Mark C. Schug

Mark C.

Mark C. Schug is Director of the Center for Economic Education and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. He is a Senior Fellow with the National Council on Economic Education. Professor Schug has taught for over 30 years at the middle school, high school, and university levels. A widely recognized scholar, he has written and edited over 180 articles and books. He has co-authored numerous curriculum materials for the National Council on Economic Education, including Capstone: Exemplary Lessons for High School Economics, United States History: Eyes on the Economy, Economics and the Environment: EcoDetectives, Learning from the Market: Integrating the Stock Market Game Across the Curriculum, Teaching Ideas for Social Studies, Economics and Business Classes, The Great Economics Mysteries Books for Grades 4-8 and 9-12, Financial Fitness for Life: Bringing Home the Gold, and Learning, Earning and Investing. He has won national awards for research, curriculum writing, and leadership in economic education. Professor Schug often speaks about economic and financial education issues in urban schools. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Milwaukee Urban League Academy of Business and Economics, Association of Private Enterprise Education, and the Wisconsin Council for the Social Studies. He received an M.A. degree and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

Interview with Mark C. Schug

» What attracted you to teaching as a career and what led to your interest in economics?

History was my first love. I knew I wanted to go to college and maybe do some good in the world. Becoming a teacher seemed like a natural choice despite the fact that this was uncommon in my family. I became involved in economics when I was a teacher at Mayo High School in Rochester, Minnesota. What I enjoyed most about economics was that it provided a definitive form of problem analysis. Economics is a way of thinking. It makes clear that some explanations are more powerful than others.

» You taught high school for almost 10 years before returning to grad school and earning your doctoral degree. Did your experience teaching at the high school level help you become a better college-level teacher?

Teaching high school can help you to be a better college teacher. High school teaching is a balancing act. Great high school teachers have to know their subjects well but they also have to know their students well. You learn how easily kids can get lost in understanding an idea they are encountering for the first time. You have to pay close attention to how students are responding. Experience helps a lot. You learn what to expect. What are kids thinking when they arrive? What explanations and examples dispel their misunderstandings? What demonstrations accurately portray the content and yet are simple, meaningful and efficient? Figuring this out requires time and experimentation.

» Who has had the biggest influence on your interest in economics and the teaching of economics as a career?

Probably the biggest influence on my career was Don Wentworth who was a Professor of Economics at Pacific Lutheran University. Don and I met at the University of Minnesota while he was a graduate student and I was still an undergrad. But, his real influence came years later. Don introduced me to the economic way of thinking as explained in books by Paul Heyne and Jim Gwartney. I had not focused on economics as a form of logical thinking until Don and I started writing together.

» You teach an undergraduate level economics class for social studies education majors. What are the most important things you try to achieve in that class?

Prospective social studies teachers, it seems, find economics to be their worst nightmare. I try to show my students that learning how to think economically is a powerful tool that can help them academically, socially, and in making day-to-day decisions. I usually begin with an introduction to the economic way of thinking using what we have come to call “economic mysteries.” I pose a problem then we systemically examine basic principles of economic thinking to solve the mystery.

» Sometimes unexpected things happen in the classroom. What are your two or three most memorable classroom experiences?

I teach a summer class for Milwaukee high school kids called the Youth Enterprise Academy. In the second year of the program, a student named Curtis came to class looking like a gang banger. He wore dark, baggy clothes with a knit hat pulled tight over his head in the middle of the summer. He sat in the back of the room, rarely volunteered and stared at his desk most of the time. But, whenever he was called on, he knew the correct answer. I asked Curtis to join one of our investment clubs. He turned out to be a fine young man. He eventually was admitted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a full four-year scholarship and majored in economics!

» What are one or two of your favorite topics that you look forward to covering in your class? Why are they favorites?

