Perhaps the greatest crime perpetrated on America's young people by its schools has been the absence of attention to basic skills in English and mathematics.
Moreover, the students are shortchanged in education about money and business. Most high school and college graduates are economic illiterates.
Business leaders contend that the absence of economic education results in too much regulation and a lack of appreciation for their drive to expand profits, create more jobs and add to personal income. Business critics argue that the absence of understanding about the true nature of the U.S. economy and its domination by huge corporations prevents needed reforms.
Ronald Graham Jr., a teacher at the Key Elementary School in Arlington, decided this year that his students should be better prepared for a world in which international economic decisions affect every piggybank and pocketbook. "I felt a need that wasn't being met in the curriculum," he recalled.
"Economics and our economic system affects every one of these children's lives intimately and yet these matters are only touched upon in textbooks in the most offhand way," Graham said.
To correct this shortcoming, Graham began a class project for fifth- and sixth-graders at Key Elementary, as part of interdisciplinary studies combining social studies, economics and math. At a time when stock prices were sinking and many investors were abandoning Wall Street, Graham decided to see what his charges could learn about the market. What better time?
"By involving the kids in the stock market, they have gotten first-hand knowledge of many parts of the economic system and what makes it fluctuate," said Graham, after his class had returned to Arlington from a trip to New York for the annual meeting of a major corporation in which they invested.
"This group probably knows more about economic matters now than most high school kids," he added -- an understatement.
He didn't say so, but some corporate officers at Mohasco Corp. in New York know a bit more, too, after a tough question-and-answer session that makes the performances of annual meeting gadfly Evelyn Y. Davis look low-key by comparison.
"What kind of work do officers do with the company?" bluntly asked 12-year-old Steve Koumanelis. After some hesitation, Mohasco President Stanley Landgraf said, "That's a difficult one to answer. They study all the data, financial data, sales."
And 11-year-old Michelle Viert wanted to know, "What are you doing to improve the role of women in your company?" Landgraf's initial response to that was nervous laughter and, "Learning very young, isn't she?"
The 23 students also visited the New York Stock Exchange on the day they attended Mohasco's annual meeting, the culmination of a class project started earlier this year.
In January, Lyman Harbottle, a registered representative with the Washington investment firm of Ferris & Co., spoke to the class. Later, the class made a field trip to Ferris to see how a brokerage firm functioned.
A key part of the project was to select a portfolio of stocks; from a list of eight stocks suggested by Harbottle, each student organized a suggested portfolio. They debated the pros and cons in class and ended up by selecting Mohasco, a furniture and carpet manufacturer; Enserch Corp., a Texas natural gas company; and Dr. Pepper. They invested about $175.
"It always amazes me how the kids' discussions are identical to adult ones -- minus the sophisticated vocabulary," Graham recounted. "There were some kids who wanted to invest it all in bluechip IBM. Others argued not to put all our eggs in one basket."
Each week thereafter, the class devoted time to discussions of how their investments were performing. Funds for the project came after Graham sent a proposal to the Arlington School Board, which resulted in a $125 grant. The students invested between $2 and $10 each, on their own.
At the request of The Washington Post, Graham's students wrote individual accounts of their initial Wall Street ventures. What follows are excerpts from these reports, including some messages that corporate and Wall Street policymakers might want to study.
As teacher Graham cautioned: "You will notice rather large discrepancies as to the details of the project. This is typical of children's perceptions (and even adults' perceptions, for that matter)."
Kate McDarly: We had trouble with getting the stock in the class name.We didn't accomplish very much there, because it is still in our teacher, Mr. Graham's, name. (The meeting) got a little boring after a while. Finally we went to the New York Stock Exchange. They didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.
Cheryl Miller: Learning about stock is a most rewarding experience.
John Crouch (Who wrote his own headline: "Kids go to Big Apple to Become Poor Celebrities"): It started when Ron Graham decided we should know something about the economic world. (At Mohasco) the board of directors were very nice to us and answered all of our questions.
Sergio Matias: We learn if the stocks go down or up and we are waiting for the time to sell the stocks.
Ariana Williams: Finally we got to the meeting. Lots of my classmates asked questions. It looked as though the board of directors members were nervous. After that we went to the World Trade Center. Some people went up; some didn't. The tickets were $1.15 and the view was nothing. Paying $1.15 to see white clouds, that is dumb.
Manuela Yabar: It all started when Mr. Graham invited Mr. Harbottle over, to explaine how they work in stocks and what it's all about. So we decided to buy six shares of Mohasco, five shares of Dr. Pepper and one share of Enserch. New York was a lot different from where I live. It's filled with cars and buildings and there's hardly no space.
Michelle Viert: The problem was what to buy. So we all had homework to write down suggestions and figure out how much dividends we could get back and if we had enough money. (At the Mohasco meeting) I asked what they were doing to improve the role of women. They said that they are trying to improve.
Joe Blackburn: We studied about it every week. For example, we would look at what we bought (the stock) at and compare if we went up of down.
Kevin Underwood: Since we bought the stock, we have charts that we make each week about how they are doing. We're losing money. (At Mohasco) they were stunned to see fifth- and sixth-graders come in. It didn't feel right in there with all those men. The president of Mohasco was very stunned. When we asked questions they probably thought: "Where did they get the long words?"
Jeff Fitzgerald: So far we have lost $34. (The annual meeting) was sort of boring, to tell you the truth.
Tracy Stallings: At the meeting, we asked pretty hard questions.
Monica Vargas: It all began when our teacher said let's try something different this year, so we all said OK.
Steven Koumanelis: When we first started, we talked about the history of economics, with Henry Ford and his company. As we went along, we thought of buying some stocks. We had a big problem. Mr. Graham went to buy the stocks. To his surprise, he could only buy them in an adult's name.
Pat Carroll: When we arrived in New York, there were reporters, wierdos and photographers to greet us. The meeting wasn't very exciting but the questions were a little better. "When did your company start," asked Bill Morgan. "1845, said Mr. Langraf (president). There were a few other stupid questions like that one. The World Trade Center was not worth $1.15. We couldn't see a thing. It was too foggy.
Unidentified Student: While we were waiting for the day we were going to go (to the meeting), we received our proxy statement. We saw how much salary the board of directors (received).