discovered, a kind of capital resource.

And as Lexi Wittelsberger, 9, from Timonium, explained, "We knew that if we had to pick between two fabrics, the one we gave up was our opportunity cost."

Lexi said it was "sort of hard" at first to understand the concepts, but "then it was easy."

Educators said it's more challenging to train the many teachers who never studied economics when they were in school to teach it.

"They may have good knowledge of history but not of economics," said William Walstad, an economics professor at the University of Nebraska who has written economics tests for elementary, middle and high schools.

Teaching teachers

To educate teachers about cost-benefit analysis, for example, there is a national network of professional development groups. One, the Maryland Council on Economics Education, held a session April 4 for Baltimore City resource teachers.

The council provided the film Econ and Me that Timonium third-grade teachers Forte-Hondroulis, Meghan Glikin and Mary O'Hara show their pupils as part of the unit.

"Opportunity cost? Never heard the words before I came here," said Glikin, who is in her seventh year of teaching. Glikin said she learned the subject by reading textbooks and library books.

Now she teaches that opportunity cost refers to what's given up when something else is bought, that specialization connotes the division of work into different jobs and that interdependence is the reliance on others to meet one's needs.

As the 63 third-graders at the Timonium school finished readying their cigar-box purses for auction, one aimed for extra credit.

Jennifer Kim, 8, of Lutherville is applying what she learned in the after-school computer club: She's preparing a PowerPoint presentation on how to make the purses. "I'm going to type the directions and going to show it to children," said Jennifer, whose pink purse features pictures of beach umbrellas and a big green tassel.

The girl complained that it would take a few weeks to finish the PowerPoint presentation because the computer club meets only twice a week - and her older brother won't let her near the family's home computer.

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