One is “mystery nations.” I use this presentation to introduce teachers to the basic institutions of a market economy. I present some statistics selected from the CIA World Fact Book regarding five or six “mystery nations.” Then I ask the students to predict if the nations I am describing are rich or poor. After the discussion, I reveal the names of the “mystery nations.” This presentation makes clear the power of market institutions to generate wealth and reduce all sorts of problems.
Another is “Teachers Can Be Millionaires Too.” I use a “true false” quiz and award points for the right answers. The quiz seems to keep people engaged while they learn the basics of how to build wealth over the long term. I enjoy this presentation because it stresses how people of modest means can build wealth over the long term.

» Do social studies education majors think economics is the dismal science?

Yes. Even prospective teachers who enjoy teaching government, history, and geography seem to find the prospect of teaching economics unwelcome. Social studies teachers have a long list of grievances regarding the teaching of economics. Getting social studies education majors off to a good start in learning economics is important if economic education is ever to become regarded as a widespread success. They need to see that economics is a discipline, not a set of political ideas.

» Are there one or two things that you really try to get across to students in your classes so they will be able to teach these topics effectively? If so what are they?

Most importantly, I try to get students to respect the power of markets. In their hearts, they might like or dislike markets. But, markets have to be respected. People’s wants are hard to be denied. People do respond to incentives often in complicated and surprising ways.
I also try to provide an economic analysis of topics that teachers are almost certainly going to address in their classes. For example, teachers often have almost no grasp of monetary policy. As a result, they fail to see how misguided Federal Reserve policy was the major cause of the Great Depression.

» What are the most common misconceptions on the part of students in your introductory classes?

Social studies education students are often skeptical of markets. I suspect that their beliefs would not be much different from history majors. To many, “profit” is a dirty word. I find myself repeatedly reviewing the role profits play in a market economy.

» As the Director of the Center for Economic Education at UW-Milwaukee, you work a lot with high school teachers. What are some of the things you do in order to help them become better teachers and make their economics classes more interesting?

First, I strive to offer programs that are informative about things that come up in their classes; things that students ask them about and they might not be sure how to answer. I run conferences and workshops on topics like the economics of terrorism, oil prices, how credit scores are calculated, and what really caused the Great Depression.
Second, I try to provide teachers with highly usable curriculum materials. Most often, I favor materials from the National Council on Economic Education. And, teachers love good media – PowerPoint slides, websites, and DVDs.
Finally, I try to treat teachers with respect and dignity. They appreciate the fact that we try to offer great content and teaching ideas within the context of a good setting - a nice conference center or a corporate meeting room with wonderful amenities.

» You have worked a lot with intercity schools in Milwaukee. Tell us a little about that experience and what you have gained from it.

I am the president of the Board of Directors for the Milwaukee Urban League Academy of Business and Economics. This is a grade K-8 charter school in Milwaukee’s inner-city.
Our school specializes in offering a business and economics curriculum. All kids should have a basic financial and economic education while in school. Inner-city kids are particularly disadvantaged in this regard. The inner city itself is dominated by non-market and illegal economic forces. It is a world largely devoid of legal enterprise.
Our school strives to be a beacon of free enterprise. Our message is that economic success starts with decisions made by each kid and each parent. Our school board members are focused on fostering academic and economic success of our students, parents, and teachers. Our teachers are a dedicated, non-union group who work an extended school day and an extended school year.

» Describe the investment clubs you have developed for high school students and explain what students must do in order to participate in these clubs

In 1998, I began the Youth Enterprise Academy. This is a ten-day summer “boot camp” program for high school students. It is conducted on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. About 25 ninth and tenth grade Milwaukee students participate each year. The goal of the Youth Enterprise Academy is to increase the economic and financial education and participation of urban youth in the economy. Students study personal finance, basic economics and leadership.
Students who successfully complete the Youth Enterprise Academy receive a $500 U.S. Savings Bond. Ten students in two teams of five from each Youth Enterprise Academy take the next step. They are invited to join a Youth Enterprise Investment Club. Here, the students manage a Youth Enterprise College Fund -- a fund with an initial value of $2,000 per student or $10,000 for each team. The goal of a Youth Enterprise College Fund is to increase the value of the fund to pay as much of the first year of tuition at a typical college or university as possible.

