ERIC Identifier: ED428031
Publication Date: 1999-03-00
Author: VanFossen, Phillip J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.

The National Voluntary Content Standards in Economics. ERIC Digest.

Students in today's classrooms face a wide range of economic decisions. If they would be wise consumers, prudent savers, and knowledgeable investors, they need pertinent knowledge and skills. So the school curriculum should help facilitate the acquisition of basic economic concepts and decision-making skills. Given this rationale, the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE) developed the "Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics" (NCEE 1997) for American students in kindergarten through twelfth grade.


Economics has been a late entry into the national content standards field. The late appearance of economics in the national standards field is due, in part, to the existence of an implicit set of content standards found in the various iterations of the National Council on Economic Education's "Framework for Teaching the Basic Concepts" (Saunders and Gilliard 1995). The "Framework" document -- in publication in various forms for nearly twenty years -- outlined a concept-based approach to economic literacy and focused on development of twenty-one basic economic concepts from scarcity and markets to international trade and economic stability. Because the "Framework" document was a collection of implicit concept understandings, however, many economic educators believed a set of standards based on principles of economics was unnecessary.

Furthermore, economics has tended to be neglected by social studies educators. Despite its importance in education for democratic citizenship (Miller 1988, 4) and evidence that students who have had a discrete, single semester high school course in economics demonstrate significantly greater economic knowledge than students without such a course (Walstad and Soper 1991), many schools have omitted economics from the curriculum. The schools that have chosen to teach economics often use an infusion approach, which includes cursory treatment of economics concepts within other social studies courses, such as U.S. history (Meszaros 1997).

With the inclusion of economics as a core subject in the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act" in 1994, however, it became increasingly clear to the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE) that a set of explicit content standards needed to be developed. It was in response to these issues, and concerns about the "Framework" document, that led the NCEE to convene a coalition of groups interested in developing standards in economics.


The NCEE's "Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics" (hereafter, "Standards") were developed to guide school districts, curriculum developers, and ultimately teachers in determining what content in economics should be taught as well as when it should be taught (Meszaros 1997, 324). The standards document outlined twenty content standards drawn from widely agreed upon principles of economics that constituted the most important and enduring knowledge in the discipline. Each standard included a statement of an "essential principle of economics that an economically literate student should know" and a statement "of what the student should be able to do with the knowledge upon graduating from high school" (Meszaros and Siegfried 1997, vii).

Each of the twenty standards included a lucid rationale for that standard's inclusion written in language that was relatively jargon-free. The "Standards" also included a set of "benchmarks" -- at the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade level -- for each of the twenty standards that focused on the application of economic knowledge and the development of economic skills. It was the inclusion of these outcome-based benchmarks that differentiated these "Standards" from others in the social studies field.

The "Standards" document cross-referenced each of the twenty standards and their associated benchmarks with existing NCEE curriculum materials and teaching guides. Thus, a teacher could use the "Standards" document to identify and access teaching materials designed specifically for developing the economic knowledge associated with a particular standard.


To illustrate the features of the "Standards" described above, let us examine "Content Standard 8" (NCEE 1997, 15). The standard states: "Students will understand that: Prices send signals and provide incentives to buyers and sellers. When supply or demand changes, market prices adjust, affecting incentives. Students will be able to use this knowledge to: Predict how prices change when the number of buyers or sellers in a market changes and explain how the incentives facing individual buyers and sellers are affected."

The "Standards" document provides benchmark statements for each of grades four, eight, and twelve; due to space limitations, only a sample of the grade eight benchmarks are provided here. "At the completion of GRADE 8, students will know the Grade 4 benchmarks for this standard and also that: 1. An increase in the price of a good or service encourages people to look for substitutes, causing the quantity demanded to decrease, and vice versa. This relationship between price and quantity demanded, known as the law of demand, exists as long as other factors influencing demand do not change." (Three other Grade 8 benchmark statements follow.) "At the completion of GRADE 8, students will use this knowledge to: 1. Survey students in other classes at school regarding how many glasses of orange juice students would be willing and able to buy at various prices. Analyze the data to show the relationship between price and quantity demanded. Identify substitutes students use when the price is higher." (Three other Grade 8 benchmark statements follow.)

