Grade 9-12

Fiscal Ship Through the Lens of the Elections

Updated: August 15 2019,
Author: Elizabeth Healy

Where does each party stand when it comes to fiscal management?

In this lesson, students will analyze each major political party’s platform to better understand their approaches to the federal budget and national debt.  Students will be challenged to apply this understanding by playing the Fiscal Ship game in the role of one of the major party platforms.  The Fiscal Ship game was created by the Hutchins Center on Fiscal & Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution and the Serious Games initiative at the Woodrow Wilson Center.


In our modern era in which political candidates’ policy views are frequently boiled down to 30-second sound bites, this lesson encourages students to dig deeper by examining actual party platforms and the values and policy positions contained therein.  Specifically, students will study each party’s stated plans for managing the federal budget and national debt.  They will then apply their understanding by playing the Fiscal Shipgame in the role of one party’s platform.  To encourage collaboration and discussion, this lesson incorporates the jigsaw teaching strategy, which asks students to become experts on a specific piece of information (in this case, one specific party platform) and then share their expert knowledge with their classmates.

This lesson is designed to be a follow-up to the “”  Therefore, it assumes that students already have some familiarity with the Fiscal Ship game and key concepts relating to the federal budget and national debt.  If you would like to use this lesson as a standalone lesson, you may want to incorporate some elements of the “” – in particular, the Background Information section (Process #1) and the Demoing the Game section (Process #6).

Learning Objectives

  • Identify similarities and differences between each party’s approach to fiscal management
  • Apply their understanding of one political party’s stated values and policy positions to play the Fiscal Ship game

Resource List

  • Computer or tablet with internet access that’s connected to a projector for the teacher
  • Computer or tablet with internet access for each student
  • PowerPoint presentation (PPT or PDF) for the teacher
  • The Fiscal Ship game:
  • Handout #1: Excerpts from Party Platforms
  • Handout #2: Identifying Governing Goals and Policy Options
  • Handout #3: Playing the Game in the Role of Your Assigned Party
  • Handout #4: Jigsaw Graphic Organizer


Period 1

  1. Introduction (5 minutes, slide #2): Ask students to identify who is running for President of the United States this year. (Students will likely quickly identify the presidential candidates for the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but few may be aware of the third-party candidates. Explain that the United States has a two-party system, but that third parties also exist that put forth their own presidential candidates.) Reveal the candidates for the Democratic Party, Republican Party, Libertarian Party, and Green Party. (Clarify that there are a number of other third parties, some of which are even ballot-qualified in multiple states – e.g., the Constitution Party, the Working Families Party – but that for the purposes of today’s lesson we’re going to be looking at these four since they have the largest reach.) Tell students that in addition to putting forth candidates for political office, political parties set out positions on major issues in what’s called a party platform. Today we’re going to be looking more closely at these party platforms, and in particular, how these platforms articulate each party’s governing goals and approaches to fiscal policy.
  2. Exploring the Four Party Platforms – Think/Pair/Share (20 minutes, slide #3): Distribute Handout #1 to each student. Tell students to silently read the excerpts from each party platform and then to answer the discussion questions. Once students have finished reading and have had sufficient time to jot down their initial thoughts on the questions, pair off students to discuss their responses. Then come back together as an entire class to discuss the three questions:
    • In what ways is there agreement across these different party platforms? (Answers will vary, but reinforce that all of the platforms identify the need to appropriately manage the nation’s debt.)
    • What are the key points of disagreement? (At some point students should identify that their means of managing the nation’s debt differ – i.e., their policy positions are distinctly different. There are also notable differences in degree – i.e., the Democratic platform says not to add to the national debt over time, the Green platform says to reduce the national debt, the Republican platform calls for imposing firm caps on future debt and accelerating repayment, and the Libertarian platform says there should be no debt.)
    • Based on just these brief excerpts, can you identify the parties’ key governing goals? List those that come across clearly for any of the four parties. (A few will likely jump out at students – e.g., Libertarian Party platform as “Fiscal Hawk” and “Shrink Government,” Green Party platform as “Strengthen Social Safety Net.”)
  3. Students Take on their Expert Role for a Specific Party (25 minutes, slide #4): Explain that while these excerpts give you some basic insight into each party’s approach to fiscal management, they are by no means comprehensive representations of where these parties stand on major issues. In order to gain a better understanding of each party’s specific policy positions, you need to look to the actual party platform. Explain that they are going to be doing that – taking a closer look at a specific party platform and becoming “experts” on that party’s governing goals and policies so that they can play the Fiscal Ship game in the role of that specific party and share their “expert” knowledge with their classmates. Distribute Handout #2. Assign each student to one of the four parties. Tell students to note their assigned party in the space provided on their worksheet. Review the directions together. Then allow time for them to begin exploring their party platform and filling out the handout. Circle the room to answer questions and check on their progress.
  4. Housekeeping Note: If students have not completed Handout #2 in the class time provided, tell them to complete it for homework.

Period 2

  1. Review Governing Goals and Policy Options in Expert Groups (15 minutes, slide #6): Tell students to take out Handout #2. Group students in their expert groups according to their assigned party (i.e., put all the students assigned to the Democratic Party Platform in one group, all the students assigned to the Republican Party Platform in another group, etc.). Instruct students to use this time to reach a consensus with their other expert group members on the governing goal(s) and policy options that they intend to use while playing the game. Circle the room to answer questions and check on their progress. While circling, remind students of the challenges while playing the game of meeting their goals and reaching the debt target; check that they have reasonable goals and a sufficient number of policy options.
  2. Play the Game in Their Role (20 minutes, slide #7): Distribute Handout #3 to each student. Review the directions as a group, and then instruct students to begin playing the Fiscal Ship game in their assigned role.
  3. Debrief in Expert Groups (10 minutes, slide #8): Group students again in their expert groups according to their assigned party, and distribute Handout #4 to each student. Let students know that in the next class period they are going to be asked to serve as an expert representative for their group and explain their experience in playing the Fiscal Ship to classmates who had different roles. In preparation for that role, they should use this last opportunity meeting in their expert groups to discuss shared challenges and conclusions and fill out the table for their assigned party.

Period 3

  1. Meet in Teaching Groups (30 minutes, slide #10): Tell students to take out Handout #4. Assign students to “teaching” groups with one member from each expert group. Instruct students to take turns explaining their experience in playing the Fiscal Ship in their assigned role and take notes using the handout while each person presents.
  2. Classroom Discussion (15 minutes, slide #11): Bring the class together for a classroom discussion; a few suggested questions to stimulate a conversation are included below:
    • Now that you’ve heard a little more about each party platform, what similarities do you notice between these party platforms with regard to shared values or policy positions when it comes to fiscal management? What are the main points of disagreement?
    • What challenges did you face when playing the game?
      • Which of your goals were most difficult to achieve while also hitting the debt target?
      • Remember that the Fiscal Ship game defines fiscal sustainability as reducing the debt/GDP ratio from a projected 126% to 75% over the next 25 years. Did any of your party platforms disagree with this basic assumption? In other words, would some argue that this reduction is too drastic or not enough? How did that affect your ability to play the game?
      • Did the party platforms give you enough information to effectively play the game? Were there particular areas that the party platforms failed to address? Why do you think that is?
    • Do you hear a lot of candidates for political office talking about specific policies to generate more government revenue and reduce government expenditures? Why might it be politically difficult to do so?
  3. Housekeeping Note: Collect Handouts #3 and 4.


Summarize key points raised during the classroom discussion.

Extension Activity


Review students’ completed worksheets (Handouts #3 and 4)