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:

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.

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.

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.

Should We Stop Children From Learning to Cheat?

A Freakonomics Radio listener named Sandra Elsen writes:

Today, I went to my son's kindergarten.  He attends the local International School (what the Realtor described as the "Hippy-Dippy" school, lol), in a semi-rural area, just outside of the city in a middle-class town.

There, I was asked to help them learn a new game. The concept was simple:  a six-sided block had three 1's and three 2's marked on each side.  They had to trace the number that was rolled on their worksheet.  Roll, trace.  Once five of one number was achieved, either the firetruck or the firefighter (pictured at the bottom of the sheet) "won."  The teacher indicated it was a "race" to see which picture would win.

Are Tenured Professors Better Classroom Teachers?

The argument over tenure for university professors is a long and boisterous one. 

Levitt, for one, is in favor of abolition. If you are on that side of the argument as well, you may be pleased to read a new working paper by David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter (all associated with Northwestern, in one capacity or another) called "Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?" (gated, sorry). Short answer (in their study, at least): no.

The abstract:

This study makes use of detailed student-level data from eight cohorts of first-year students at Northwestern University to investigate the relative effects of tenure track/tenured versus non-tenure line faculty on student learning. We focus on classes taken during a student’s first term at Northwestern, and employ a unique identification strategy in which we control for both student-level fixed effects and next-class-taken fixed effects to measure the degree to which non-tenure line faculty contribute more or less to lasting student learning than do other faculty. We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses. These differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas, and are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s average students and less-qualified students.

How Many Years Does It Take to Learn to Be a Lawyer?

President Obama recently proposed an interesting solution to the skyrocketing cost (and declining popularity) of law school: make it shorter:

“This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck, I’m in my second term so I can say it,” Obama said during a stop at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “I believe, for example, that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years because [….] in the first two years young people are learning in the classroom.”

In the third year, he said, “they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t getting paid that much. But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student.”

The Daily Dish reports on various responses to Obama's suggestion.  For example, law professor Matt Bodie wonders if the change would really decrease costs:

Paying Kids to Go to School Instead of Working

A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Eric V. Edmonds and Maheshwor Shrestha analyzes whether schooling incentives (in the form of conditional cash transfers) effectively reduce child labor, which is a persistent problem in developing countries.  Their conclusion: you get what you pay for.  From the abstract: 

Can efforts to promote education deter child labor? We report on the findings of a field experiment where a conditional transfer incentivized the schooling of children associated with carpet factories in Nepal. We find that schooling increases and child involvement in carpet weaving decreases when schooling is incentivized. As a simple static labor supply model would predict, we observe that treated children resort to their counterfactual level of school attendance and carpet weaving when schooling is no longer incentivized. From a child labor policy perspective, our findings imply that “You get what you pay for” when schooling incentives are used to combat hazardous child labor.