» You have worked with the National Council for Economic Education for many years and helped them develop materials designed to make economics more interesting. What are the two or three best ideas in this area?

In the curriculum titled United States History: Eyes on the Economy, we introduced the economic way of thinking to high school teachers of history. Many history teachers are unaware that there is a field called economic history, never mind having taken an economic history course. United States History: Eyes on the Economy helps students gain a better understanding of historical events by using basic economic reasoning. The Handy Dandy Guide for Solving Economic Mysteries introduces students to six principles of economic thinking.

» How has working on NCEE materials influenced your own classroom teaching

NCEE materials have helped me a lot. Writing many of the NCEE materials has made me examine content and pedagogy in areas I never would have explored on my own. I especially enjoy coming up with short simulations and demonstrations.

» If you were going to recommend one or two economic education materials for teachers of basic economics courses, what would they be and why do you think they are so important?

For most high school teachers, I would recommend Capstone: Exemplary Lessons for Teaching High School Economics. This curriculum includes 45 lessons that fit nicely into a traditional high school course.
For economics teachers who want to do a little more, Advanced Placement Economics is a great package. While intended for more capable students, several of the lessons work just fine in a traditional high school economics course.
Given all the interest in personal finance, I would also recommend Financial Fitness for Life: Going for the Gold. This curriculum includes 22 lessons. It does a nice job of integrating economic thinking with principles of personal finance.
Finally, let’s not forget the new video clips from John Stossel: “Teaching Tools for Microeconomics and Macroeconomics.” This convenient package will be a great help to liven up high school economics.

» How have changes in technology influenced your teaching?

My teaching has changed quite a lot over the years and technology has been a big part of that. As a high school teacher, I made a lot of use of the old overhead projector. Today, I make a lot of use of PowerPoint slides and of the Internet. Each class I teach is now accompanied by a website that includes PowerPoint presentations and supplemental readings in PDF files, and regular web-based and e-mail communications to students.

» Has economic education improved or regressed in recent years?

There is some reason to be hopeful. Students are taking more economics courses in high school. Advanced Placement economics is very popular. There has been a big push for increased financial education with much of this coming from the Fed. More economics and personal finance curriculum materials are available than ever before. In Wisconsin, opportunities for teachers to study economics and personal finance have expanded significantly. But in my own state of Wisconsin it is still hard to get the education establishment to take economics seriously.

I have a strong suspicion that many politicians and members of the education establishment fear a highly economically literate public. I’m serious. A highly economically literate voter strikes fear in the hearts of politicians. It would make it hard for them to promulgate programs that are popular with interest groups but do overall damage to the economy. In my own state, the Governor’s idea of good economic development policy is increasing the minimum wage and suing the oil companies for price gouging. If voters were more economically literate, politicians couldn’t get away with that sort of thing.

» What do you consider to be your greatest success in the area of economic education?

In terms of scholarship, I take some pride in a review of research I co-authored with Bill Walstad in the Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning. This chapter has been used widely by graduate students.
On the program side, I probably take the greatest pride in having started and maintained for 9 years the Youth Enterprise Academy and Investment Clubs. The test results show large economic and financial knowledge gains. Most satisfying is the list of nearly 20 colleges to which students from our investment clubs have been admitted.

» What advice would you give a young person with a strong desire to become a great teacher?

First, know that being well informed on content is very important. You may not realize how important this really is until you start teaching and learn what ideas connect with kids and which ones only add to their confusion. Second, get the good curriculum materials. This will help move you down the path to success. Third, find some like-minded teachers. Go to conferences and meetings they attend. Such meetings can help you better learn what to teach and how to teach it.