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Checks and Imbalances

Field-testing a curriculum on the national debt
The online federal debt clock ( was ticking away on the suburban New Jersey classroom wall as the students, clustered in small groups, tried to make sense of the $14 trillion in red ink that’s helping keep the U.S. economy afloat, financing two wars and saddling their generation with a bill that it will pay down for decades.

“There’s a lot behind these numbers,” Siegel, who is social studies supervisor at Scotch Plains-Fanwood and also a doctoral student at Teachers College, warned the class. “You need to question and challenge it all.”

Over the next hour, Siegel prodded the students to consider whom the United States owes, whether its Debt-to-Gross Domestic Product ratio is in line with that of other nations and, above all, what might be done to improve things in the future.

“I’m interested in learning more about how it happened,” said student Jake Merlow. “It doesn’t look too good.”

The lesson, which Siegel himself developed, is among 25 that a Teachers College team created for “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility: A Curriculum for Teaching about the Federal Budget, National Debt, and Budget Deficit,” a three-year, $2.45 million project funded in 2009 by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. High schools in Ohio, Minnesota, Texas, New Jersey and New York City are pilot-testing the lessons, even as the TC team develops 25 additional ones. Beginning next year, 100,000 copies of the complete curriculum will be given away to all 40,000 public and private high schools across the nation. Similar course material will be adapted for use at the college level and with adults.

“There’s one question the whole curriculum is tied around: How should we address our nation’s fiscal challenges today, and in the future, in a manner that is consistent with our values and traditions?” says Anand R. Marri, Assistant Professor of Social Studies and Education at TC, and principal investigator for the “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility” project. “Because questions of debt and deficit are not new for us. Several of the lessons talk about our nation’s debt in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

Marri, a former high school teacher in northern California who has taught at TC since 2003, had initially sought funding to create curricula about financial literacy. At the urging of the Peterson Foundation, which had funded a film about debt called I.O.U.S.A, he expanded his vision to include a multi-disciplinary curriculum that incorporates mathematics and world and American history, as well as economics.

“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,” said the Foundation’s founder and chairman, Peter Peterson, when the project was first announced. Peterson served as U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the Nixon administration and is also co-founder of The Blackstone Group and former Chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers. “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,” said Peterson. “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.”

In creating “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility,” Marri has assembled a multidisciplinary team that includes Margaret Crocco, Professor and coordinator of the College’s Social Studies and Education program; William Gaudelli, an associate professor in the program; Erica Walker, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Education; and Thomas Hatch, Associate Professor of Education and Co-Director of TC’s National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching (NCREST). Fifteen doctoral students, including Siegel, are contributing to the in-depth lessons. Ed Lab, a creative services unit within The Gottesman Libraries at Teachers College, is handling distribution of the curriculum, as well as the project’s Website ( where the curriculum can be downloaded free of charge, and where contributors blog about the latest federal budget and national debt-related news. Hatch and Meesuk Ahn, a staff member at NCREST, are leading an evaluation of the project’s impact.

Marri collaborated with Crocco on “Teaching The Levees: A Curriculum for Democratic Dialogue and Civic Engagement,” a landmark project keyed to the Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke, which explored issues raised by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Lessons in “Understanding Financial Responsibility” build on models Crocco developed for exploring controversial issues, including the use of “democratic dialogues” designed to help students better understand opposing viewpoints and, ultimately, to articulate their own positions more clearly.

“Just like the “Levees” project, there’s so much room for debate,” says Crocco, who also chairs TC’s Department of Arts and Humanities. “In both cases, responses to the questions will ultimately be rooted in each individual’s values and philosophy about government responsibility and who we want to be as a nation.”

“Understanding Fiscal Responsibility,” which is aligned with national standards in the disciplines it touches upon, takes no position on the federal budget, national debt and budget deficit. Instead, the inquiry-based lessons aim both to draw students into the complexities of these issues and to encourage them to care about and take a stand on public policy issues.

In Siegel’s economics lessons at Scotch Plains-Fanwood, for example, exercises that develop analytical skills help students apply concepts they have mastered toward addressing real-world scenarios.

In the curriculum for civics classes, one exercise focuses on Social Security, one of the federal budget’s mandatory big-ticket items. The program will face scrutiny as the Baby Boomers retire and the tax base diminishes as fewer younger people replace them in the workforce.

Proposed solutions to the problem have tended to provoke strong feelings—particularly a blue-ribbon panel’s recent call to raise the eligibility age for Social Security to 70. The curriculum features a series of questions, in what’s called scaffolding, that take students from concrete facts to higher levels of analysis and creativity.

“Understanding Fiscal Responsibility” asks students to read an article on the proposal and then answer some basic questions about the consequences of raising the eligibility age; to compare the views of two economists who have differing opinions; to describe how a family led by a 65-year-old might be affected if the eligibility age were raised to 70; and, ultimately, to describe how they would strengthen Social Security if they were elected president.

“In many respects, these are exercises in values clarification,” said Crocco. “We put the issues into a national context, and provide students and teachers with an understanding of the ramifications of choices we might want to make.”

Marri has also tapped educators from local school districts for their ideas. TC doctoral student Chris Zublionis, Director of Social Studies for the North Shore Schools in the Long Island hamlet of Sea Cliff and a contributor to the “Levees” project, has worked on several lessons for “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility,” including one focused on the tradeoffs the government makes in setting its budget priorities. The lesson incorporates a simulation that allows students to apportion a finite set of resources among the military, education and health care. Students are also prompted to look at the tradeoffs they make in budgeting their own savings and time.

Because a study of 30 high school classrooms and a review of high-school textbooks by the TC team found few lessons on the federal budget, national debt and the deficit, “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility” includes lessons that have specific application in mathematics, civics, economics, U.S. history and world history.

One lesson, for use in Algebra II or pre-calculus classes, employs demographic shifts, Social Security and the federal budget to illustrate concepts such as exponential change, logistical change, functions, trend lines and graphical analysis.

U.S. History teachers can use the lesson on Medicare and LBJ’s Great Society to give students experience analyzing primary sources. And via the lesson “Foreign Debt and International Power Relations,” students in world history courses can develop a greater understanding of the complex power relationships between lender nations and the countries that borrow
from them.

“We do not tell the kids what to think about the federal deficit, national debt or the federal budget process,” Marri says. “We present multiple approaches and show how the issues may affect them. Ultimately, civic engagement is the basis of the whole project. Because it’s not like natural law is making the federal budget happen. Human actors make policy. So we hope they become actively involved.”

To see the curriculum in action, visit

Published Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011


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