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Summer program at SIEPR invigorates teachers

Teaching economics to high school students can be daunting, but SIEPR helps teachers embrace the challenge with a fresh approach and new resources.

It’s a sunny 88 degrees outside, and Dawna Linsdell, a high school economics teacher on her summer break, is in a large conference room at Stanford with about 50 colleagues, immersed in an array of economics.

SIEPR’s Gavin Wright, center, speaks with high school teachers during this year's summer institute. Wright helped launch the program in 1987.
SIEPR’s Gavin Wright, center, speaks with high school teachers during this year's summer institute. Wright helped launch the program in 1987.


An analysis of the rise of Netflix. A deep dive into the global economic outlook. A briefing on how Econ 1 is taught at Stanford, which recently included not only basic economic principles, but also a case study on how the pricing algorithms of Uber’s ride-hailing service performed after a sold-out concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

Linsdell and her fellow educators are at the Summer Economic Institute for Teachers, a five-day program hosted annually by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. The summer institute is a one-of-a-kind educational retreat for high school economics teachers.

“I come because I get inspired, and it’s worthwhile,” Linsdell says on the second day of the program. It’s her fourth time attending.

Two weeks later, during the first week of school, Linsdell shares with her students at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, an analysis of the American electorate – information she had gleaned from a political economy professor’s presentation at the summer institute.

On the first day of school at Seabury Hall High in Hawaii, Casey Asato similarly pulls out some material he received at the summer institute to show his students. It’s what he calls “user-friendly” data charts, on topics ranging from student loan defaults to salary comparisons of the Women’s National Basketball Association to other professional sports.

“The institute helps us stay current and relevant,” Linsdell explains. “How lucky are we that they are willing to share their knowledge with us?”

SIEPR launched its Summer Economic Institute for Teachers in 1987, after California added economics as a mandated high school course. The program’s founders decided they wanted to assist teachers who were suddenly thrust into teaching economics – even if some of them weren’t trained in the subject.

The objective, as it has been from the outset, is to not be a course about teaching economic fundamentals, says John Shoven, the Charles R. Schwab Professor of Economics and former director of SIEPR. Shoven co-founded the summer institute along with Gavin Wright, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History, Emeritus; and Don Hill, former director of the Professional Development Center at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

“We decided we didn’t want to provide remedial courses because other places could do that,” Wright says.

Instead, the aim of the summer institute is to highlight timely topics and the latest economics research, giving teachers the opportunity to interact with leading experts, get fresh material and see different teaching approaches.

“Indirectly, we hope we’re reaching a lot of high school students and getting them excited about working in economics,” Shoven says. “And the main goal there is to make people’s lives better.”

Winston Chen, a member of SIEPR’s advisory board and a longtime supporter of the summer institute, said schools aren’t putting enough resources into teaching high school economics.

“Economics is so crucial for our democracy,” says Chen, who sat in on some of this year’s sessions. “SIEPR is offering teachers a first-class update on the subject, and that encouragement is very important to teachers.”

Wayne Phillips, a teacher at Mills High School in nearby Millbrae remembers getting assigned to teaching economics during California’s first year of a required economics course. His background was in political science, and at some level, he was fortunate – compared to other teachers in his situation – to have minored in economics. He was reluctant about the job assignment, since he wasn’t trained to teach it, but “they said, ‘yes, you can teach it.’”

Phillips attended the inaugural Summer Economic Institute for Teachers and has returned every year since.

“The more teachers have in background, the more creative they can be in the classroom,” he says. “And the programs here show that you can relate economics to anything.”

At the 29th annual summer institute in late July, teachers found themselves in the same room with business strategy experts, and sitting at a lunch table or discussion group with scholars who have shaped public policy or were economic advisors for the federal government. They heard firsthand accounts of new research on issues such as free trade, immigration and health care.

In addition to featured presentations, the agenda included small group discussions for teachers to trade ideas and talk about current affairs.

“It was informative, enlightening and exciting – all of the above,” Asato says after returning to Hawaii and starting the new school year.

Teachers praise the institute’s congenial atmosphere, despite the caliber of experts in their midst. They feel pampered and deeply appreciated – something they don’t usually receive at professional development programs.

“It’s amazing. There isn’t an economic professional development course like this in our area,” says Kieran Sweeney, an AP economics teacher from McLean, Va., who attended her first summer session this year.

The Summer Economic Institute, initially funded by a grant, has become a main annual event at SIEPR. The program has typically hosted about 40 teachers from throughout California, with the largest contingent coming from the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area.

In 2016, SIEPR expanded its scholarship program, supporting teachers from farther destinations. The financial support for lodging and travel made participation possible for teachers, like Sweeney and Asato, as well as others from Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin.

To cast a wider but targeted reach, Mark Duggan, the Trione Director of SIEPR and Wayne and Jodi Cooperman Professor of Economics, asked his students for nominations of their former teachers.

Nationwide, 20 states make economics a high school requirement, according to the Council for Economic Education.

“This is the highlight of my summer,” says Shondale Pagano-Galindo, who traveled from the Middle East – the longest distance among her peers to attend the 2016 summer institute. Pagano-Galindo teaches high school economics in Qatar. She also attended the summer institute several times when she was a teacher in Southern California.

Pagano-Galindo and her colleagues at the summer institute say high schoolers often think the study of economics centers mainly around financial structures, wealth and poverty. Some think of it only as a launch pad to business and investment, to making money.

Yet economics is so much more, the teachers say, echoing what Stanford scholars and business leaders illustrated at the summer institute, and what the teachers hope to instill in high school students.

An economic lens can reveal the underlying factors behind a problem. Economic modeling can show whether something is effective or not. Or, it can predict outcomes.

Even if their students don’t ultimately pursue careers in economics, teachers say an introduction to the subject matter still trains students in critical thinking and analyzing issues that aren’t cut-and-dried.

“We are planting a seed,” Linsdell says. “Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to issues, students can look at the pros and cons. There are trade-offs, and kids need to hear that.”

The summer institute helps affirm their work in the classroom, teachers say.

“The consistent thing I get is information that connects with my students and examples I can bring into the classroom,” says Carlo Corti, who started teaching economics 16 years ago at Aragon High School in San Mateo, about a half hour away from Stanford’s campus. He’s attended the summer institute a dozen times.

The program is a way for SIEPR to share its intellectual resources, but it also benefits Stanford professors, says Ran Abramitzky, a senior fellow at SIEPR, associate professor of economics and one of the organizers of the summer institute. “It connects us to what teachers are teaching and improves our research,” he says. “When they come back, they tell me what was helpful to them.”

“It’s an incredible opportunity for everybody.”

Though the summer institute is not designed as a professional development course, teachers say it serves that purpose in effect.

And nearly three decades after helping start the program, Hill considers the summer institute to also be a gesture of “professional appreciation” to high school teachers passionate about their work.

“We’re saying to them, ‘Look, you guys work hard and we think you deserve this,’” Hill says. “And giving up a whole week of your summer vacation shows a lot of commitment.”

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