Understanding Fiscal Responsibility | Teaching of Social Studies | Arts and Humanities

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Understanding Fiscal Responsibility

Teaching Kids About the National Debt

Published: 2/4/2010

Teachers College has received a three-year $2.45 million grant from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to develop a comprehensive social studies and mathematics curriculum about the fiscal challenges that face the nation, which will be distributed free of charge to every high school in the country.
Titled “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility: A Curriculum for Teaching About the Federal Budget, National Debt and Budget Deficit,” the non-partisan, inquiry-based curriculum will teach students the facts, significance and consequences for the United States and its citizens of public policies leading to persistent deficits and a growing national debt. The curriculum will be organized around several questions:
•What do we need to know and understand about the federal budget, national debt and budget deficit in order to make informed public policy choices that comport with our values and social goals?
•What are our national fiscal practices, policies and priorities?
•How should we address our nation’s enormous fiscal challenges today and in the future?
•What are the opportunity costs associated with not addressing the state of our nation’s budget, deficit, and debt?

Click here to see an interview with project leader Anand Marri

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New Study Finds that High School Students Are Not Taught About the Federal Budget, National Debt or Budget Deficit

Study is Precursor to Teachers College, Columbia University Project Funded by $2.45 Million Peter G. Peterson Foundation Grant to Develop Curriculum on Fiscal Responsibility
NEW YORK, NY - February 29, 2010 --If left unchecked, budget deficits the difference between what it the government brings in each year and what it spends will weaken our economy and lower future standards of living.  Should we reduce deficits by bringing soldiers home from Afghanistan? Spending less on our grandparents¹ medical care? Cutting federal grants for college? Raising taxes?
These questions are important to the nation¹s well-being, but they are rarely discussed in American high school classrooms according to a new study conducted by researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, and funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (www.pgpf.org).  The study found that the nation¹s schools teachers feel ill-prepared to teach basic federal budget terms and engage students in public policy questions to promote active citizenship ­ and current instructional materials and curriculum standards do little to help. The result, according to the study, is that most young Americans understand neither the terms of the federal budget debate nor its importance. (The full study can be viewed at http://understandingfiscalresponsibility.org/)
Among the study¹s key findings:

  • Eighty-five percent of the teachers participating in the study (30 out of 35) do not teach their students about fiscal policy in any depth.  Fewer than 15 percent of U.S. secondary school social studies teachers have a degree in economics. Many believe that federal budget issues are toocomplicated to teach or unrelated to students¹ lives. 
  • Three of the 12 most commonly used economics textbooks do not cover the national debt at all. In the others, the sections on the national debt and deficit tend to come at the end ‹ which makes these issues unlikely to be covered in the classroom and provide little guidance to engage studentsin discussion.
  • In over four-fifths (44 out of 50) of the states, standards for economics classes do not mention the terms ³federal budget,² ³national debt,² or ³budget deficit,² when analyzed in a keyword search. When the standards do call for mentioning economic issues in history, civics, and geography classes, they lack details. The curricula of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and the International Baccalaureate do not mention theseterms at all.
  • Classes rarely explain the terms ³federal budget,² ³national debt,² or ³budget deficit.²  When these terms do come up, teachers present the numbers as if they arose from ³natural law² rather than ³decisions made by human beings.²
  • When state mathematics standards touch on ³financial literacy,² they mean personal finance.
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