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What should high school students know about the federal budget?

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Teachers College at Columbia University has developed a social studies and mathematics curriculum to teach high school students about the federal budget and fiscal responsibility. Peter G. Peterson, co-founder of The Blackstone Group and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Nixon, explained the impetus for the creation of the new curriculum:

For the first time in my memory, the majority of the American people join me in believing that, on our current course, our children will not do as well as we have. We have been spending too much as a country, as a government, and as a people, and borrowing much too much, and saving much too little. […] Education, particularly for younger generations, is a critical component in setting a different course, but at present there is no comprehensive curriculum on this topic. We felt that Teachers College, with its demonstrated track record of creating innovative, multimedia curricula through which students grapple with the most challenging social issues, was the partner of choice for this important project.

Before creating the curriculum, Teachers College released a report in February 2010 on how the federal budget was being taught in high schools. The report concluded that the federal budget was getting short shrift:

The issues surrounding the federal budget, national debt and budget deficit are complex, but not beyond the reach of young students. Unfortunately, public education has been complicitous with other American institutions such as policymakers and much of the press in keeping citizens in the dark about these problems. This study of the treatment of the federal budget, national debt, and budget deficit finds scant treatment of these topics in schools today, either in the most widely used economic textbooks or in social studies and mathematics state curriculum standards. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that teachers spend so little time discussing these topics in their classrooms, another finding of this study.

Perhaps most alarming, when the topics of budget, deficit and debt are addressed, they are presented as the consequence of immutable forces as far beyond the reach of human intervention as gravity. Working with many social studies teachers who are underprepared in economics, students are expected to memorize vocabulary words and facts, but not to use the concepts of debt and deficit to analyze budget processes or evaluate their impact on the nation’s fiscal health.

According to Education Week, the curriculum consists of 24 lesson plans that cover, “among other things, information about taxation, debt, and deficit, and aims to help students explore the questions raised by their country’s fiscal policies.” Some examples include:

  • “What costs and trade-offs are we willing to accept to ensure the benefits of income security to Social Security recipients?” (economics)
  • “What responsibility does the federal government have to ensure the elderly a secure and stable standard of living?” (civics)
  • “Social Security Act of 1935: Did the creation of federally administered old-age pension program support or threaten American values and traditions?” (U.S. History)
  • “Should developing nations accept loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)?” (world history)
  • “Should we raise income taxes to reduce the budget deficit and pay down the national debt?” (mathematics)

The first 10 lessons are currently available in hard copy and will be mailed to every high school in the country; they can also be found at the project’s website, here.

AEI