The Treatment of the Role of Government in High School Economics Textbooks

Article excerpt


The content and point of view of high school economics textbooks likely influences what is taught in high school economics classes. Using a set of recently published high school economics textbooks, we examine the manner in which each text treats the role of government. We develop a rubric of eight criteria from Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom (1962). Using these criteria, we evaluate each text on the basis of content coverage and whether a free-enterprise discussion of the topics is included. We find a considerable degree of variability in the texts' discussions of property rights and in their point of view about the role of government.

JEL Codes: A21, H10

Keywords: Economic education, High school economics, Textbooks, Role of government, Property rights

I. Introduction

High school economics textbooks have the potential to exert a great deal of influence on what is covered in high school economics classes. Although economics is a high school graduation requirement in 15 states, and 49 states include economics in their high school content standards (NCEE, 2005), many teachers do not have a strong background in the subject area. Therefore, teachers may rely heavily on the textbook to determine the content that they will cover in the course. Further, because economics encompasses many vastly different schools of thought, the textbook author's approach to the content has the potential to exert a strong influence on both teacher and student attitudes. With this in mind, this paper investigates how high school economics textbooks approach the role of government. We find that while the coverage of some basic ideas about the role of government is similar across textbooks, some textbooks omit discussion of critical concepts such as property rights. In addition, some textbooks take much stronger free-enterprise approaches in their discussion of basic functions of government than do others.

II. The Textbooks

To conduct our analysis, we identified all economics textbooks available for purchase by U.S. high schools in 2001.1 We eliminated books clearly intended for colleges and universities, those published before 1996, those designed for religious or home schools, those whose primary focus was consumer education, and those that more resembled workbooks than textbooks. This left us with 11 textbooks that fall into two somewhat distinct categories. We call the first group "comprehensive" textbooks. Seven textbooks fell into this category, and they have several features in common. In particular, they were written by university professors, were designed for mainstream high school economics courses, have very similar content order, are close to the same length, sold for close to the same price, and were published by one of four major publishers of high school textbooks. The second category we term "specialty" textbooks. The three books that fall into this group were designed for use in non-mainstream classes, such as those in adult schools and continuation high schools, or special education.2 The remaining textbook, JA Economics 2000, more resembles the first category of textbooks than the second, but is considerably shorter, has unidentified authors, and was provided free to schools that participate in the Junior Achievement program. We limit the textbook analysis in this paper to the seven comprehensive textbooks and the Junior Achievement textbook since they were all designed for use in regular (as opposed to special) classes. Table 1 lists, alphabetically by author, these eight textbooks, their authors, publishers, and characteristics.

At least six prior studies have evaluated high school economics textbooks (American Economic Review, 1963; Townshend-Zellner and Carr, 1970; Watts, Leet, and Niss, 1986; Miller, 1988; Folsom, Leef and Mateer, 1999; and Leet and Lopus, 2003). The study by Folsom, Leef and Mateer focused on 16 high school textbooks used in Michigan between 1989 and 1997, including some designed for college classrooms. …