Teachers, we want to hear from you! Send us your blog posts, no longer than 600 words, on informative seminars, classroom struggles and successes, policy protests – anything about which you want your business education voice to be heard. Chances are, we’ll post them here along with blogs from other teachers across the globe. We need your ideas and insights to add to our ongoing discussion of high school business education.

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Are We Teaching Our Students ‘Why Do More When Less Will Do?’

As teachers, we all have to live with rules that we don’t completely agree with. If it were up to me, students would not be allowed to wear pajamas to school, but no one asked my opinion. The school statute that has me scratching my head is what I will call the “60 Rule.” Teachers at my school are not allowed to give a student a grade lower than a 60 for any quarter regardless of the grade they earn. If a student earns a 15, a 6 or a 34 (all real examples for me this quarter), I have to put a 60 in the grade column. I am okay with this policy in quarters one and two — often students realize that they have made some poor choices and can turn around their performances in the second half of the year. But in the third and especially the fourth quarters, I have trouble with this rule.

Here is the problem. If a student earns an 85 in quarter one and an 84 in quarter two and gets an 80 on the midterm, then he is set for the rest of the year. A 70 is passing in my school and if we average the first semester’s 83 with second semester’s mandatory 60, the student passes the year – even if he or she does nothing for the second semester. Doesn’t seem right, does it? While he only did half the work, he is getting credit for the whole year.

My principal will argue that to give less than a 60 is disproportionately punishing students. A 60 is a failing grade. Putting a zero in the grade book is like giving the student a negative 60 – less than zero. He continues to argue that we should not stop a student from passing a class because he or she did not do one large, significant project (my required business plan, for example, which is the culminating activity for the year and due in quarter four). Is this a hill to die on? If they did three-quarters of the work and did it proficiently, why shouldn’t they pass the class?

What I tell my principal is that as a business teacher, I teach more than supply and demand and marketing. I teach responsibility, employability skills, employer expectations, work ethic and leadership. Somehow, with this “60 Rule,” I feel like I am losing something significant, like the lesson being taught is that three-quarters is good enough – why do more when less will do? I have a reputation as a demanding teacher, however; I have worked for some very demanding employers who make me look like a cream puff. Three quarters was never good enough. As a manager in the hospitality industry, I have fired people for much less. One “no call, no show” and you were history in my restaurant. I did not care if the employee showed up the other three quarters of the time. I needed him all the time.

So what are the lessons we teach? Does it all come from the state or national standards? Or is there something more? As I go into the late summer and fall, my school is putting together a grading committee to look at the issue from all sides. I look forward to participating in the discussion and putting in my two cents from the business department.

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Responding to the Financial Crisis with Lessons in M&A

I’m a Teach for America alumna teaching high school business, economics and government to disadvantaged 12th graders at Martin Luther King Jr. High School of Arts and Technology in Manhattan. During the 2010-2011 school year, I decided to facilitate my students’ understanding of the business world by having them run a boutique mergers and acquisitions advisory firm (see the Knowledge@Wharton High School article at http://kwhs.wharton.upenn.edu/2011/05/big-scale-buying-and-selling-dealing-in-mergers-acquisitions/). While not everyone believed in my students’ skills – including Virtual Enterprises, the business education program that helped us set up the virtual company – our first year exploring M&A was a success. Here is what I have learned from my experience teaching business to students:

