I write to introduce you to “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility (UFR): A Curriculum for Teaching about the Federal Budget, National Debt, and Budget Deficit.” In the conviction that every student should have an opportunity to engage with these lessons, we are distributing 100,000 free copies to high schools throughout the country. We know that you have decided to use this curriculum because you share our commitment to educating students about some of the most important public policy decisions we face as a nation, and to engaging them as citizens who can and must participate in those decisions.

These research-based, inquiry-driven lessons connect students to the current public policy dilemmas about the federal budget, national debt, and budget deficit that confront the United States and its citizens. The lessons engage students in these critical dilemmas and include the resources students will need to deepen their understanding of the complex issues the dilemmas raise. The curriculum is nonpartisan and invites participants from all points of view to ask:

  • What do the decisions we make about the federal budget, national debt, and budget deficit say about who we are as a people?
  • How should we address our nation’s fiscal challenges now and in the future to assure that our decisions are consistent with our values and traditions?

Students who have not yet been responsible for their own expenses find issues of the government’s budget, debt, and deficit far removed. And yet it is their generation, the generation on the cusp of becoming new voters, that will be most impacted by the budgetary decisions we make today.

The curriculum focuses on the federal budget, national debt, and budget deficit in the United States in a way that enables students to analyze their significance and judge their consequences. The stakes are high, and they will see that the challenges we face are complex. The solutions will require not only a rugged tolerance for the ambiguities embedded in those challenges, but also a willingness to do the hard work of analyzing the trade-offs in less-than-perfect resolutions. Long term, the quality of our electoral response will depend on our ability to get our students to dig into this difficult material.

As critical as they are, these topics do not always compete successfully for the attention of adolescents. In 2007, over 2,000 high school students averaged a grade of 53 out of a possible 100 on a survey quiz on basic economic concepts given by the Council for Economic Education. Based on the results of a “News IQ” test administered the same year, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found only 15% of respondents ages 18–29 (the youngest group in the survey) qualified as what it called “most informed.” That is, only 15% of young adults had a score that put them in the top third of those taking the test. The critical corollary: In the 2008 presidential election, young people ages 18–24 were the most underrepresented voters. Less than half of all young people eligible to vote made it to the polls, whereas more than two-thirds of those 75 years of age or older voted.

It’s a long road, but we believe that those numbers would begin to change if young adults became involved in issues of public policy while still in high school. In particular, we believe that young adults would stay up on the news, discuss these critical issues with other people, and vote in elections if they had already developed:

  • The knowledge to understand the significance of these critical public policy issues,
  • The ability to base their judgments on evidence and to explain to others where they stand,
  • The disposition to reach out to those with whom they disagree in a search for common ground, and
  • The skills to become involved in their communities and work towards their vision of the common good.

This curriculum is dedicated to those changes.

As a nonpartisan and inquiry-based curriculum, the enclosed lessons do not steer students toward any one conclusion about the federal budget, national debt, or budget deficit. Our goal is to have students understand the issues in all their complexities, be able to clarify their own thinking about these issues, and, ultimately, care enough to become involved in debating these and other public policy questions as citizens. The enclosed lessons are appropriate for students ranging from grades 9–12, and can be taught in five subject areas: Civics/Government, Economics, U.S. History/Geography, World History/Global Studies/Geography, and Mathematics.

Structure of the Curriculum
This curriculum takes a cross-disciplinary approach to the topics of the federal budget, national debt, and budget deficit. We have chosen these subject areas and individual lesson topics because each offers an important way of understanding these issues and because they align with what teachers are already teaching. The cross-discipline collection of lessons addresses itself to such dilemmas as:

What costs and trade-offs are we willing to accept to ensure the benefits of income security to Social Security recipients? (Economics: Social Security and the National Debt)

What level of medical care should the federal government provide for the elderly, and what trade-offs, including increasing the deficit and debt, are we willing to make to provide that care? (Civics/Government: Medicare and the National Debt)

Social Security Act of 1935: Did the creation of a federally administered old-age pension program support or threaten American values and traditions? (U.S. History: The History of Social Security)

Should international taxpayers bail out countries that can’t pay their debts? (World History: Examining Solutions for Europe’s Financial Crisis)

Do mathematical representations solve the problem of sustaining Social Security and Medicare as the U.S. population ages? (Mathematics: Demographic Shifts and the Federal Budget)

Teachers are encouraged to supplement the materials in these lessons. The core issues presented in this curriculum are featured in one way or another in the news every day. The lessons are designed to readily incorporate the multiple forms these issues take as well as their most up-to-date developments. In addition, the curriculum is designed to be used in concert with our website:


This website is a dynamic, community-oriented online space from which teachers can download the entire 24 lessons, including some supplementary lessons that depend on the interactivity of the Web. Teachers will also find a blog that draws on the news of the day as it relates to the issues of the federal debt and deficit, and suggests how and where these topics may be used in the classroom. We encourage you to visit the website.

We hope you find the purposes of the UFR lessons to be as important as we find them. We are deeply invested in the success of these lessons with students. We count on your enthusiasm, experience, and expertise to make them meaningful in the classroom.

Anand R. Marri, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Social Studies and Education
Principal Investigator, Understanding Fiscal Responsibility



Dear Educator,

Enclosed you will find “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility (UFR): A Curriculum for Teaching about the Federal Budget, National Debt, and Budget Deficit.”

This research-based, inquiry-driven curriculum has been developed by faculty, students, staff, and alumni of Teachers College, Columbia University, as well as piloted in public schools in Austin, TX, Cincinnati, OH, and New York City, with generous support from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

The curriculum connects students to the complex public policy choices that confront the United States and its citizens. Students engage in dilemmas that are central to grappling with these public policy choices and come to understand what more they need to know. While the dilemmas drive the curriculum, skills and concepts deepen their understanding of the challenges. The curriculum invites participants from all points of view to ask:

  • What do the decisions we make about the federal budget, national debt and budget deficit reveal about us as a people?
  • How should we address our nation’s fiscal challenges now and in the future in a manner consistent with our values and traditions?

This valuable teaching tool can help to not only stimulate lively classroom discussions and open young minds to the fascinating world of public policy, but to also mold your students into great future citizens who can make informed choices and decisions based on a more sophisticated understanding of long-term costs and consequences for society.

We hope you will find “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility” a most useful and powerful tool, and we encourage you to share with us your comments, insights, and reflections from the field.

With great admiration for your difficult but invaluable work,

Susan H. Fuhrman
Teachers College, Columbia University