Economics Class Becomes a Study in Current Events
Area Teachers Make Adjustments as News Trumps Lesson Plans

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

According to her syllabus, the topic of the day in Professor Lynne Kelly's graduate microeconomics class at Howard University yesterday was to be cost analysis. But the headlines highlighted another shift in the government's bank-bailout strategy; another toilet flush of the stock market; another day of credit chaos around the world.

The headlines won. Kelly abandoned her notes for an hour-long improv on the latest dispatches from the economic front.

She is not alone. According to economics and business teachers at area colleges and high schools, lecturing in this tumultuous time has been like trying to conduct a symphony even as someone keeps rewriting the music. Lesson plans that have been accurate for years are silent on credit default swaps and primary dealer credit facilities. Finance textbooks that were up-to-date at the beginning of the semester are suddenly missing whole layers of government involvement in the banking sector. Few professors started the term with a PowerPoint slide on the end of capitalism.

"I've put away the book for a while," Kelly said. "There is just something new almost every day."

For economics and government classes at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, George Vlasits has been feverishly clipping daily news coverage on the theory that the first rough draft of history is currently more pertinent than any textbook written more than, say, a month ago.

"We've been charting our own way here," said Vlasits, the head of the school's social studies department. "Outside of 9/11, I don't think any other event in my time has had the significance for teaching as this crisis."

"A lot of this is not covered by traditional economic theory," he continued. "It's like the textbooks written before 1929 that were basically out of date in 1931. That situation may well be happening now. It's a real opportunity to teach the students to keep an open mind."

Elinda Kiss, a teaching fellow at the University of Maryland in College Park, went over basic regulation with her Banking and Financial Institutions class at the beginning of the semester. But that was way back in the day, before Oct. 1, when the FDIC insured deposits only up to $100,000. The Treasury Department's $750 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program didn't even exist. Kiss had to revisit those lessons, adding a lot of on-the-fly lecture material to keep her students on pace with galloping events.

"We have all these new Fed policies that are not in the textbook," said Kiss, who is so up-to-date that she added four essay questions on new government actions to yesterday's midterm exam. "I always bring recent events into class, but now I have real events happening that day as opposed to six months or a year ago."

One might expect teachers to be pulling their hair out over near-daily convulsions in the economic paradigm that keep jumbling their class notes. But the teachers interviewed for this article had a different reaction: They love it.

As experts, they relish the real-time view of a once-in-a-generation upheaval. As instructors, they happily take advantage of the fact that even slacker students are paying attention to the financial news.

"It's permeating everything," said Carmen Reinhart, an economics professor at the University of Maryland who happens to be writing a book on eight centuries of financial crises. "The order of magnitude and scope of this is like nothing we've lived through."

Reinhart, who teaches a graduate course on international economic policy, said her students from Asia or South America often come with a personal understanding of a financial meltdown. But the recent news has noticeably sharpened the attention of American students, for whom economic turmoil has been something experienced either long ago or far away. In one recent session, the class of masters- and doctoral-level theorists spent much of the class discussing the safety of their own bank accounts.

"When you're living it day to day, it's much more immediate," Reinhart said. "You don't have to motivate them."

Bill Vicari, who teaches an Advanced Placement economics course at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, said even younger students are finding a personal handle on the crisis.

"The number one questions are 'How did this happen?' and 'How will this impact my student loans?' " he said.

Vicari, who has a degree in economics and has been teaching the course for six years, said his expertise has been in demand in the teacher's lounge as well as the classroom.

"Now I'm not only fielding questions from students but also from colleagues who I assume I understand what's going on," he said. "It's a new world for all of us."

In Kelly's class at Howard, her impromptu lecture led to a long back and forth among students, many of whom came armed with the morning's latest news (consumer price index stability, a bank bailout in Switzerland, of all places). After filling a chalkboard with student observations, Kelly tried to reel them in: "I'll take one more comment, and then we've got to get to our regular lecture."

Two comments and 10 minutes later, there were still hands in the air.

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