  1. Students want to understand the world around them. My students are eager to understand the world’s business news. It is fascinating to them because it is shaping the world they live in. One of my students said it best – “to understand the business world is to understand your life.” I believe it also empowers you. The 2008 financial crisis scared me. I wanted to prevent something like that from ever happening again and realized that the best way to do so is to make sure that today’s students understand how the business and financial world work. To develop better-educated students, especially with regard to financial decision-making, is to help our country remain competitive with other leading nations.
  2. Your students are smarter than you think. And so are you. I’ve always believed that humans can understand anything as long as they have an open mind and are taught well. Textbooks, diagrams, lectures, hands-on activities — there are so many different ways to teach business concepts in fun, engaging ways. Don’t let a difficult concept prevent you from empowering your students. So many resources are available for new and veteran teachers alike — online, in print and through various educational organizations.
  3. People are willing to help — you just need to ask for it. I’ve been fortunate enough to welcome everyone from CEOs to entry-level analysts to my classroom. Of course, I have reached out to people that do not respond positively or who don’t follow through. It’s frustrating, but in the end it just motivates me to find someone who is a better fit. I reached out to a renowned M&A expert and business school dean – Robert F. Bruner of the Darden School of Business — precisely because an organization had told my students (to their faces) that they weren’t capable of understanding M&As. I knew I had to pove them wrong. In the process, I have discovered that if you are passionate about your mission and reach out to like-minded people, they will jump at the opportunity to help.
  4. Have a mission and stick to it. My personal teaching mission is to empower my students with skills that enable them to better understand the world around them and that help them make better decisions throughout their lifetime. Having a clear mission enables you to best develop lesson plans that help you to reach your goals for your students. Maybe it’s a lesson about how to value a company, understand the history of securities law or create a personal budget. Never give up on anything because it doesn’t immediately click with your students.
  5. Be flexible. Trust your gut. When something isn’t working, find the root of the problem and address it. Did you not explain the material clearly? Stop and re-teach. Were you not engaging enough? Create a project that is more interactive. Did you not know an answer to a student’s question? Find out the answer. You never fail if you are always working on solving problems that come up. Be proactive and everything will fall into place.
  6. Get excited. Between lesson planning, grading, reflecting and fixing, teachers have a busy schedule. Working in school until 8 p.m. is much more fun when you are passionate about the material. Your students will also respond to your genuine enthusiasm. That brings me to my last point:
  7. Have fun. I like to think of myself as an entrepreneurial teacher. I “pitch” my lessons to my students and my curriculum is essentially my business plan. So many things are happening in the business world on a daily basis that make it easy to come up with new, exciting lessons! Specify what concepts and standards you need to address and look for real examples in the business world — not only will this keep your students current, it will also bring your class to life! Grading is much more fun when it involves reading over your students’ case study reflections, delighting in their scavenger hunt answers and watching their multimedia presentations.

Christina Feng, 25, was born and raised in New York City and attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine. After graduation, Christina joined Teach for America, and has been teaching for the past three years. Eventually, she’d like to start her own high school where students will be exposed to high-level electives in finance, law, medicine, journalism, computer science, engineering, and more. She welcomes questions and/or comments at cwfengnyc@gmail.com.


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Green Schools

As news continues to pour in concerning the dour state of our nation’s economy, America’s schools represent an incredible opportunity to transform the decades-old discussion on fostering prosperity in our country.

For a certain period of time after World War II, schools were viewed as a major vehicle for social change. While many rightly believe that education still leads to progress in America, there is also a growing concern over the current state of America’s schools:  Consider the following facts:

  • 60% of U.S. schools have major building features in disrepair.
  • 33% of America’s schools have buildings in need of extensive repair or replacement.
  • 43% of schools have unsatisfactory indoor environmental conditions.
  • 20% of schools have unsatisfactory indoor air quality.
  • $322 billion is needed to modernize America’s schools.

With 20% of the U.S. population spending five days a week in a school, one has to wonder how we can continue to teach our students in such dilapidated educational settings. Teachers, along with the entire school community, have the unique opportunity to define the next generation’s skills and knowledge in a 21st century economy. At the same time, prosperity in a 21st century world will more and more involve the intersection of the environment and the economy. Schools have a critical role to play in developing this opportunity, and there is already a movement of students, teachers, administrators and organizations working in this direction.

These efforts – often called “green” or “healthy” school initiatives – improve the viability of school buildings that result in increased teacher retention, decreased asthma incidences and significantly lower carbon footprints. As budget crunches hit schools and districts across the nation, encouraging such entities to take a comprehensive approach to becoming a green school can help cut expenses through energy efficiency and other green building measures. For instance, a certified green school (according to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Silver standard) costs less than 2% more than conventional schools– or about $3 per square foot — but provides financial benefits that are 20 times as large. In addition, these schools can save, on average, $100,000 annually — enough to hire two new teachers, buy 250 new computers or purchase 5,000 new textbooks.

For every school, no matter what its size, geography or demographics, there are many opportunities to help reduce energy. A first step is always to perform an energy audit. With permission, encourage students to perform the audit and analyze the findings. (Use the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Audit). Energy audits are a meaningful and significant way to discover the best ways to improve the overall energy efficiency of the school. Typically, these efforts account for a significant reduction in annual operating costs. For instance, schools could save approximately $1.5 billion dollars per year. That amount of money can be translated into about $30 for every student, 40 million new textbooks or 30,000 new teachers.

A simple way to get started is to make small changes to building operations: Use light dimmers, smart strips or hold “Power Down Fridays.” To go even further, switching out old lightbulbs for energy-efficient CFL lightbulbs is a great way to save money. In the end, the large-scale potential for savings exists in the switch to renewable energy. Wind, geothermal and solar energy are all viable options for schools that can save enormous amounts of energy, lower monetary costs and reduce pollution.

Sustainable school improvements can easily be translated into the classroom as dynamic teaching tools that engage students, reward multiple learning experiences and build the foundation for a new green economy. These tangible efforts can be interdisciplinary models to educate students about 21st century innovation in the classroom. By grounding lessons in green school improvements, teachers can strengthen and even build the connections between the environment and the economy that will foster the skills and knowledge necessary for our future leaders — the students of today — to thrive in the 21st century world.

