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Jeanne Skog

Sunday, January 4, 2004


Hawaii will pay steep
price for graduates
unschooled in economics


How many of us have wished that we had a deeper understanding of economics? How many of us have seen in hindsight how such knowledge might have resulted in better decisions about our lives, our families and our community?

The proposal to modify Hawaii high school graduation requirements, especially reducing social studies credits from four to three, is of considerable concern. This reduction will greatly affect the study of economics -- an important but often overlooked subject that is essential for a knowledgeable high school graduate.

"Economic literacy is crucial because it is a measure of whether people understand the forces that significantly affect the quality of their lives," says Gary Stern of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

The federal government concurs. In fact, it lists economics as a core subject in the No Child Left Behind Act.

In the 2001-2002 school year, 27 percent of Hawaii's public high school seniors enrolled in an economics course. This was down from 49 percent in the 1998-1999 school year. When economics is offered, it is primarily as an elective to fulfill a current social studies credit. Eliminating the fourth social studies credit not only will reduce the opportunity for students to take economics, it will reduce the incentive for schools to offer economics courses at all.

That is a frightening thought. After more than a decade of economic recession and stagnation and with ever more challenging decisions facing us about resources and budgets, it is essential that Hawaii produce students with a firmer grasp of economic and financial concepts. Armed with this knowledge and skill, they have a greater chance of making better personal, career, business and community choices.

As Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan says, "Improving basic financial education at the elementary and secondary school level can provide a foundation for financial literacy, helping younger people avoid poor financial decisions that can take years to overcome."

Equally important, economics can foster civic engagement in the very processes that affect the choices residents are offered. With the continuing lament about voter apathy, restoring broad-based civic engagement is critical to our health as a community.

Alice M. Rivlin, former vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, emphasizes this need as well.

"Without a basic understanding of how the economy works, what the essential terms and concepts are, the average citizen is likely to feel completely left out of any conversation, whether in the media or around the water cooler, about what is happening in the economy and what to do about it," she says.

We all want our students to have a well-rounded, empowering education. The proposed modifications outlined by the Graduation Requirements Task Force go beyond an increase in fine arts, foreign language, or career and technical education: They threaten the existence of economics, a course that develops critical thinking and decision-making skills -- disciplines that are essential in achieving a balanced education that turns out well-rounded individuals.

The Hawaii Council on Economics Education has worked since 1965 to provide training in economic principles to public and private school teachers so they in turn can pass them on to their students. Thousands of teachers across the state have gone through economic or financial literacy training as a result. Economics can be taught as early as the first grade through literature, math, science and social studies. The curriculum already exists. We need to make it a priority.

Why? Because economics is a life skill. And building this skill in our children is a most critical part of our investment in their future.


Jeanne Skog is president and chief economic officer of the Maui Economic Development Board, Inc. She also serves as chairwoman of the Hawaii Council on Economic Education.

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