Summary of Findings

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.

As bleak as we found the current state of education about these topics, we also found significant opportunities to teach these topics. For example, because economics teachers lack preparation in the field, many depend heavily on textbooks. It is safe to assume, therefore, that they would be receptive to adoption of “off the shelf” curriculum materials for teaching these topics. While these topics are complex, they are inherently interesting to teachers and students since they focus on the most important and controversial issues of our day: public policy, budget processes and electoral politics. This leaves a great deal of room for allowing students to consider their own values in terms of what the nation’s priorities ought to be and how their elected representatives ought to be responsive to the nation’s fiscal problems.

Although state curriculum standards are largely silent on these topics, infusing material about the budget, deficit and debt is possible. Not only do the standards provide entry points through related content, but, across the curriculum, state standards articulate the expectation that students should master complex intellectual tasks, understand conflicting points of view and make reasoned decisions based on evidence, all skills that are essential to working with these topics.

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