Sean S. Miller is the Education Director at Earth Day Network. Co-blogger Maggie Ollove is the Education Associate at Earth Day Network.


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The DECA ICDC 2011: A Teacher’s Perspective

I have just returned home, exhausted and sleep deprived, from the DECA ICDC, the International Career and Development Conference, which this year was held in Orlando, Florida. DECA, formerly the Distributive Education Clubs of America, is an association of students and teachers that prepares emerging leaders and entrepreneurs in marketing, finance, hospitality and management. Through the years, DECA has rebranded itself multiple times to stay relevant and exciting to students. This year was no exception as it continues to make business education cool.

If I have heard it once, I have heard it 20 times – “I wish I had joined DECA sooner. This is so much fun!” Yes, business education is fun, because students don’t just sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher talk about it; they live it. For example, my students participated in the Individual Series Events – one in Apparel and Accessories Marketing, one in Food Marketing and two in Accounting Applications. These students took a 100-question test either in marketing or financial services, and then completed two role-plays where they were given real life scenarios to read and respond to with only 10 minutes of prep time. One scenario in Apparel and Accessories asked the student whether an upscale clothing store that caters to young, thin customers should try to reach a heavier audience in an attempt to draw in a larger target market. Since this student works at a store like that, she was able to apply knowledge acquired at her job, along with her opinion and her marketing and business education to craft an answer for the judge. It’s exciting, it’s fun and it’s challenging.

The experience teaches them a number of lessons.

1.    Competition is fun. Students should understand that if they are going to be entrepreneurs or are simply going into business that it can be exciting and fun! Some of my students are athletes, but most are not, and for them this is the first time they have experienced gut wrenching, nerve -wracking competition. Some 99% of them come away thinking it was a great time and can hardly wait to do it again.

2.    People from California are a lot like people from Pennsylvania. The students stay in hotels with competitors from several other states.  I had a student once who had never gone farther than 50 miles from our hometown in Pennsylvania. The ICDC was in Nashville, Tenn. that year and we stayed in the same hotel as the California team. He was blown away that the California students were really nice, really fun and a lot like him.

3.    You have to work really hard to be the best. About 15,000 DECA members were in Orlando last week. About 200 students competed in each event. Only the top 20 advanced to the finals, only the top 10 made it “on stage” at closing ceremonies and only three were recognized with a trophy. But for every student (and advisor), the goal is “the stage”. In my 11 years as a DECA advisor from a small chapter, I have had two students make it to the top 10. Those were some of the proudest moments of my career, and the students tell me it was one of the highlights of their high school careers.

4.    Even if you don’t win, you can still learn a lot and have a great time. Although it is really, really fun to win, this year my students did not make the top 20. However, after listening to the answers they gave for their role-plays, I know that they did a great job. Maybe another student was a little more creative or had better presentation skills, but my students loved the experience and are better for it.

5.    If you don’t succeed at first, try again or try something different. DECA offers so many different ways to compete. While my students participated in individual events, the team events are similar but with two students working together. The written projects require students to write 15- to 30-page business plans or promotional plans and present them to a judge. One of my students who qualified for the ICDC was in a team event for two years before he broke off on his own and qualified in accounting. It is important to find the right fit, and it may not be with the first competitive area you choose.

I could go on about other ways DECA makes business education cool, but you get the point. We live in an age where many people think we need to entertain students to keep them interested in our lessons. I disagree. We just need to make it cool.

It is moments like this that help me step back from the negative press about student behavior, declining test scores and the general demise of the next generation. DECA is just one example of all the positive aspects our students have to offer. My chapter is already planning for next year’s ICDC in Salt Lake City. I am not sure who had more fun and appreciated the week the most — my students or me.


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Business Education Is Vital

The financial crisis has revealed one critical truth: Too many people don’t understand how the economy works or how to make smart decisions about money — for themselves and others. They quickly fall prey to alluring credit card come-ons; they don’t understand what it really takes to start a business or expand an existing one; they haven’t yet realized that business affects just about anything they want to do in life, from becoming a fashion designer, sports agent or video game developer to simply becoming an informed consumer.

The time to begin learning about business is high school when many students are taking out car loans, working after school to buy an iPad or trying to save enough money to pay for that first year of college. Many teens today are already as into entrepreneurship as they are texting. Take, for instance, Lauren Ball and Sawyer Epp, both 17-year-old high school students from Escondido, Calif., who have turned their collective sweet tooth into City Cupcakes, a booming cupcake bakery. High school is also a time to explore career paths. Holli Gay, a junior at Union City High School in Michigan, has been studying the green economy. “I was really inspired by our visit to an energy wind farm,” she says. “My dream is to someday design wind turbines.”

