Archives for Education



Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest podcast is called “Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?” (You can subscribe at iTunes, 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.) We produced the episode in response to a question from a listener named Doug Ahmann, who wrote in to say:   

I’m very curious how it came to be that teaching students a foreign language has reached the status it has in the U.S. … My oldest daughter is a college freshman, and not only have I paid for her to study Spanish for the last four or more years — they even do it in grade school now! — but her college is requiring her to study EVEN MORE! 

What on earth is going on? How did it ever get this far?

In a day and age where schools at every level are complaining about limited resources, why on earth do we continue to force these kids to study a foreign language that few will ever use, and virtually all do not retain?

Or to put it in economics terms, where is the ROI? 

Great question, Doug! We do our best to provide some answers. Read More »



Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest podcast is called “Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player in the post. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) Once again, Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt take questions from you, our readers and listeners. 

In this installment, Joseph Fogan wants to know about the hidden costs of the war on drugs. The latest Gallup poll shows that 58 percent of Americans favor marijuana legalization (compared to just 12 percent in 1969). Are we really ready to legalize drugs in more than just a few states? And if the answer is yes, what will police do all day? Read More »



Preschool for Everyone?

Earlier this year, President Obama announced a plan to provide public pre-K education to low- and middle-income children, a proposal that has provoked debate about the actual demonstrated benefits of early education.  As Freakonomics guest contributors John List and Uri Gneezy wrote here a few months ago, there’s a frustrating lack of information on how effective these kinds of programs are — although List and Gneezy are trying to rectify that gap with their Chicago Heights research project.

A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Elizabeth U. Cascio and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach attempts to shed some light on the question by analyzing the effects of universal public preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, two states that have already implemented such programs.  Their findings are interesting: the programs seem to improve some outcomes for lower-income kids, but also result in higher-income families shifting kids from private to public preschool.  Here’s the abstract: Read More »



U.S. Math Education Still in the Doldrums

Every three years, the OECD, in the PISA assessment, studies 15-year-olds around the world to measure performance in reading, mathematics, and science. The results of the 2012 PISA assessment, which had a particular focus on mathematics, just came out and the United States does not fare well: “Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 26th.” I worry not so much about the rank, but about the low absolute level of proficiency to get this rank.

The U.S. students’ particular strengths and weaknesses are even more distressing:

Students in the United States have particular strengths in cognitively less-demanding mathematical skills and abilities, such as extracting single values from diagrams or handling well-structured formulae. They have particular weaknesses in items with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.

Read More »



Teach to One’s First Report Card

One of our first Freakonomics Radio podcasts was about an innovative New York City Department of Education pilot program called School of One. You can listen to the podcast here, but here’s the gist: “The School of One tries to take advantage of technology to essentially customize education for every kid in every classroom and help teachers do their job more effectively. “

School of One’s successor, Teach to One, just got its first-year report card from a Teachers College study. The program is thriving; some highlights of the study, from the press release

• Teach to One students started the 2012-13 academic year significantly below national averages

• The average gains of Teach to One students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades surpassed those made by students nationally by ~20%. The researchers said this is particularly noteworthy since participating schools would likely not have scored at the national average without Teach to One.  

• The average gains of Teach to One students in most demographic sub-groups outperformed national norms

• Teach to One students who started with the weakest mathematics skills made the greatest gains—50 percent higher than the national average.



Product Placement at Universities

Public higher education in the U.S. is not in good shape—and the main reason is lack of funds.  States will not increase their funding, and often they severely limit tuition increases.  My university appears to have hit upon a solution:  product placement and direct advertising.  The new computer building, the Gates Building, is part of the Dell Computer  Science Center, and has a Dell logo and signs for eBay and PayPal in front of the building.

But why stop here?  Five hundred students stare at me for 1-1/4 hours 28 times each fall semester.  The university could ask me to advertise—wear a cap, or a t-shirt, just like a tennis star—showing the product of whichever companies bid the most for the rights to advertise on my apparel during class.  While I would probably insist on some of the royalties, the bilateral monopoly between the university and me would surely raise funds for the university.  With enough professors required to do this, public universities could alleviate some of their financial problems. No doubt readers have similar clever ideas for product placement that would help fund public universities, albeit at some cost in dignity.



In Praise of Smaller Schools

We are in the midst of a nationwide search for a single magic bullet in education. But the more evidence that is gathered, the more obvious it becomes that no such single magic bullet exists.

That said, a new study (abstract; PDF) on school size — not class size, but school size — is worth a look. Here’s the abstract; I have bolded the most relevant conclusions:

One of the most wide-ranging reforms in public education in the last decade has been the reorganization of large comprehensive high schools into small schools with roughly 100 students per grade.  We use assignment lotteries embedded in New York City’s high school match to estimate the effects of attendance at a new small high school on student achievement. More than 150 unselective small high schools created between 2002 and 2008 have enhanced autonomy, but operate within-district with traditional public school teachers, principals, and collectively-bargained work rules.  Lottery estimates show positive score gains in Mathematics, English, Science, and History, more credit accumulation, and higher graduation rates.  Small school attendance causes a substantial increase in college enrollment, with a marked shift to CUNY institutions.  Students are also less likely to require remediation in reading and writing when at college.  Detailed school surveys indicate that students at small schools are more engaged and closely monitored, despite fewer course offerings and activities.  Teachers report greater feedback, increased safety, and improved collaboration.  The results show that school size is an important factor in education production and highlight the potential for within-district reform strategies to substantially improve student achievement.

Read More »



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. Read More »