MIDLAND—It is highly doubtful that most of Michigan's teenagers obtain abasic understanding of economic principles from the textbooks they use in class, accordingto a new survey released today by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The survey authors judged 16 textbooks commonly used in Michigan schools according tohow well they covered 12 major subject areas, such as the price system, taxation, thebusiness cycle, trade and tariffs, income distribution, and others. "While a few ofthe textbooks did instill `an economic way of thinking' about problems, most ofthe texts were partly and sometimes almost completely deficient," said Burton Folsom,senior fellow in economic education at the Center, George Leef, vice president of the PopeCenter for the Study of Higher Education in North Carolina, and Dirk Mateer, associateprofessor of economics at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. "We often found dismalunderstanding or outright bias on the part of the text authors," the survey teamsaid.

The survey results: Of the 16 textbooks examined, three received A's and threeothers earned B's. However, three received C's, five textbooks received a D, andtwo were given F's.

"Michigan students sometimes read in their textbooks that competition is dangerousand causes economic problems; that Americans are undertaxed; that government spendingcreates wealth; and that politicians are better at economic planning thanentrepreneurs," the survey authors found. In fact, much of the time "studentsare not studying facts or learning economics; instead they are digesting the politicalopinions of authors with hidden and not-so-hidden agendas," the survey authors said.

For example, some texts "are consistently critical of free enterprise and privateproperty, yet present government intervention with little or no scrutiny," the surveyteam discovered. "`As societies become more complex,' one text assures itsreaders, `the need for government power tends to increase.' Another author tellsstudents: `Despite fears by some Americans that governmental tampering with thefree-enterprise system would be harmful, most governmental policies have met withsuccess.'" The survey authors contend that if such statements were contrastedwith other views, they might be acceptable in a textbook. "But this is almost neverthe case," the survey concludes.

Instead, books like "Applying Economic Principles," by Sanford D. Gordon andAlan Stafford, "provide the student with nothing but government solutions to policyissues." The survey authors found that in this book, which they gave a failing grade,"the student reads that Lenin's Soviet economic system `worked reasonablywell,' even though the almost comical inefficiency of the Soviet economy has beenexhaustively documented. . . . Dubious conclusions take the place of seriousanalysis."

How do discredited ideas find their way into textbooks? For one thing, "many ofthe older authors learned their economics from the Keynesians of the 1930s, who believedstrongly that government could fine tune and direct economic activity," said theauthors. The survey team said several textbook authors suggested their publishers pointedthem in a statist direction. The survey details one of those instances as follows."One author, whose text received a low grade, responded: `I have in the pastmade suggestions to the publisher for changes along the lines of that in your review . . .the publisher wants a more liberal view presented in the text, and so that is what is inthere. They especially want government intervention treated with favor in several chaptersof the text.'"

The authors of the Mackinac Center survey made clear that "for a text to receive ahigh rating in this report, it was not necessary for it to expound an explicitly`market-oriented' or `free-market' message. But it could not ignorethe preponderance of evidence that strongly suggests that markets perform many functionswell. . . . Good textbooks do not propound particular philosophies, but concentrate onteaching students how to think."

A good example of this was "Economics By Design," by Robert A. Collinge andRonald M. Ayers. "On almost every page it . . . trains students to look below thesurface to perceive economic effects they would otherwise miss," say the surveyauthors, who gave the book an A-.

There was more good news: Economics Study Guide published by Junior Achievementand used by more than 20,000 Michigan students in 1997 received a grade of B+.

"Many . . . problems will take a long time to resolve," the survey authorssaid. "Our concern is to increase the level of economic understanding in Michiganhigh schools." They recommend that:

  • schools that do not now offer economics to their students do so;

  • schools use one of the highly graded texts noted in this report;

  • school boards where economics is taught check to see what economics text is used; and

  • schools using a text that received a poor grade switch to a better learning tool.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based, nonprofit research andeducational institute, is providing the survey to more than 4,000 Michigan school boardmembers. Complete reviews of all 16 textbooks may be accessed at www.mackinac.org or by calling (989) 631-0900.