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Interview with John S. Morton

John S. Morton is widely recognized as a creative economic educator and innovative developer of ideas that bring economics alive in the classroom. He has 40 years experience as a high school teacher and economic educator. More than any other person, he is responsible for the inclusion of economics in the Advanced Placement program. He served on the College Board Advanced Placement Test Development Committee in Economics from 1986 to 1990. He is the author of Advanced Placement Economics, which is the most widely used AP Economics supplemental package in the nation. He has given hundreds of presentations on AP Economics at professional meetings, for the College Board, and for Centers of Economic Education across the country. A former Vice President for Program Development at the National Council on Economic Education, Morton is the author of more than 50 publications, including Advanced Placement Economics (NCEE); Capstone: Exemplary Lessons for High School Economics (NCEE); and Economics: Choices and Challenges (Houghton Mifflin/McDougal Littell). He chaired the Advisory Board of The Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition from 1991 to 2000.

Morton has received several awards for teaching economics, including the Bessie Moore Service Award from the NCEE and the National Association of Economic Educators, the John C. Schramm Leadership Award, the Freedoms Foundation Award for Excellence in Private-Enterprise Education, and the National Federation of Independent Business Foundation Award for Excellence in Entrepreneurship and Free-Enterprise Education.

Interview with John S. Morton

You taught economics at the high school level for approximately 30 years. What attracted you to teaching as a career and what led to your interest in economics?

While I was always interested in teaching as a career, my interest in economics began in my junior year in college when I took my first principles of economics course. I had a great teacher and found everything about the subject fascinating. I wanted to share my enthusiasm with others, many of whom thought I was nuts. When I got my first job teaching social studies, I volunteered to teach the economics classes. There was not much competition for teaching the economics course so I began my career teaching at least some economics.

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

I had a "low-ability" class in a split-lunch period. That is, the class met, we went to lunch in the middle of the period, and we came back to class after lunch. The students liked to sneak in food, which was against school rules. Their favorite food was Cheetos, which they would stuff in their pockets. I wasn't sure that much economics was learned under these conditions. However, on the last day of class, the students brought in a large cake which said "Mr. Morton's Free Lunch" and a five-foot-long bag of Cheetos. They learned something.

On the last day of school in another year, every student in every class wore the same T-shirt. On the back was a list of my top 10 sayings, a few of which were a bit off-color. I waited for a letter from the principal, but he just said he enjoyed it. The student who organized and produced the T-shirts said she made a nice profit. But my cut of the profit was one "free" T-shirt.

You have been instrumental in the development of materials for classroom use through the National Council on Economic Education. How did you find the time to do this while you were still teaching?

I guess the marginal benefit of writing the books was greater than the marginal cost. The marginal cost was less because for 15 years Governors State University bought out half my high school contract so I taught half the classes a regular high school teacher did. And, of course, the college professor job was the Life of Riley compared to that of a high school teacher writing books.

NCEE materials almost always contain interesting activities and other ideas designed to promote understanding among students. What are two or three of your favorites in this area?

One of the most neglected areas of economics is teaching why property rights are important to economic progress. A simple game can make this clear. Get about six student volunteers, and put paper clips on an overhead projector. Tell the students that they will get one piece of candy for every paper clip they take in the first 30 seconds and two pieces of candy for every paper clip they take in the next 30 seconds. The paper clips are usually gone in about one second. Then draw lines on a transparency and assign property rights. Now the students will wait until the second round to take the paper clips. People conserve when property rights are assigned. My second-favorite is an activity known as the "Bag Game." Each student receives a bag of small items. They examine the items and put of value of 1-5 on their bag. Then they can trade items in the bag. After trading, they put a new value on their bag. Every time, the overall value of the bags goes up. People gain when they trade.

Has working on NCEE materials influenced what you think we should be doing in high school and college level economics classes?

It taught me to focus on the really cool stuff. The big ideas in economics are fascinating. The trivial facts of economics are boring. Unfortunately, too many teachers and textbooks go with the boring because they are afraid that discussing the big ideas will be too controversial or they won't be able to answer a student's difficult questions. If everyone understood a few key principles of economics, disastrous policies could be avoided, and the world would be a much better place.

What advice would you give a young beginning economics teacher today? What are two or three vitally important materials they should be sure to review if they want to become a super econ teacher?

The most important thing is to learn the subject thoroughly. The median number of economics courses taken by a high school economics teacher is two and the mean is three. Even though there are economics standards in elementary and middle school, many teachers have not taken a single economics course. You can't teach what you don't understand. Second, focus on the key ideas and not on trivia. Show how knowledge of economics can help students improve their lives. Third, use active learning. Get the kids involved. Use simulations, demonstrations, and role playing. Even though these procedures may make the class more chaotic, learning takes place as long as the teacher can follow up the activity with sound analysis about what has happened.

Your reputation for helping both teachers and students in AP Economics is legendary. How did this reputation come about and tell us a little about your role in the development of AP Economics.

I have been involved with AP Economics since day one. I wrote a letter to the College Board, asking that economics become an AP subject, and to my surprise they said they would consider it. After serving on a task force, a successor task force, and the test development committee, I was excited when the first tests came out in 1989. About 3,000 students took the tests that year. In 2005 about 100,000 students took the tests.

