One significant difference between the current Great Recession and the deep recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s is that no one is blaming public education for the crisis. No National Commission on Excellence in Education (authors of A Nation at Risk, 1983) has been appointed to make a case that public schools' ineffectiveness in preparing a competitive workforce brought about the economic meltdown. No claims have been made that higher average Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT),American College Test (ACT), or National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, or better ranking of American students on international math tests would have prevented the malaise that now besets our economy. But is public education really off the hook? Do most high school graduates have adequate knowledge and skills for political participation? Do most have a good understanding of the relationship between economics and politics; of the influence of corporations, political action committees, and lobbyists on policy development? Do most have the knowledge and disposition to deliberate critically about a political platform of deregulation and the potential consequences of dismantling regulations on financial institutions? Do they have the wisdom, capacity, and initiative to help our nation avert catastrophe? As I argue below, the answer to these questions is no: shortcomings of public education in preparing young people for democratic citizenship have played a central role in the current economic crisis. While these deficiencies are many, this discussion focuses on just one part of the terrain--economics education.
Most Americans have not had formal education in economics. A little more than a quarter (27.5%) of American adults over age 25 hold a bachelors degree. At the turn of the century, an estimated 40% of college students had taken a course in economics as part of their degree program. For most Americans, formal education in economics, if any, is obtained in high school: 84.5% of citizens over age 25 have a high school diploma; in recent years approximately 41-43% of high school seniors have taken an economics course. (1) In 2007, 40 states required economics standards to be implemented, but only 17 states required an economics course be taken for high school graduation. Testing of students' economics knowledge occurred in 23 states in 2007, two fewer than 2004. (2) For students who complete a high school economics course, the outcomes are not encouraging. An assessment of high school students' knowledge conducted in 2000, using the validity- and reliability-verified Test of Economic Literacy, found "there are significant deficiencies in the economic understanding of typical high-school students, whether or not they have taken an economics course." The study involved 7,243 students in 384 classes in 36 states. (3)
Another indicator of young peoples' economics knowledge is NAEP, an ambitious effort created by Congress in 1969 to measure student achievement that some refer to as the nation's report card. Results from the first NAEP survey of economics knowledge in grade 12 reveal that 58% of students scored below the "proficient" level. The 2006 NAEP economics assessment reportedly asked students to answer questions regarding "market, national, and international economies," but it does not indicate that students were asked questions concerning their understanding of the influence of lobbyists and of corporate contributions to political campaigns on the development of economic policy, or the potential impact of weak regulation of financial institutions on U.S. and international economies. The report does, however, provide an example of the level of economics understanding that students performing at the "basic" level, the level achieved by most test-takers, should be able to demonstrate: "the ability to recognize the inverse relationship between the market price of a product and the amount buyers are willing and able to purchase. …