The way I see it: The current state of elementary economics

Here I want to provide my opinion and observations about what economics means and looks like in K-5. These descriptions are based on my experiences teaching K-12 preservice and practicing teachers for the past 9 years as well as my more systematic studies of economics. This summer, I completed a database of every economics article published in leading social studies journals and I hope to have the results sent out for publication soon, but for now, here’s the way I see it. Elementary Econ is used or taught;

1.) As a mechanism of classroom and student discipline and control. This is most evident in things like token economies and classroom currencies. Often this is in the name of teaching spending and saving. The following images are probably familiar to many involved in K-5;

40+ Classroom economy images | classroom economy, classroom, classroom  management

It’s curious that social studies, and economics specifically, are used to control students’ bodies. In these token systems, as the narrative goes, kids earn classroom currency that can then be cashed in for stuff. Sometimes kids “pay rent” for pencils and desks. You can see these narratives in numerous teacher blogs and organization websites like my classroom economy and Scholastic. There are a lot of issues with this system related to capitalism and community building. I outline a few of the economic issues below.

First, I contend that “earn” is the wrong word here. Currency is made available to kids the teacher perceives to be compliant and docile. Currency is given not for “good choices” but for performing the teacher’s agenda within their line of sight. I highly recommend Kelly Lagerwerff’s article “Prizes as curriculum.”

Second, classroom token economies are often thought to be reflective of real-life. I contend it both is and isn’t. To me, what teachers actually do is realistic but what they say or think they’re doing is not. What do they actually do? Ultimately, teachers want kids to do their assigned work. Regulating bodily behavior is in service of doing work. So how do teachers get kids to do work? They introduce a currency into the classroom and contrive reasons for it to circulate (save and spend). Performing compliance and doing work is one way students get the currency. The teacher has to create demand for the currency, so they provide things for students to “buy” with their accumulated currency. The “money” funnels back to the teacher not because she needs it, but because she need to get out of circulation. And so an economy is set into motion. This is where I think Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is helpful, although I don’t know enough about it to offer a full endorsement. MMT, drawing on the Egyptian deben system and chartalism, says that real economies work like these classrooms. Governments need a population to do its work projects. To accomplish these projects, they create a system of debits and credits, supply and demand. The federal government supplies the currency and they use taxation as a mechanism for creating demand for the currency. That is, people owe taxes and so they need to have a way to get the money they need to pay them. As economist Stephanie Kelton (2020) puts it, “taxes turn litter into currency…it’s not our tax money the government wants. It’s our time” (p. 26). Similarly, a teacher doesn’t ‘need’ the classroom currency to cycle back to her. She can provision her classroom without it. What she needs is work. The teacher might might say that she must collect taxes in order for kids to have a desk, even though kids can see that is clearly not the case. She can provide them with a desk whether they pay up or not. Now the question is, is this right? Is this the way we want things to be? Do we acclimate kids to the way the world is or the way we’d like it to be?

I would also add that this is a tactic of settler-colonialism. As Marcus Shell puts it, America had a common currency before a language. Money is crucial for language and sovereignty. Governments indebt indigenous people and make their currency the only acceptable one. These debts and monetary systems are mechanisms of dispossession.

So you can see how what the teacher is doing is related to real life even if the narratives she layers onto those actions may not be.

Third, making kids “pay” for an infraction simply teaches them that they can buy their way out of issues. We see this all the time with corporations who just pay people off, but this payoff doesn’t rectify harm that’s been done. Recently, my students and I examined Kotzebue, Alaska, which was named “America’s most toxic city” and Red Dog Mine, a zinc mine that is the source of this pollution. Apologists for the mines say “since mining began, more than $1.3 billion has been provided to state and local government agencies in taxes and other payments, and more than $500 million in wages has been paid to employees living in the Northwest Arctic Borough (NAB) and to NANA shareholders, who make up more than 50% of Red Dog’s workforce.” But reading reports from environmental and indigenous groups document the ecological loss and high level of pollutants that disproportionally affect indigenous communities. No amount of money can replace a devastated fishing industry. People cannot eat cash.

I’m not saying there should never be compensation for wrongdoing, of course there should be, but that alone isn’t enough to make restitution.

Fourth, it seems nonsensical to teach kids wants and needs and spending and saving by buying junk they don’t need. I see this all the time. Teachers go out and spend money on trinkets and things no one needs in order to teach kids about needs, wants and money management. That makes no sense!

