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Bringing Economics to Scale

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Peter Orszag

Peter Orszag


A launch event for the nationwide distribution of TC’s curriculum on the national debt draws the former budget director for the Obama administration and others

By Patricia Lamiell

Is it fair to tax a billionaire at the same rate as someone earning the minimum wage?

Kathryn Swallow (M.A. 2010) recently put that question – which was adapted from “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility” (UFR), a social studies curriculum created by TC faculty and students, to the juniors and seniors in the math classes she teaches at the Community School for Social Justice in the South Bronx. The students calculated the impact of a 22 percent flat tax on earners at a range of levels – but to the question “is it fair?” there was no right answer. “That really gets to the issue of what kind of society we want to be,” said Swallow. “My goal is to get them ask good questions and get them to think.”

A video of Swallow teaching that lesson was shown at the launch event in early May for UFR, the core of which will soon be distributed to every high school in the nation. The event, held in TC’s Milbank Chapel before an audience of about 100 faculty, students and others, featured an appearance by Swallow herself as well as a panel discussion headlined by Peter Orszag, vice chairman of Global Banking at Citigroup, Inc., and former director of both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama White House.

In his opening remarks, Anand Marri TC Associate Professor of Social Studies Education, who led creation of UFR with funding from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, said the point of the curriculum is to encourage students to form their own opinions. The desired result, he said, is that students “will be empowered to demand capable leadership and effective solutions to fiscal challenges.”

Swallow told the Milbank audience that some of her students who work minimum-wage jobs bring their paychecks to school and point out the FICA deductions in astonishment. “They don’t understand why, where that money goes, or why the government needs that money,” Swallow said, adding that the multidisciplinary UFR curriculum gives math teachers like her – as well as economics, social studies, history and civics teachers  --a launching point for a conversation about national values. “Overall, I think the students really enjoy it, and they like to think about math in a different light than we usually think about math.” 

In the panel discussion, led by Liz Willen, Director of TC’s Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Orszag, together with Judith Johnson, former U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, and Charles Calomiris, the Henry Kaufman Professor of Financial Institutions at Columbia Business School, applauded UFR’s approach of linking basic skills such as math to nationally important issues that affect students' every-day lives.  

Orszag said it is particularly important for today’s young people to understand economics because all evidence suggests they are graduating into “the kind of weak labor market that has a very long-lasting and unfortunate effect on careers.” The single biggest issue facing them is “the continued process of recovering from the financial crisis that we experienced and the elevated rates of unemployment.” 

Orszag questioned whether understanding economics will automatically help graduates get jobs or lead to significant changes in public policy. Post-secondary education provides no guarantee of employment, nor is it leveling the playing field between the haves and have-nots, he said, noting that “college completion rates for the most skilled students from low-income families are no higher than the least skilled from high income families,” a situation he called “grossly and grotesquely unfair.”

Still, Orszag said, “the study of these issues in the context of math or social studies or economics classes can promote other skills. It can be affirmatively useful, regardless of its ultimate impact on the political debate.”

Johnson, who is also former Superintendent of Peekskill, N.Y. schools, called Swallow a “brave teacher to introduce interdisciplinary concepts in your curriculum” without worrying about preparing students for their next test. UFR is “a vehicle for developing critical thinking skills,” and thus at odds with “the tests the students are being asked to take.”

Calomiris agreed that students – and all Americans – should be engaged in deep thinking about the nation’s economic policy, but believes that students need stronger math skills even to “understand the idea that the national deficit is unsustainable.

“The arithmetic of fiscal sustainability is about 20 times more challenging” than basic math, Calomiris said. “Before people can be convinced that we have a problem, they actually have to see for themselves what we’re talking about. That requires an incredibly heavy lift” but “it’s really worth doing.”

Calomiris suggested that colleges and universities could take a leaf from the physical sciences and organize economics internships and competitions for students, “to give them something to strive toward.” He also suggested that Columbia and other universities conduct continuing education classes for teachers on these issues, to broaden their knowledge base.

The UFR curriculum of 24 lessons, plus worksheets and other supplements, is being rolled out online over the next several months. The lessons will be available for free download by teachers, and hard copy of the first 10 lessons will be mailed to all high schools in the nation. A blog on the UFR site, www.understandingfiscalresponsibility.org, gives teachers across the country online space to share experiences and information about the lessons.

The Peterson Foundation has followed its initial $2.45 million grant for UFR in 2009 with an additional $575,000 this year, which will fund a study of the curriculum’s effectiveness. That study will be conducted by TC’s National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching (NCREST), led by NCREST Co-director Thomas Hatch, Professor of Education. The project also received a grant from the Provost’s Investment Fund.


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