Editorial, Volume 5 Issue 2
Professor Peter Davies, joint editor
There is a gathering body of evidence showing that the difference made by schooling to students' achievements is due more to variation between teachers than variation between schools (Tymms, 1992; Nye et al., 2004). It follows that the most likely way to improve students' achievement is by improving teaching. One way of trying to do this is by improving the quality of entrants to the profession: teacher training offers another possibility. However, lack of variation between the training experienced by new entrants to the profession has made this a difficult proposition to test in many countries. Scahill's paper aims to provide some evidence through an evaluation of the training provided to economics lecturers in Eastern Europe during the transition period. His data suggest that these training programmes did improve lecturer's understanding of economics and the supposition that this led to improvements in teaching is reasonable, but not addressed by the paper.
Another question that lies outside the scope of Scahill's paper is what we are really assessing through the instruments we use. Shanahan and colleagues provide a first attempt at measuring students' acquisition of a 'threshold concept'. The idea of a 'threshold concept' has been developed recently by Meyer and Land (2005). Threshold concepts are not 'building blocks' in the manner described by 'key' or 'core' concepts. Maintaining the building analogy, threshold concepts are better conceived as 'keystones', tying an edifice together. They are not amenable to being characterised in simple terms that are accessible to young students or new learners. In this context it is particularly interesting that Shanahan and colleagues should seek to operationalise the idea of threshold concepts by focusing on opportunity cost. Opportunity cost has appeared in virtually every list of key concepts that has ever been produced. There is a long tradition of introducing opportunity cost in the early chapters of introductory textbooks. However, as Salemi (2005) has pointed out in an earlier edition of IREE, students who have successfully negotiated introductory economics may yet fail to use opportunity cost in their analysis of economic problems. Does opportunity cost as a threshold concept mean something different from opportunity cost as a key concept? If so, there is a problem to be confronted in assessment. This is one of the issues that Shanahan and colleagues grapple with in their contribution to the rapidly growing literature on threshold concepts in economics.
Bachan's paper pursues a theme he has developed with his colleague Barry Reilly (see for example Bachan and Reilly, 2003) following earlier work by John Ashworth and colleagues (for example, Ashworth and Evans, 2000). He shows that most students interested in aiming to maximise their examination grades would be better advised to opt for Business Studies rather than Economics. The grade differences are not trivial. This provokes an interesting question for economists: how come economics seems to be on the wrong end of allowing freedom of choice? The examination system for 14–19 year-old students in the UK is far from typical. In some respects it might be regarded as a highly developed, market-driven approach to curriculum-based exit examinations. Examinations are set by a small number of private sector organisations (examination boards) which openly compete for business. Teachers choose which examination board to use when preparing students and students choose which subjects to study. At advanced level the choice is wide. Bell et al. (2005) have calculated that over 20,000 different combinations of subjects are currently studied by students in England. Since Mathematics is the only advanced level subject known to affect subsequent earnings (Dolton and Vignoles, 2002) the primary incentive for students is to maximise examination grades to secure entry to a preferred course of study in Higher Education.
However, there is another powerful incentive at work for teachers. Parents are encouraged to choose schools for their children on the basis of the average grades achieved by past students. Moreover, teachers' pay is linked, albeit weakly, to the grades their students achieve. The incentive structure creates a powerful process eroding the standards required to achieve particular examination grades. Government struggles to ameliorate, through regulation of examination boards, the effects of its own school choice policies and universities complain about the difficulties faced in selecting students. When so many achieve a grade A how do you pick the best?
But the story is not all grim. There is some evidence (Davies et al., forthcoming) of weak, positive, effects of competition between departments on the value-added achievement of students. Moreover, Bachan's evidence also leads to another question. Are the students who opt for Economics rather than Business Studies at A level misinformed or poor decision makers? Why else would they choose a subject in which it is more difficult to get a high grade? The more likely explanation is that economics is now firmly positioned as a 'more difficult' subject amongst the available options for Advanced Study in schools in England and Wales. As a result it is more likely to attract high-achieving students seeking hallmarks that distinguish them from their peers. This kind of selection bias might be welcomed by academics in Higher Education. However, two notes of caution are needed here. First, school subjects that acquire the 'difficult' tag become very vulnerable if they also become seen as esoteric. This is the trajectory once followed by Latin. Second, an 'elite' subject abandons any role in the education of the majority. Twenty years ago, business and government were champions of the importance of economic understanding for all. Is it no longer needed?
Cheo takes it for granted that economics teaching should aim to promote 'civic-mindedness'. In that case, it is hard to see why this aim should be restricted to an elite. Cheo provides an example of how such an aim might be pursued in teaching environmental economics within an undergraduate programme. He is able to offer some evidence that 'civic-mindedness' was increased through the activity.
One way in which economics might contribute to 'civic-mindedness' is through developing in students those abilities that facilitate critical evaluation of alternative perspectives. It is difficult to achieve this aim without putting a lot of responsibility for learning onto the students themselves. A practicable format within which this might be achieved is a 'reading group'. Harvie and Philp describe how they have Karl Marx's Capital as the text for a reading group.
The papers from Cheo, and Harvie and Philp, might raise some interesting questions for the other three papers, but we leave these for readers.
Ashworth, J. and Evans, L. (2000) 'Economists are Grading Students Away from the Subject', Educational Studies, 26, 475–487.
Bachan, R., and Reilly, B. (2003) 'A Comparison of Academic Performance in A-level Economics Between Two Years', International Review of Economics Education, 2, 8–24.
Bell, J. F., Malacova, E. and Shannon, M. (2005) 'The changing pattern of A Level/AS uptake in England', The Curriculum Journal, 16, 391–400.
Davies, P., Telhaj, S., Hutton, D., Adnett, N. and Coe, R. (forthcoming) 'Cream Skimming and Competition and departmental performance', British Educational Research Journal.
Dolton, P. J. and Vignoles, A. (2002) 'Is a broader curriculum better?' Economics of Education Review, 21, 415–429.
Meyer, J. H. F. and Land, R. (2005) 'Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2) Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning', Higher Education, 49, 373–388.
Nye, B., Konstantopoulos, S. and Hedges, L. V. (2004) 'How large are teacher effects?', Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 26, 237–257.
Salemi, M. (2005) 'Teaching Economics Literacy: Why, What and How', International Review of Economics Education, 4, 46–57.
Tymms, P. (1992) 'The relative effectiveness of post-16 institutions in England (including Assisted Places Scheme schools)', British Educational Research Journal, 18, 175–192.