Fifth, it promotes and assumes consumerism. I love it when the PSTs I teach tell me about the kids in their classrooms that are content with a certain amount of “earned’ currency. For example, some kids might be fine with $5. If they are, then what incentive do they have to comply with the teacher’s directive? You’ve basically given them permission to not comply because in a token economy compliance is built on the desire for tokens. A token economy says you should stay in your seat not because it’s the right thing to do but because you will get paid if you do. When kids are content to stop at a certain amount, then a teacher presumably has to compel them to comply thereafter. However, if they make them, then the whole currency system is exposed and implodes because financial and economic education is (allegedly) built on the idea of voluntary participation.

Sixth, is it all bad? I’d say mostly Yes but maybe no given one exception. I worry about the narrative that good behavior and hard work are financially rewarded. Is that realistic? No not really. In reality, salary and income has very little to do with the quantity or quality of labor (there’s a story there, I’ll write about that later). Should it be? So while I mostly don’t agree with token economies for all the reasons stated earlier, I think one thing this system can do is normalize compensation for labor and equity (kind of). I know a teacher who “pays” her students to teach them about labor rights. She wants them to insist that what they produce, that is, their labor, is valued and ought to be compensated. After all, kids’ labor is used to produce a huge amount of data that others profit from. There’s also the issue of realism. This teacher recognizes that the curriculum is often as absurd and meaningless as her signifying tokens, which is also why students should get ‘paid’ to do it (because it doesn’t offer them much else of value). So while I don’t agree with her use of token economies, I can respect her thoughtfulness on the issue.

Overall, I take issue with teachers using token economies. If there’s any merit at all, it would be normalizing the idea that people be fairly and equitably compensated for their labor. However, unless a teacher can successfully navigate this thorny theoretical terrain, I’d steer clear of token economies for the harm they do.

Token economies create artificial notions of “good” and “bad.” They make students feel bad, they encourage policing of each other, normalize surveillance, etc. Plus, this kind of system is very labor intensive for the teacher. I often wonder when teachers teach, as it seems they spend all day awarding points, tokens, etc.

2.) As an insta-worthy market day. I get it. Market days, where kids create a product that they bring to school and “sell” to their classmates who oftentimes use classroom currency (see above), is compelling. It’s “hands on” and “fun,” you can use it to teach math and you can get some really good pictures of kids creating products and selling them. However, consider this; 1.) It seems nonsensical to teach kids the value of money and the merits of budgeting and saving by having them spend money on things they don’t really want or need. Why do we teach resource conservation by creating an enormous amount of waste and buying things nobody needs. 2.) It’s classist. Consider who is able to participate in activities like this. Who has the disposable income to invest in a kid business? 3.) What is this really about? Is the goal economic learning or is it to control and alter students’ behavior? 4.) K-5 teachers often claim they have “no time” for social studies but then use their time on time consuming projects like this. What if instead we examined the real cost production and consumption? 5.) It downplays the role and cost of labor. In these lessons, kid are to calculate the cost of their materials. To me, this seals it in kids’ minds that when we buy something, we’re paying for material, tangible factors of production. So what happens when good are intangible? I think this is part of some of the covid-related backlash against educators who are teaching virtually. After all, isn’t tax and tuition money paying for paper, books, manipulatives, a building to heat and cool, wifi, desks? Yes those things involve an outlay of money, but education is about a lot more than those tangibles. We forget that we’re paying for educators’ know-how, education, experience and time. In short, I think it’s important that kids understand and account for the labor that goes into commodity production.

3.) As personal finance. Personal finance and financial literacy and economics are separate disciplines, although in K-5, these two disciplines are often conflated. I think a financial education is incredibly important, but there are a lot of issues with personal finance, which perpetuates the myth that wealth and money are purely individual, and not structural, issues. I would be much more interested in a curriculum that holds corporations and the government accountable for their financial decision-making. Even critical financial literacy cannot seem to shake the “find a job and make a budget” activities. Teachers and policymakers need to understand that people’ can’t simply budget their way out of poverty.

Critical financial literacy resources are listed at the bottom of this post.

4.) As needs and wants and getting a job.

In my state, there is a standard that says children should learn that people earn income by working. I see this as a way to say “get a job.” Emphasizing income leaves out the many other ways people make money. They could inherit it, they could receive Social Security or entitlement money, they could make money from capital gains or dividends, they could win it in the lottery. Yes, the easiest narrative is that people earn income by working and that it’s this income that fund their needs and wants (see financial literacy). This creates a narrative that people’s finances and therefore choices are due to their jobs, which are then due to their “hard work” (another problematic economic discourse) and human capital (education and training). Work is a way to discipline people. To quote Nietzsche, “work is the best policeman.” Workers can be controlled. Working promotes docility. Worker also has a certain privileged position in the American economic narrative (see job-creators post). I think that “people earn income by working and it’s how they pay for their needs and wants” perpetuates a false narrative that wealth inequality is due income (and therefore all the things listed above) when actually it’s more due to things like real estate, capital gains, and inheritance (returns on capital). What are the consequences when we do not reveal to kids that some people earn money by not working (in the traditional 8 hour day sense)? What does it mean when we don’t reveal to students that some people need, and rely on, entitlement programs (social safety net) to survive?

