by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
As the 2022-23 school year approaches, the United States economy appears to be sliding into a recession. Unfortunately, North Carolina social studies standards offer few opportunities for students to develop the tools to think critically about the causes and effects of recessions specifically and economic phenomena generally.
The North Carolina K-12 Social Studies Standard Course of Study Glossary of Instructional Terms offers two complementary definitions of economic recession:
Both definitions mention the standard shorthand measure of two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth and other measures of employment and economic output.
State standards recommend that teachers discuss recessions in 2nd, 3rd, 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. (See Table 1.) Naturally, basic economic concepts occupy much of the focus in the elementary school grades. Unfortunately, the standards suggest that teachers link recessions to scarcity (2nd grade) and supply and demand (3rd grade). These connections will bewilder young minds, creating challenges for teachers who introduce more sophisticated economic concepts in later grades. I suspect that most elementary school educators simply avoid the subject altogether.
Table 1. North Carolina Social Studies Standards That Reference Recessions
In 8th grade, standard 8.E.1.1 requires social studies teachers to address the effects of recessions rather than their causes. Standard 8.E.1.2 makes the flawed claim that “[o]veruse of scarce resources through trade and industry may lead to economic instability, recession, or depression within a state or nation.” It ignores the role of monetary policy, political machinations, consumer sentiment, and numerous other factors that play a role.
The 10th grade American History course begins to fill in some of the blanks by stating that “[e]conomic decisions by a government as well as international events may lead to economic expansion or retraction of a nation.” Unfortunately, the acknowledgment of political factors (AH.E.1.3) appears to be in the service of teaching young adults that the economy is rigged to benefit “some at the expense of others” (AH.E.1.4) and creates “turning points” in history (AH.H.3.1). Only in the 12th-grade Economics and Personal Finance course do students begin to tackle macroeconomics in a way that would allow them to grasp the complexities of recessions.
North Carolina does not administer a statewide social studies test, nor does it mandate that educators utilize a specific social studies curriculum. Thus, we cannot know what students know or the topics teachers choose to include or exclude from classroom instruction. Moreover, we cannot assume that educators have sufficient knowledge of economics or a desire to teach it in a way that cultivates economic thinking and an appreciation of market processes.