Cover Story

ECON 101

"ECON 101" Continued...

Issue: "All tied up," Sept. 24, 2011

Soon, Sherman, Goble, and leaders from Powell and Central Ohio Youth for Christ (COYFC) were joining forces to design a two-track strategy to teach key economic concepts (like scarcity and margin) alongside financial life skills (like controlling one's checkbook and credit cards). And the partners determined to focus on both schools and after-school ministries (like COYFC) reaching disadvantaged, urban kids.

Increasingly, the team sensed that the project was doomed to fail unless three criteria were met: The program had to seem relevant to the kids. It had to be easy for teachers to learn and use. And it had to be fun.

Over the next several years, Powell and SSN designed and implemented economic literacy training for teachers and developed lessons around nine foundational "Keystone Economic Principles" (see below).

Meanwhile, Sherman and Scott Arnold from COYFC led the after-school track focusing on financial literacy. Arnold and his computer-savvy colleague Bryan Gintz had developed the Economis software for use in their City Life center in Columbus' near west side. In five years of experience as head of the local Youth for Christ, Arnold had come to know firsthand how practical you had to be with the young people. No high-sounding theories. No abstractions. What you taught had to make sense in the real world. So Economis provides a lively interactive online virtual economy-written in the language of the youth who would use it, but fully consistent with the heavy-duty content Sherman, Powell, and SSN were assembling. Over 1,100 urban youth participated in Economis in the demonstration project Sherman oversaw in East Palo Alto, Calif., Indianapolis, Memphis, Miami, and Richmond.

Through Economis, students earn "currency" for various kinds of behavior and accomplishment. That currency is deposited like a weekly paycheck in individual accounts-minus "taxes." With what's left, students can invest in an interest-bearing savings account, in virtual CDs, or in a stock portfolio synchronized with real-world stocks at real-world prices. Or, like Kadayah, they can splurge at the school store.

But, Sherman says, the infusion of basic concepts powerfully curbs the temptation to splurge. Teachers weave the set of nine Keystone Principles into the standard curriculum-and students come, little by little, to recognize those concepts at work. The whole enterprise, Sherman stresses, is theologically rooted in a "creation-fall-redemption-consummation narrative of a distinctly Christian and biblical outlook."

Does it work? Ask the teachers who have led the way. Harambee's third-grade teacher Jim Flaherty estimates he's gained an average of 2.5 hours of instructional time in his classroom every week-just because everyone's thinking in a more orderly way. Punctuality and classroom behavior have shown marked improvement.

Or ask principal Alex Steinman, who says the combination of Infusionomics and Economis has helped Harambee achieve some impressive academic goals. Where public schools serving the same neighborhood as Harambee typically perform around the 20th percentile on Metropolitan Achievement tests, Harambee students are regularly at the 50th percentile. And Sherman's five-city demonstration project shows kids increasing their financial literacy by 26 percent, based on pre- and post-tests.

Now, the team behind Infusionomics and Economis is eager to see the programs applied and tested in more mainstream Christian school and homeschool settings. "If this works-and we think it does-in an inner-city setting, why wouldn't it work where we don't have to compensate for so many disadvantages?" asks one fifth-grade teacher. The same teacher noted, though, that ignorance of key economic principles is probably just as profound in mainstream school settings as in inner-city schools. "That's why our economy-and that of the world at large-are in the mess they're in," he said.

So the team of innovators is now repackaging the program for broader use and reviewing finances, including the hardware and software costs of Economis. The next big challenge will be to take it all to a wider circle of schools, and to persuade teachers and administrators of the importance of revising some long-standing habits.

Todd Goble, project leader for Infusionomics, sums it up like this: "The most important thing we do is to help students make intelligent choices-choices in which they consider the consequences of their decisions. If it's true, as someone said, that one's character is the sum total of hundreds of little choices we make every day, then we're not just helping them to think better. We're helping them build solid character. And they'll need both to thrive in the century ahead."

Keystone Principles

In the Infusionomics approach, nine foundational principles get special attention and emphasis. Woven regularly not just into explicit discussions about economics but every other subject in the curriculum as well, they are:

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