The following section is part of a larger body of scholarship I’m working on that traces the influence of the marginalist revolution on present day econ ed.

For a discipline that is allegedly value neutral and outside of the business of morality, economics is rather preachy. For example, lessons on needs and wants are often used as a way to tell kids what they should or shouldn’t need or want and who is worthy of wanting (those with money).

According to mainstream economics educators, “needs” is not a term that we teach in economics. We teach students the importance of prioritizing “wants.” (Meszaros, 2020). Needs, the mainstreamers say, are too subjective. One person’s want is another’s need. Needs, they say, shift and change. Food is a need but what does or does not count as food? Is pizza a need? Ice cream? Broccoli? Besides, they say, needs are not in the Voluntary National Standards for Economics. Neoclassical economic theory, which is what undergirds K-12 econ ed in the U.S. only recognizes the intensity of wants. There’s a whole history and reason for this marginalization of needs that has to do with capitalism and hyper individuality that I won’t go into at the moment. I recommend checking out Gallagher’s letter in this exchange in SSYL

Suffice it to say, I think it’s not only misguided to say econ doesn’t do needs, but that it’s also untrue as evidenced by just about any literature on teaching K-5 economics.

If needs are not part of an economics education curriculum, as claimed, then what do we make of its constant invocation in the literature? For example; “teachers need good examples of ways to integrate economics across the curriculum in social studies…to ensure meaningful economics instruction… teachers need access to quality materials. NCEE and many of its council and center affiliates publish a wide array of instructional units.” “To meet the needs of teachers who are not close to center, CEE offers online workshops” and “economic instruction needs to start early…most textbooks available…fail to meet this need,” “for economic instruction to occur in elementary schools, teachers need three things…”.  These are quotes from the same scholars who say K-12 econ doesn’t deal in needs.

If need is subjectively and authoritatively determined, then who has determined these needs and generated demand for a ready supply? If you want to know, I’d suggest looking at the supplier.

Here’s a thought experiment-what would happen if we took the “no needs-only-wants” as true? How might replacing “need” with “so-and-so person-or-organization wants” in these statements change their meaning and reveal the desiring subject that has been narratively erased?  Consider how adults and authority figures invoke “need/s” in order to get children to do what they want; return to school in-person, take standardized tests, sit in seats. When need is invoked teachers and student can ask instead, who says? Is this actually a need? Who wants this to happen? Whose interests are being served?

I think we should absolutely engage students in real conversations about needs and wants, but not as a health lesson and not as a way to discipline students or to shame them. While “wants” has revolutionary potential, so does “needs.” Needs throws down a gauntlet. What if instead teachers taught wants and needs with the viewpoint that people have the right to have their needs met and what if meeting needs meant that all people should be able to obtain the appropriate goods and services to live dignified lives?

What to do instead?

I will continue to engage with this question. For now, consider that economics is about resource allocation. It engages with issues of fairness and equity and it can be applied to a myriad of topics in history, geography and civics. For example, are voting booths equitably distributed? How do we decide who gets a Covid test or vaccine when it becomes available? How was the Montgomery Bus Boycott about the equitable use of space and how is transportation funded along geographic and racial lines? See my list of ‘econs to know’ to see some of the fantastic work being done by economists today on a myriad of topics.

See The Financial Literacy Delusion

Everything Chris Arthur writes on financial literacy is just brilliant

Checkout the “behind the numbers” blog

Swalwell, K. (2003). Holiday charity or year-round compassion? Classism Exposed.

Sonu and Marri “The hidden curriculum in financial literacy”

Blue “A praxis approach”

Blue “Other ways of being:challenging dominant financial literacy discourses in Aboriginal Context”

Lagerwerff “Prizes as curriculum”

Marri “Caveat emptor”

quotes from Anand Marri in education weekly;

“to be truly economically literate, you should think about having kids understand fiscal policy and monetary policy, not just personal finance”

“remember we’re not trying to create junior economists by teaching economics. We’re trying to create engaged citizens. That’s why we have public education.”

“we need to have a ‘caveat emptor’ a ‘buyer beware,’ with a lot of stuff out there. It’s worth it to figure out the real motives of the curriculum. If the point of the curriculum is to create more clients, that could be a problem”

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