And yet business education in some states, including my own (Pennsylvania) is under attack. It is ironic that just as the state legislature here has passed a bill saying that the department of education must finally write curriculum for business education — standardizing programs and providing equal footing with other courses — many school districts are thinking of cutting business entirely. As I speak with business teachers from across the state, I hear the same story: “Our school is reducing all elective departments,” or “The pressure on districts to reach AYP [adequate yearly progress] in PSSA testing (and the upcoming Keystone exams) is giving students less time for electives.”

A headline in today’s local newspaper, “Down Home Ideas For Making the Economy Move,” causes me to wonder how we develop any “down home” ideas for the economy if the “down home” public has no fundamental background in business or economics. How are we preparing tomorrow’s voters and leaders to make choices about the impact of markets, globalization, tax policy and deficits if they are not given the tools to understand these concepts?

We must make our classes attractive to students. We must convince school districts that business education is vital. How do we do that? Is it by lowering the bar and making our classes easy to pass? That’s not the answer. It is imperative that we, as business education teachers, create curricula that are relevant, interesting and practical in our quest to educate our students. We must create the demand — you have a lesson plan on that, right? — which, of course, means meeting the needs of the customer and providing the right product.

This website, Knowledge@Wharton High School, is not going to have all the answers, but it understands the need. I know that I get my best ideas from other teachers. We are our own greatest asset. As such, KWHS is a tool for you to strengthen your business program and provide students with the education they need to be successful adults. So give us your thoughts. Send us your lesson plans that you think really work. Give us your feedback on how you are making your classroom effective in this era of video games, Facebook, Twitter and texting. Tell us what conference you attended that was really worth the time. Remember this site is about you. Help us make it work for you and for all the students who want to become enlightened adults, forward thinking entrepreneurs, marketable employees and outstanding individuals.

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The Broader Impact of Teen Joblessness

With unemployment hovering at an unacceptably high level, many Americans are on the proverbial bread line hoping to make ends meet; some families are even struggling to put food on the table. Not to diminish those needs, another problem bubbles just below the surface: joblessness among adolescents.

While young workers generally do not rely on their jobs to feed anyone but themselves, many need that money to afford the most coveted purchase of adolescence: a car. Car insurance, fuel prices and maintenance costs are equal-opportunity detriments, and teen drivers often need a car to get to work, which requires them to work in order to afford a car. That vicious cycle plays itself out in many neighborhoods across America and is now more apparent than ever before. Some young workers are fortunate enough to be “on” their parents’ insurance, but with belt-tightening occurring across the board, that added cost can often be on the chopping block.

It seems some of hardest hit students are those who work in supermarkets. As more and more middle-aged workers are seeking employment of any kind, one of the places hiring is the supermarket. One student, John, who is planning to become a social studies teacher, sums up his experience being an employee of a nationally branded supermarket as disastrous. “I’m trying to get more hours,” he says, “but my manager keeps telling me the older worker needs the hours more than I do.”

John’s frustration is not uncommon and is made particularly acute because he will be putting himself through school and actually does need the money. Another student, Stephanie, finds a similar situation at the local craft store. “Retired women who need a job because their Social Security check doesn’t cut it figure they might as well work here,” she says. She too is going to have to pay her own way through university. Still another student, Eric, is wiser than he realizes: “He’s [the full-time employee] going to take that money and try to save a lot of it. I’m just trying to buy stuff.” In this anemic economy, consumer spending – especially among avid teen shoppers — is one way to kick-start a much-needed recovery.

Many will dismiss the issue of jobless teens as a mere complaint of the younger generation, but its broader economic impact is felt everywhere. For every teen who has his hours cut, that is less tax revenue for an already strapped system. Every teen who laments a smaller paycheck will have fewer dollars to pump back into the local economy. Many economists believe that the most effective way to have an impact is to spend money in those service industries that use nondurable goods, like restaurants and snack shops — the exact places frequented most commonly by teen consumers.

Unemployment is a stain on any economy, and as important as it is to address overall worker unemployment, special attention should also be paid to the younger adolescent worker. Valuable job experience now will help teens strengthen their workplace skills – everything from getting to work on time to communicating effectively — and become better and more productive employees as they finish school and launch their careers.

We, as teachers, must acknowledge that the old economic models taught in our textbooks are not always relevant in today’s economic climate; rather, we must help students brace for a new kind of economy and learn to be flexible with job opportunities by educating them on how to be more marketable to employers. One of the ways to do that is to stress the importance of attitude. Another way is to guide them to those “adolescent-friendly” jobs that may not rely on middle-aged workers as much, such as stores that cater to younger consumers. Adopting a positive attitude and demonstrating a willingness to be part of a brand may be enough for many teens to secure a position at the local Hollister or Zumiez.

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