The Democracy Project

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I.O.U.—An Introduction To The National Debt

Subjects: Math/Social Studies

Estimated Time of Completion: four to six fifty minute class periods

  1. I. Summary
  2. II. Objectives
  3. III. Materials Needed
  4. IV. Procedure
  5. V. Classroom Assessment
  6. VI. Extensions and Adaptations
  7. VII. Relevant Standards

I. Summary

Students will be exposed to the causes, the consequences, the amount and the history of the national debt. After research and discussion, students will pose their own solutions for overcoming the debt. The teacher may wish to use this lesson to build and expand upon skills learned in "Budget Making."

II. Objectives

  • Students will be knowledgeable about the national debt.
  • Students will practice choosing national priorities and deciding how to spend money wisely
  • Students will identify major services provided by the federal government
  • Students will understand income and expenses on a government level
  • Students will create both bar graphs and pie graphs and use these to draw conclusions and make comparisons of figures

III. Materials Needed

  • "Bills" in envelopes about the national debt
  • To do research and create graphs: Computers with Internet access, spreadsheet software program with graphing capabilities
  • Optional: classroom projection device

IV. Procedure

  1. Ask students if their parents have to pay bills. If so, what type of bills? Which ones do they think are the biggest bills?
  2. Create a letter to resemble a bill informing students that they owe $5,648,664,472,241.46 [whatever the current national debt is]. Teachers may visit the U.S. National Debt Clock for the current figures. This site also shows each citizen's share of the national debt. Run off one copy of the letter for each student. Seal the letters in envelopes and distribute them to the students in class. Challenge the students to think about why they owe this staggering amount of money. Inquire as to how this debt happened and what they can do to repay it.
  3. Explain to students that the national debt exists because the government's expenses often exceed its income from taxes. The government then borrows money from citizens, businesses and other countries.
  4. Present budgets as plans for wise spending. Examples of government spending include education, military protection, health care, national parks, etc.
  5. Using a classroom projection device to share the computer screen or using an overhead, show students graphs of government spending. "Where Does Your Money Goes?" has an interesting interactive budget game; the U.S. government Web site A Citizen's Guide to the Federal Budget" might also be helpful.
  6. (If students have not, in a previous lesson, visited the online activity "How Does Government Affect Me?" they should do so now, to learn more about the services government provides.
  7. Explanations and discussions of the government budget will allow students to understand that there is never enough tax money to pay for everything citizens want. One important task facing the president is to create a budget for the government. The president with his helpers decide how much money they have and how they will spend it. (To learn more about this, and the president's other duties, please visit "President For A Day" on this site.)
  8. Visit the UC Berkeley National Budget Simulation to manipulate percentages of the federal budget.
  9. Have students evaluate each other's redesigned federal budgets. What groups of people or government services would be affected? Is it better to cut government spending? Increase taxes? Both? Neither? Hold a class discussion.

IV. Classroom Assessment

  • Excellent:

    The student has enthusiastically participated in all activities and added constructive ideas and suggestions to the discussions. The student also visited the appropriate Web sites and has participated in the activities located on the PBS Web site. He or she constructed very neat and well-organized pie and bar graphs. The student's written paragraph demonstrated a very good understanding of the national budget.
  • Good:

    Students have participated in all activities. They have added ideas and/or suggestions to the discussions. Students visited the appropriate Web sites, researched taxes and services with appropriate Web sites, and participated in the activities located on the PBS web site. Students constructed acceptable pie and line graphs. The student's written paragraph demonstrated a solid understanding of the national budget.
  • Fair:

    The student participated in most activities and discussions. The student visited the appropriate Web sites, but did not gather detailed information or much supporting detail. He or she participated in the research and in the activities located on the PBS Web site. The student constructed pie and line graphs and wrote a paragraph demonstrating at least some understanding of the relationship between services and taxes. The student may have required a great deal of help, may have shown much frustration with the tasks, was very slow to complete tasks, or failed to complete an assignment.
  • Poor:

    The student participated in few or none of the classroom activities and discussions. He or she visited some Web sites, did little research, and developed little or no written assignments and/or graphs.

V. Extensions and Adaptations

  • Students will agree as a group on the number one priority to correcting the national budget and the class will send an email to the president or to local congressional leaders expressing their opinions. A student-graphed proposal for their national budget could be attached.
  • Students could create a survey asking community members about their strongest federal budget priorities; compare the results to the opinions of class members.

VII. Relevant National Standards

These are established by McREL:

Language Arts

  • Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies of the writing process
  • Gathers and uses information for research purposes
  • Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies of the reading process
  • Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies for reading a variety of informational texts
  • Demonstrates competence in speaking and listening as tools for learning


  • Knows the characteristics and uses of computer software programs including the Internet


  • Understands that data represent specific pieces of information about real-world objects or activities
  • Organizes and displays data in simple bar graphs, pie charts and line graphs
  • Understands that data come in many different forms and that collecting, organizing and displaying data can be done in many ways
  • Solves real-world problems involving number operations (e.g., computations with dollars and cents)

Social Studies

  • Understands ideas about civic life, politics and government
  • Understands the sources, purposes, and functions of law, and the importance of the rule of law for the protection of individual rights and the common good
  • Knows the major things government do in one's school, community, state and nation (e.g., make, carry out and enforce laws; manage conflicts; provide national security)
  • Knows how to distinguish among national, state and local governments
  • Knows major services provided by national, state and local governments (e.g., state services such as education and health services and local services such as transportation, education, recreation, public safety, public utilities), and knows how these services are paid for(e.g., taxes, fees, licenses)
  • Understands that savings is the part of income not spent on taxes or consumption