Teaching the Ethical Foundations of Economics: Assessing a Curriculum for Middle and High School Students

Article excerpt


This paper describes a pre- and post-test design, with control group, used to evaluate the educational effectiveness of Teaching the Ethical Foundations of Economics, a ten-lesson set of curricular materials published in 2007 by the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE). Using a sample of 875 students from diverse U.S. states, the report finds positive and statistically significant effects on a 25-question test of student learning about economics and ethics. It also finds generally positive results on an attitude survey about ethics given before and after exposure to Ethical Foundations. A regression analysis shows positive effects on student achievement related to the number of lessons taught and the students' educational aspirations.

JEL Codes: A11, A13, A21

Keywords: Economics education; Teaching of economics; Pedagogy

I. Introduction

Does ethics - the consideration of right and wrong - matter to the study of economics? The answer is "yes," according to the authors of Teaching the Ethical Foundations of Economics, a set of curricular materials published for middle and high school use by the National Counril on Economic Education in 2007. Even if it matters, though, it may be difficult to get students to learn ethics. This paper uses a pre- and post- test design to evaluate the effectiveness of the Ethical Foundations materials in changing students' levels of knowledge and attitudes on ethical issues in economics.

The materials confront students with important ethical issues in economics, including: the morality of markets, the moral limitations of markets, the sale of human organs, sweatshop labor, social responsibility, and justice. Their production was funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to the NCEE, since renamed the Council for Economic Education (CEE).

There is significant debate among scholars and educators about the teaching of ethics in K-12 classrooms. Educators differ on techniques and responsibiUty for teaching character development or ethics to school-age children (Halverson, 2004). Nonetheless, nearly everyone agrees that teachers are in a key position to deUver this information directly to students (Halverson, 2004). Furthermore, research demonstrates that waiting for college is Hkely to be too late. A 2006 study by Barbara Ritter suggests that a person's understanding of ethics and character development have already been solidified by the time students enter college.

As many studies have demonstrated, the economic literacy of many American students is lacking. Addressing this problem is the primary mission of the CEE. Studies also confirm that high school students today are also lacking in their knowledge of ethics. One study suggested that the decHning influence of famüies and churches in teaching ethical standards has had a negative impact (Vincent and Meche, 2001). More than 25% of the high school students that participated in this study could not accurately identify unethical behaviors and activities. Like many studies in the area of economic and financial education, Vincent and Meche did find that when students were exposed to ethics instruction their knowledge and understanding of such issues improved significantly. This suggests that a curriculum Hke Teaching the Ethical Foundations of Economics, if infused into economics and social studies courses, has the potential to have a positive effect on both economic and ethics education.

For all of the reasons above, this current study should be of importance to economic educators at both the coUege and pre coUege levels. If Teaching the Ethical Foundations of Economics can improve students' knowledge of economics or ethics or both, these materials will be of great value to teachers as they attempt to help their students learn these important subjects.

II. Method

This project evaluated student knowledge on ethics and economics before and after classroom use of the Ethical Foundations materials. …