Please Lend Your Voice to an Upcoming Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Would you like to hear your voice on a future Freakonomics Radio episode? Hope so! Here are the details:

We recently put out a two-part episode on education reform, the first on teacher skill and the second on a community-based project called Pathways to Education. The response from listeners was huge -- and, often, very opinionated. It seems as though everyone had a concrete idea for the one thing that would really improve our education system.

So we've decided to make an episode about ... what you think is the one thing that would really improve our education system. If all goes well, the episode will be made up primarily of listeners' voices -- that is, your voice.

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.

It's Crowded at the Top: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest podcast, "Crowded at the Top," presents a surprising explanation for why the U.S. unemployment rate is still relatively high. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

It features a conversation with the University of British Columbia economist Paul Beaudry, one of the authors (along with David Green and Benjamin Sand) of a new paper called "The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks":

How to Auction Off an Unwanted Duty

A high-school economics teacher named Steve Fortna writes from Colorado with a clever solution:

The Spirit Week (formerly known as Homecoming) Dance is upon us.  This Friday I will be pressed into service to monitor the dress and dance of around 150 kids while a DJ, who does not care about the moral development of young adults in their formative years, plays whatever music they want to hear.  Loudly.  I really do not want to be there.  I am not alone in that sentiment.  

My school has tried various methods of determining which teachers should be on chaperone duty at each dance over the years without much success.  Either we all go (way too many people but at least we’re all in the same boat), or only a select few (more efficient use of faculty, but it’s not fair).  While most teachers don’t particularly enjoy monitoring dances, there are different levels of unease.  What’s an equitable way to determine who’s on duty?

The Best Third-Grade Teacher Ever

One of the most important economic issues we face today is how much to spend on education, both individually and as a society. As tax revenues decline due to demographic changes and deteriorating business conditions, municipalities have to make tough choices about which programs to cut, and education is often an early victim. Because we don’t yet have good measures of all the future benefits produced by better education today, school programs are easy targets for cost-cutting measures, especially in lower-income regions where parents are focused on meeting more basic needs and less likely to put up a fight. But experiments like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone hint at the enormous impact that early educational support can have on lifetime achievement.

I have my own example: Mrs. Ficalora, the best third-grade teacher ever.

Raising Money to Teach Math

A reader named Karim Kai Ani writes:

Guy walks into a bar and says, "We've got this math curriculum that everyone is saying is the bomb (a dangerous thing to say when you have my name, but go with me), and we're Kickstarting a video series to offer teachers a new vision of what it means to teach math."

And the waitress says, "You should see if the dudes from Freakonomics would tweet about it. Didn't they mention Mathalicious on their blog once?"

Cutting Class, With the School's Help

Via the Globe & Mail: it used to be that when you wanted to cut class, you'd have to get a friend to sign you into class, or you'd have to beat your parents home to delete any incriminating messages on the answering machine. But those methods are bush league compared to a recent California initiative. United Press International reports that 50 high school students were caught colluding with a school administrator in an attendance scam:

When It Pays to Say "I Don't Know"

In response to our recent podcast called "Why Is 'I Don't Know' So Hard to Say?," a reader named Timothy McCollough writes in with a most interesting story. He teaches at a private international school in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. His courses include two sections of AP microeconomics, sociology, and "regular economics." Because it's a private school, he adds, "we have freer reign to set up classroom incentives and engage students as we see fit." For instance:

In my classroom, students lose 1/4 point for wrong answers on quizzes. But for writing "I don't know," they get 1/4 point. (A correct answer is 1 point). The rationale is that if someone is in a medical emergency, and someone asks me what should be done, the answer "I don't know" is much preferable to a guess. "I don't know" leads the questioner to ask someone who hopefully is knowledgeable.

Horizontal vs. Vertical: An International Comparison of Teaching Methods

A new study released by NBER from authors Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc and Andrei Shleifer takes a look at how teaching practices affect social capital. It's long and detailed, so we’ll only give you the highlights: in a nutshell, there are major differences between societies that teach vertically (like a teacher lecturing) and societies that teach horizontally (with students working together in groups.)

And because everyone loves international comparisons, the difference between horizontal and vertical countries breaks down as follows:

Students work in groups more in Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) and Anglo-Saxon countries (Australia, United States and to a lesser extent Great Britain). This teaching practice is less common in East European countries and the Mediterranean (Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and, to a lesser extent, Italy). In contrast, in East European and Mediterranean countries, teachers spend more timing lecturing.

The Debate over Teacher Merit Pay: A Freakonomics Quorum

The term "merit pay" has gained a prominent place in the debate over education reform. First it was former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee trumpeting it as a key to fixing D.C.'s ailing public schools. Then a handful of other districts gave it a go, including Denver, New York City, and Nashville. Merit pay is a big plank in Education Secretary Arne Duncan's platform; and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has just launched his own version of merit pay that focuses incentives toward principals.

There's just one problem: educators almost universally hate merit pay, and have been adamantly opposed to it from day one. Simply, teachers say merit pay won't work.

In the last year, there's been some pretty damning evidence proving them right; research showing that merit pay, in a variety of shapes and sizes, fails to raise student performance. In the worst of cases, such as the scandal in Atlanta, it's contributed to flat-out cheating on the part of teachers and administrators. So, are we surprised that educators don't respond to monetary incentives? What makes teachers different?

For answers to these and related questions, we decided to convene a Freakonomics Quorum.