The "Standards" document also identifies five lesson plans from three different NCEE publications which might be used to teach for the "Content Standard Eight" benchmarks described above. Readers who would like more information about the twenty content standards and their associated benchmarks can log on to the NCEE website (


Two of the authors of the "Standards" document argued that one of the most important and practical reasons for developing the "Standards" lay in the poor treatment of economic concepts found in standards for other social studies disciplines: "[V]oluntary national standards increase the probability that economics is included in the school curricula" (Siegfried and Meszaros 1997, 140). Indeed, Buckles and Watts (1998) conducted a content analysis of the national standards documents in history, geography, civics and government, and social studies and found serious gaps in the economic content coverage of each. Buckles and Watts (1998, 165) found "few errors of commission but many major omissions, which demonstrate the need for a separate economics course." Buckles and Watts also pointed to an almost overt bias in these standards documents toward "wide-ranging government intervention and planning" and "a general failure to recognize the range and efficiency of market functions." Buckles and Watts (1998, 166) concluded that the development of the "Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics" represented a unique opportunity to go beyond the treatment of important economic concepts in "broad, sweeping brush strokes" and "to reduce competition for classroom time" by concentrating economics coverage in a discrete economics course.


The release of the "Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics" represented an integral and important step in the development of economic literacy in the United States. With publication of the "Standards" document, the National Council on Economic Education has responded to the call for standards-based reform first sounded with "A Nation at Risk" (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). In fact, "A Nation at Risk" pointed specifically to the need to prepare students to compete in the global economy of the twenty-first century. To achieve this goal, the United States needed to establish world class standards in many disciplines, including economics. As Meszaros and Engstrom (1998, 12) noted, recent "emphasis on standards-based instruction in core disciplines means, for many, the introduction of new content" in economics, and the "Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics" will "provide the guidance teachers need" to develop and carry out successful instruction in economics.


Buckles, Stephen, and Michael Watts. "National Standards in Economics, History, Social Studies, Civics and Geography: Complementaries, Competition or Peaceful Coexistence?" JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC EDUCATION 29 (Spring 1998): 157-66. EJ 561 929.

Gardner, David P., and Others. A NATION AT RISK: THE IMPERATIVE FOR EDUCATIONAL REFORM. Washington, DC: National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983. ED 226 006.

Meszaros, Bonnie. "Economic Standards: A Guide for Curriculum Planners." SOCIAL EDUCATION 61 (October 1997): 324-27. EJ 557 561.

Meszaros, Bonnie and John Siegfried, Eds. THE VOLUNTARY NATIONAL CONTENT STANDARDS IN ECONOMICS. New York, NY: National Council on Economic Education, 1997. ED 416 165.

Meszaros, Bonnie and Laurie Engstrom. "Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics: 20 Enduring Concepts and Benchmarks for Beleaguered Teachers." SOCIAL STUDIES AND THE YOUNG LEARNER (November/December 1998): 7-12.

Miller, Steven L. ECONOMIC EDUCATION FOR CITIZENSHIP. Bloomington, IN: Social Studies Development Center and ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, 1988. ED 296 947.

National Council on Economic Education. ECONOMICS AMERICA: CONTENT STATEMENTS FOR STATE STANDARDS IN ECONOMICS, K-12. New York, NY: National Council on Economic Education, 1997. ED 417 093.

Saunders, Phillip and June V. Gilliard, Eds. A FRAMEWORK FOR TEACHING THE BASIC CONCEPTS AND SCOPE AND SEQUENCE K-12. New York, NY: National Council on Economic Education, 1995. ED 417 118.

Siegfried, John and Bonnie Meszaros. "Voluntary Economics Content Standards for America's Schools: Rationale and Development." JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC EDUCATION (Spring 1998): 139-49. EJ 561 927.

Walstad, William and John Soper. "Economic Literacy in Senior High Schools," in Walstad and Soper, Eds. EFFECTIVE ECONOMIC EDUCATION IN THE SCHOOLS. New York, NY: Joint Council on Economic Education and Washington, DC: The National Education Association, 1991. ED 332 904.

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