You have also been involved in the development of the standards for economics. Of course, these standards often differ from state to state. What are your thoughts on the standards? Do they improve the teaching of economics at the elementary and secondary level?

Standards have both an upside and a downside. The fact that 48 states have economics standards and that there is some commonality to the standards at least defines the discipline. This is a definite improvement over the past when a high school economics course could mean anything. However, only 26 states require testing of standards. If standards aren't tested, there isn't much incentive to teach them. In fact, only 38 states require schools to implement their standards; this tells you a lot about the American education bureaucracy. Finally, many standards are political and/or trivial. This encourages teachers to trivialize the discipline. Only well prepared, enthusiastic teachers using high-quality materials will improve economic literacy.

During your teaching career, the tools available to both teachers and students in economics have changed rather dramatically. Do you think we do a better job of teaching economics in elementary and secondary schools today than was the case 25 years ago? Is there any evidence that the changes of recent decades have affected student performance?

I would like to think that we do a better job than we did 25 years ago, but there is little evidence that this is true. Certainly, teachers have had more training, and the quality of materials has improved, but do these inputs affect outputs? In 2006 the National Assessment of Educational Progress will test economics for the first time. This will at least give us some national baseline data on what students know about economics, but it will not do much good unless there are follow-up assessments. The Test of Economic Literacy shows that achievement improves if students take a high school economics course, but achievement still remains low. The most positive note is the expansion of the Advanced Placement Economics and International Baccalaureate Economics programs. Students need to know a lot of economics in order to do well on the very rigorous tests.

In some circles, there is considerable debate about the amount of time we should spend on personal finance relative to more traditional economic topics. What are your thoughts on this debate?

Personal finance should be taught in the context of economic education. An economic perspective enables us to view personal finance within the big world where consumers also act as producers and citizens. Understanding the economic way of thinking provides a strategy for consumers to make choices. A narrower perspective results in a lot of facts, rules, and exhortations about consuming less. Facts lacking a conceptual context have little meaning, and rapidly become outdated.

You have had great success working with economics and other social science teachers. How do you account for that success?

The most important thing is to help teachers get over their fear of economics and to see how students respond to economic education. Soon they will see that economics is kid stuff. Once teachers get into economic reasoning, they are hooked. An elementary school administrator wrote me a note when I left teaching in suburban Chicago. He said, "When you first spoke to my teachers, I said there would be a special talk on a special subject by a special teacher. If I told them it was economics, no one would have showed up. Now my entire school district is into economic education."

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

I believe my sabbatical year spent at the University of Chicago had the biggest influence on my teaching. From then on, I emphasized the economic way of thinking and how economics provides a powerful analytical tool for examining any topic, subject, problem, or issue.

Almost all of your professional life has been dedicated to improvement in the teaching of economics, particularly at the elementary and secondary level. Why is this important?

Economic literacy is critical to the long-term success of the American economy because today's choices will affect each person's standard of living and our overall prosperity. Economic knowledge and reasoning help on several levels.

First, economics helps people make better decisions as consumers, producers, and citizens. In the words of James Tobin: "The case for economic literacy is obvious. High school graduates will be making choices all their lives, as breadwinners and consumers, and as citizen voters. A wide range of people will bombard them with economic information and misinformation for their entire lives. They will need some capacity for critical judgment. They will need it whether or not they go to college."

Second, productivity, growth, and the rising quality of life we expect from our economic system depend in part on knowledge about that economic system.

Finally, the case for economic literacy is the case for democracy itself. If war is too serious to be left to the military professionals, economic understanding is too important to be left to economists. In the words of Joan Robinson: "The purpose of studying economics is to keep people from being deceived by economists." Thomas Sowell said, "It may not be true that everything we need to know can be learned in kindergarten, but a remarkable range of disastrous economic policies could be avoided if the general public understood just the principles of economics that could be taught in an introductory course."

What have you learned from your experience working with both students and teachers in economics?

If economic education is to be successful, knowledgeable and enthusiastic teachers must use high-quality instructional materials. Then the results must be assessed, and teachers and schools must be accountable for those results.

Knowledgeable and enthusiastic teachers are the key to improving economic literacy. Improved teacher training must go beyond a few workshops. Every teacher should have at least one economics course, and high school economics teachers should have several. University economics departments should teach some courses geared toward teachers. Schools of education need to stop ignoring economics in their social studies courses.

Second, instructional activities should be vibrant and fun. They should emphasize critical thinking. Most high school textbooks do just the opposite. They basically consist of a recitation of seemingly unrelated facts. Instead, teachers should use activities that emphasize key concepts, an economic way of thinking, and student achievement.

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

I hope that I have helped raise the academic level of high school economics. Teaching Strategies for High School Economics Courses (published in 1985 and known as "The Silver Bullet") was the first publication to take high school economics beyond a textbook. Its style paved the way for most future NCEE activities. I believe the high school course was taken to a new level with the advent of AP Economics in 1989. I don't view AP Economics as elitist. AP teachers must understand economics to be successful. These teachers also teach other high school courses, and, as a result, the entire high school economics curriculum benefits. I am also proud of the number of high school students I taught who went on to major in economics in college. The first economics course is important if we are to encourage more economics majors. Whether it is a high school or college course, that first course should whet a student's appetite for more.