Archives for Education



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.

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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 »



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.

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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.

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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: Read More »



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.



Losing Experienced Teachers Is Bad for Schools, Right?

Maybe not. A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Maria Fitzpatrick and Michael Lovenheim finds that offering early retirement to experienced schoolteachers doesn’t have a negative effect on students’ test scores, and in some cases leads to an improvement. The abstract:

Early retirement incentives (ERIs) are increasingly prevalent in education as districts seek to close budget gaps by replacing expensive experienced teachers with lower-cost newer teachers. Combined with the aging of the teacher workforce, these ERIs are likely to change the composition of teachers dramatically in the coming years.  We use exogenous variation from an ERI program in Illinois in the mid-1990s to provide the first evidence in the literature of the effects of large-scale teacher retirements on student achievement.  We find the program did not reduce test scores; likely, it increased them, with positive effects most pronounced in lower-SES schools.

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What Happens When You Teach Parents to Parent?

A new working paper (abstractPDF) by Paul Gertler, James Heckman, and several other co-authors examines the impressive long-term effects of a Jamaican program that taught low-income parents better parenting skills.  Here’s the abstract:

We find large effects on the earnings of participants from a randomized intervention that gave psychosocial stimulation to stunted Jamaican toddlers living in poverty. The intervention consisted of one-hour weekly visits from community Jamaican health workers over a 2-year period that taught parenting skills and encouraged mothers to interact and play with their children in ways that would develop their children’s cognitive and personality skills. We re-interviewed the study participants 20 years after the intervention. Stimulation increased the average earnings of participants by 42 percent. Treatment group earnings caught up to the earnings of a matched non-stunted comparison group. These findings show that psychosocial stimulation early in childhood in disadvantaged settings can have substantial effects on labor market outcomes and reduce later life inequality.

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