Whatever happened to home economics?

When Ted Chastain was in seventh grade in the late 1970s, he was required to take a semester of home economics. The classroom looked like a house: kitchen on one side, living room on the other.

"We spent half of our time sewing and half of our time cooking," he recalls. "We made biscuits, and I made a big New York Yankees baseball pillow that I gave to my mom."

Although he had fun, those are not the skills that the attorney has valued later in life. Mr. Chastain says he wouldn't want his children to take up precious school time baking biscuits.

Many schools have similar priorities, and now have students whipping out calculators instead of whisks. What used to be home economics class goes by titles such as family and consumer science (FCS), team living, work and family studies, or home and career skills.

The assumption now is that even students taking such courses as electives will be entering the workforce after their education. In addition, they will probably be strapped for time and other resources and will have to manage not only their home lives, but their careers.

Home economics dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when food safety was a major health concern and the discipline promoted the safe handling and storage of food. Over the years, home ec shifted toward food preparation.

"They lost the focus of the science," says Mary Ellen Saunders, director of public policy at the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS). "We were graded on whether our biscuits were flaky."

Purists in the field tried to maintain a more academic approach, emphasizing nutrition and expanding to include apparel and textiles, interior design, and some life skills.

Today, the curriculum has changed nearly beyond recognition. Courses often include units on personal finance, career development, and how to be a responsible consumer.

Likewise, the focus on training girls for domestic life has gone by the wayside. The Future Homemakers of America group is now Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America.

"Today we're not emphasizing male or female. We're saying 'This is family and consumer science and something necessary for the function of so- ciety,' " says Sandra Kokinda, who teaches FCS at Leighton High School in Pennsylvania.

At Bell Middle School in Chappaqua, N.Y., the FCS classroom looks traditional, with kitchen and laundry equipment in one room and a bathroom-sink area and sewing machines in an adjoining room.

But instead of recipes on the walls, there are posters promoting self-esteem. On a recent afternoon, sixth-graders took assertiveness training. Presented with uncomfortable social scenarios – your friend tells lies about you or a classmate always borrows money and doesn't return it – the students acted out passive, aggressive, and assertive responses.

Next door, seventh-graders were wrapping up their unit on entrepreneurship. Students had applied for various positions in their own company. Then they made, marketed, and sold strawberries dipped in chocolate.

"[The product] has to be from the bottom of the food pyramid, with only a little from the top. So it teaches nutrition," says Judy Sullivan, one of three FCS teachers at the school. "They can't make brownies."

The class also chose a charity to receive its profits.

Pennsylvania requires students to study FCS, either in a separate class or as units in courses such as social studies.

Sewing is not included in the state's standards for the subject. Instead, the class covers topics such as interior design. "Sewing is taught more as a hobby," Ms. Kokinda says. "When you're working, how much time do you have to sit down and create something?"

At Leighton High, students put together personal portfolios with their résumés, examples of academic work, and reference letters to practice presenting themselves to employers.

Consumer units cover the influence of advertising, how to research purchases, and the process of finding an apartment.

Instead of just learning how to wash clothes, students are taught to pay attention to whether the clothing they are buying requires regular dry cleaning, an expense that can add up quickly.

Taking into account that most people won't spend hours cooking dinner from scratch, courses cover prepared foods and the use of appliances such as microwaves and indoor grills.

Teaching personal finance – budgeting, debt management, and investing – is also becoming standard, especially in high schools.

Yet some students are still stirring cookie batter and stitching pillows – to the detriment of the whole field, some FCS advocates say. With more emphasis on the results of standardized tests, classes won't survive if they don't contribute to core skills.

The federal Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which helps fund many FCS programs, is up for renewal next year, and teachers are trying to keep their classes as contemporary as possible to warrant their survival.

"We reinforce reading, following directions, science skills, mathematical skills," says Ms. Saunders of the AAFCS.

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