Economics and Business Learning Should Develop Student Skills

by Justin R. Harbour

In this edition of The Essential Educator blog, written by educators for educators, Justin R. Harbour, an Advanced Placement (AP) Economics teacher at La Salle College High School in Pennsylvania and a member of the Wharton Global Youth Program Educator Advisory Board, makes the case for including more vibrant, skills-focused business and finance education in high schools.

Let’s face it, economics and business learning in secondary school has become dismally stagnant. High schools are being scrutinized if not criticized for doing a poor job of preparing students for higher education.

From where I sit as an AP Economics teacher, it is increasingly obvious that colleges and universities can play an important role in helping secondary schools include more dynamic business and economics content in their teaching – as a way to bridge that gap.

Consider recent changes made to the high school Advanced Placement Micro- and Macroeconomics curricula – courses that served some 200,000 students in the U.S. in 2021. Not much to see here. The expectations for student output remain the same, and the content has accommodated few changes outside of the traditional Samuelsonian survey of neoclassical theory (with some change in the degree to which topics are emphasized).

What’s more, the AP Economics courses have never included any explicit learning output or specific skill development. Instead, the focus is on student content retention and limited application in the real world. In contrast, many other AP courses have undergone a standardization of skill rubrics, aligning the types of critical writing and thinking that are thought to increase college preparedness.

Yet many of the higher education institutions that award credits for AP classes are calling for more evidence of learning skills. A movement has arisen in recent years, for example, that asserts a need for a portfolio of learning in order to assess an applicant’s ability to grow over time. Project-based learning in which students actively explore concepts by applying them to real-world contexts has also drawn attention from the likes of The College Board, a method whose benefits have been similarly identified for economics learning. As a way to advance critical thinking and expression skills, Harvard Business School has introduced case method teaching to high schools. These examples underscore the use of learning materials to advance the development of thinking and expression skills believed fundamental to long-term academic success beyond high school.

“What are the skills and what is the output that students need to be college-ready?”

Colleges and universities are also making changes to how they teach economics and business. Most notable amongst these contributions has been the CORE-Econ program. Offered freely to teachers and students as an open-access course, CORE seeks to “change economics education globally to a focus on the most important problems faced by our societies, including climate change, injustice, innovation and the future of work.”

High school business and economics curricula have not yet responded with similar vigor. Neither Advanced Placement Micro- nor Macroeconomics intentionally work to advance learning or thinking skills within the unique economics landscape. Nor does project-based learning appear to be a consideration for AP Economics. This is despite the changes to introductory economics classes in higher education, and the persistent benefits of real-world learning applications. Many students are therefore under-prepared for the popular economics and business courses they are interested in entering in college.

I see great opportunity for people in business and economics education to start saying, ‘What learning does our discipline uniquely offer to students that is applicable to a variety of contexts, and how can we construct that learning process?’ We need to be thinking about what our students are producing to demonstrate college-level thinking and learning through the material we present. What are the skills and what is the output that students need to be college-ready?

The Wharton School’s Global Youth Program at the University of Pennsylvania is helping to bridge that gap through programs and content that connect secondary-education classrooms to real-world business and economic issues.

Wharton Global Youth recently launched, for example, a Pre-Baccalaureate Program. Pre-Bacc awards college credit to high school students who successfully complete rigorous Wharton-designed coursework. Successful completion requires the development of the very skills for thinking, expression, and learning mindsets related to college success.

Pre-Bacc content is noteworthy too for the very same reasons that CORE and its peers are; developing skillsets through an analysis of pressing social problems using the unique lens of business and economics. Students, for example, can complete a course that analyzes power dynamics and imbalances in the workplace. Students also confront the framing relationship government institutions exert on markets, and the ways the economics of health care reveal acute issues in resource allocation for any economic system.

Beyond the Pre-Baccalaureate Program and several fee-based summer high school programs, both online and on-campus, that are developed with Wharton faculty expertise, Wharton Global Youth also provides classroom resources that any educator or student the world throughout can take advantage of to deepen their knowledge and skills at a pace appropriate for their learning needs. With contemporary topics such as Environmental, Social, and governance (ESG) factors for businesses, or The Business of Race, entrepreneurial students are provided an array of opportunities to learn through application and develop skills they can draw on and deepen in future learning endeavors.

I see these types of resources as critical to preparing our students to understand the world’s most pressing business and economics issues and to develop competitive college-ready skills. As educators, it’s our job to build them into the secondary school experience.

One comment on “Economics and Business Learning Should Develop Student Skills

  1. While the College Board has not made a concerted effort to utilize PBL in their AP curriculum, individual teachers, albeit not near enough, have made the shift. However, “PBL” has a broad application, with much of what is purported to be categorized as PBL being nothing more than a unit project focused on low-level Bloom’s content.

    We can place labels on pedagogical approaches, but the misapplication of those approaches happens far more often than we like to admit. In the end, it’s our learners who suffer.

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