Does Early Education Reduce the Achievement Gap?

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List also appeared in our recent podcast "How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten."

The past 60 years in the U.S. has seen dramatic policy changes to the public-education system. The ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s saw desegregation and affirmative action, and since the ‘80s there have been efforts to increase school funding, the introduction of voucher systems, and the creation of countless charter schools. In between we’ve seen efforts to reduce class sizes, introduce technology into classrooms, improve teacher credentialing, and a massive attempt to leave No Child Left Behind. 

What do we have to show for all this? That’s hard to say. Even though many programs have a high price tag, they were never implemented with an eye towards assessment. The data we do have shows that not much has changed over the past 30 years. The figure attached shows how the racial achievement gap in test scores has persisted for white and black Americans since the late 1970s. 

If you don’t like the breakdown by race, then consider that the high school dropout rate among high-income families in 1972 was 2% and in 2008 it was still at 2%. For low-income families, though? In 1972 it was 14% and in 2008 it was still at 9%. This sort of trend (or lack thereof) is manifested in dozens of measures of academic achievement, all of which suggest that the past 60 years of educational reform has very little to show for itself.

How Can We Save Ourselves From Ourselves?

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List also appeared in our recent podcast "How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten."

It’s a late-September afternoon in 2009 and the students of Fenger High School on Chicago’s South Side are crossing a vacant concrete lot. Some live in the Altgeld Greens housing project. Others live in a part of Chicago’s rough Roseland neighborhood (also called “The Ville”).  Some of the students from these areas have developed fierce antipathies toward each other, though the groups are more like cliques than gangs.

As the teenagers cross the lot, a fight breaks out. Someone pulls out a cell phone and starts recording a video of 15 to 20 kids fighting. Around a minute into the video, someone discovers a couple of two-by-fours lying in the empty lot. Eugene Riley, sporting a red motorcycle jacket, takes one of the big pieces of wood from a pal and swings it like a baseball bat into the back of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert’s head.

A Youth Intervention in Chicago That Works

A new NBER working paper (abstract; PDF) by University of Chicago researchers Sara Heller, Harold A. Pollack, Roseanna Ander, and Jens Ludwig analyzes the effects of a Chicago program targeted at "disadvantaged male youth grades 7-10 from high-crime Chicago neighborhoods."  The results of the intervention look promising:

Improving the long-term life outcomes of disadvantaged youth remains a top policy priority in the United States, although identifying successful interventions for adolescents – particularly males – has proven challenging. This paper reports results from a large randomized controlled trial of an intervention for disadvantaged male youth grades 7-10 from high-crime Chicago neighborhoods. The intervention was delivered by two local non-profits and included regular interactions with a pro-social adult, after-school programming, and – perhaps the most novel ingredient – in-school programming designed to reduce common judgment and decision-making problems related to automatic behavior and biased beliefs, or what psychologists call cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). We randomly assigned 2,740 youth to programming or to a control group; about half those offered programming participated, with the average participant attending 13 sessions. Program participation reduced violent-crime arrests during the program year by 8.1 per 100 youth (a 44 percent reduction). It also generated sustained gains in schooling outcomes equal to 0.14 standard deviations during the program year and 0.19 standard deviations during the follow-up year, which we estimate could lead to higher graduation rates of 3-10 percentage points (7-22 percent). Depending on how one monetizes the social costs of crime, the benefit-cost ratio may be as high as 30:1 from reductions in criminal activity alone.

There Used to Be Such a Thing as a Free Lunch

Tyler Cowen writes books more often than some people brush their teeth. He also blogs many times each day, including weekends, and does a variety of other productive, interesting things.

His latest book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, is probably my favorite thing he's written. (It's not out 'til spring; I am lucky enough to have scored an advance copy.) It does such a good job exploring the economics, culture, esthetics, and realities of the food network that I don't even mind the short shrift he gives Japanese cuisine (while being more thorough with Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, Thai, Filipino, and especially Chinese food).

There are a number of mind-blowing ideas and facts in the book, the most interesting of them in a chapter called "How American Food Got Bad."

Why Do Housing Vouchers Lead to Fewer Deaths Among Young Girls, But Not Boys?

A new NBER working paper by Brian Jacob, Jens Ludwig and Douglas Miller examines how improved housing conditions impact child mortality rates in Chicago. The improvement in child mortality seems to apply only to girls, and not boys. The data come from Chicago’s resuscitated housing voucher system, from 1997 through 2005. Here’s the abstract:

The study builds on the findings of the federal government's Moving to Opportunity experiment, which started in the mid-1990s and offered randomly chosen residents of public housing the chance to move to a wealthier neighborhood (poverty below 10%). Among adults, rates of obesity and mental health problems declined, but the effects were mixed on the risky behaviors of kids. Girls did better, while boys did worse.

Will Rahm Emanuel's Merit-pay System Work Where Others Haven't?

Last week, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he's rolling out a merit pay program specifically for school principals, using $5 million in donated funds. The plan is particularly bold considering its announcement comes on the heels of quite a bit of evidence, from research to scandals, showing the faults of merit pay.

In March, we wrote about Harvard economist Roland Fryer's study on New York City's failed merit pay experiment, the Schoolwide Performance Bonus Program, which was shutdown last month. A subsequent RAND report echoes much of Fryer's findings:

...the theory underlying school-based pay-for-performance programs may be flawed. Motivation alone might not be sufficient. Even if the bonus here had inspired teachers to improve, they might have lacked the capacity or resources — such as school leadership, expertise, instructional materials, or time — to bring about improvement.

Levitt Is Apparently Now a "Visionary"

At least in his hometown, where Chicago magazine has named him one of the town's top 40 pioneers from the past 40 years.

Chicago Economists on the Crisis

Earlier this week, Dubner linked to a terrific New Yorker piece by John Cassidy, which explores the state of the "Chicago School." Following up, Cassidy has posted some very revealing interview transcripts. All the interviews are with truly great economists. The very best come across as trying to build insight that is both rigorous, and empirically relevant.

How Hidden Connections Nearly Sank Chicago

One morning in 1992, a Chicago radio reporter looked into the river and, stunned, told listeners he saw "swirling water that looks like a giant drain ... I think someone should wake up the mayor!"

Beyond Belief

I have not seen the film Beyond Belief by Beth Murphy, but I have heard spectacular things about it. The film tells the story of two Sept. 11th widows who are working to help widows in Afghanistan. Here is the trailer. For those of you in Chicago, the local chapter of the United Nations Development […]