How to Fix a Broken High Schooler, in Four Easy Steps: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo:  Community College of Vermont)

(Photo: Community College of Vermont)

Our previous episode — “Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?” — looked at the role of teacher skill in the education equation. But the education equation isn’t so simple — there are a lot of inputs, a lot of variables, a lot of question marks. Our conclusion: sure, it would be great to have a brilliant teacher in every classroom — but that still doesn’t guarantee that every student will be well-educated. Students have to want it; families have to want it. What is a teacher and a school system supposed to do if a lot of its students just don’t really care about school?

That brings us to this week’s episode, “How to Fix a Broken High Schooler, in Four Easy Steps.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

It’s about a program called Pathways to Education, which came out of a community health center in Regent Park,  a housing project in Toronto. You’ll hear from Carolyn Acker, who used to run the center:

ACKER: There were about nine murders in Regent Park in 2000, which was the year before we started Pathways To Education.

More than half the kids from the project dropped out of high school; only 1 in 5 went on to post-secondary schooling. Acker and her colleagues were trying everything they could think of:

ACKER: So, we’re doing all this work, we’re investing more and more dollars. When I went to Regent Park Community Health Center in 1992, the budget was about $2.8 million. By about 1996, ’97, the budget was close to $6 million. Instead of things improving, things were getting worse in terms of crime and murder, violence — this kind of thing. We were very distressed over what was happening to our young people, and we didn’t really understand it. We were doing more and more – always investing more – and we weren’t seeing an improvement.

Out of this desperation, Pathways to Education was born. It wasn’t a schools-based program, but rather a community program designed to keep kids in school and help them succeed. It offered four “pillars” of support: counseling, academic, social, and financial.

The early reports were overwhelmingly positive. An economist at the University of Toronto named Philip Oreopoulos heard about these reports but maintained a healthy skepticism:

Philip OREOPOULOS: Pathways to Education had a pro bono study done in the mid-2000s by a consulting firm. And the director that did the pro bono study was a member of the board of Pathways and came out with a report…

Stephen DUBNER: I can feel your antenna as an empirical economist already going up, right? A nice report done by a consultant … who’s also sitting on the board of the nonprofit that’s running the thing — you might be a little bit skeptical, yes?

OREOPOULOS: Well, what was striking about the report was it suggested that before Pathways, the dropout rate was 56 percent, and very soon after Pathways was introduced, the dropout rate was 10 percent. So you had a 46 percentage point fall in the dropout rate, and the report was attributing it to the introduction of Pathways. And this type and magnitude of effect is virtually unheard of in the education literature. It’s like the holy grail of programs that try to improve outcomes especially among disadvantaged households. And if these results were true, we should try to figure out exactly how to replicate them across the country and in the U.S. because they’re so large it would solve a lot of our problems.

In the podcast, we’ll find out if those results were true. And if so, how it happened — how much it costs, what it entails, and how replicable it may be. And, most important, what all this means for the rest of us — for every student, parent, or educator who’s looking for a way to improve the educational system.

If you want a sneak peak at Oreopoulos’s research results, you can check out the paper he co-authored, “Pathways to Education: An Integrated Approach to Helping At-Risk High School Students.” He is also an advocate of applying the insights of behavioral economics to education more generally, which you can read about here.