Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Monday, November 15, 2004

What Good Is High School Economics?

A friend who teaches high school wrote me last week to ask, among other things, "Do you find that students who have taken Economics at high school do better in your first year courses?"

We did a fairly tightly controlled study of this question many years ago, and in general (based on my casual ad hoc empiricism) I think the results from that study are still relevant. On the first day of classes, we gave the students a pretest that was based on the micro portion of TUCE [the Test of Understanding College Economics]. Students who had taken economics in high school outperformed those who hadn't, by about 30%.

Then we gave them the same test as part of the term's final exam. There was no significant difference between the final exam scores of students who had taken high school economics and those who hadn't.

A strong implication of these results is that if students are not going to take any more economics courses, then a high school course probably teaches them something; but if they are going to go on to take an economics course in college or university, they would probably be better off taking more math, history, language, etc. in high school.

Quite a bit of time has passed since we did that study, and the situation may be different nowadays, but the incoming students in my classes seem about the same, so I expect the results would hold today. However, the results might just be the result of self-selection: the brighter high school students take math, science, history, language, etc., while the less bright and/or less motivated students take economics (traditionally a "bird" course at the high school level), sociology, religious studies, etc. The students may end up with similar grades but different abilities and motivations (and all we could correct for in the study was h.s. grades, not aptitude test scores).

Wouldn't it be nice if high schools could, and especially would concentrate on the concept of opportunity costs? and maybe the fact that demand curves are downward-sloping?

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