Improving our dismal public schools with the dismal science

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard Thaler, has some potentially practical advice for improving our schools:

A good example of a domain where field experiments run by economists are having an impact is education. Economists do not have a theory for how to maximize what children learn in school (aside from the obviously false one that all for-profit schools are already using the best methods). One overly simplistic idea is that we can improve student performance just by giving financial incentives to parents, teachers, or kids. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that such incentives are effective, but nuances matter. For example, one intriguing finding by Roland Fryer suggests that rewarding students for inputs (such as doing their homework) rather than outputs (such as their grades) is effective. I find this result intuitively appealing because the students most in need do not know how to become better students. It makes sense to reward them for doing things that educators believe are effective. Another interesting result comes directly from the behavioral economics playbook. The team of Fryer, John List, Steven Levitt, and Sally Sadoff has found that the framing of a bonus to teachers makes a big difference. Teachers who are given a bonus at the beginning of the school year that must be returned if they fail to meet some target improve the performance of their students significantly more than teachers who are offered an end-of-year bonus contingent on meeting the same goals. A third positive result even further from the traditional tool kit of financial incentives comes from a recent randomized control trial conducted in the U.K., using the increasingly popular and low-cost method of text reminders. This intervention involved sending texts to half the parents in some school in advance of a major math test to let them know that their child had a test coming up in five days, then in three days, then in one day. The researchers call this approach “pre-informing.” The other half of parents did not receive the texts. The pre-informing texts increased student performance on the math test by the equivalent of one additional month of schooling, and students in the bottom quartile benefited most. These children gained the equivalent of two additional months of schooling, relative to the control group. Afterward, both parents and students said they wanted to stick with the program, showing that they appreciated being nudged. This program also belies the frequent claim, unsupported by any evidence, that nudges must be secret to be effective.

Imagine the outcry if teachers got money at the beginning of the school year, spent it on vacations, recreational marijuana, etc., and then some of them had to give the money back at the end of the year due to evidence that their students hadn’t learned much!

3 thoughts on “Improving our dismal public schools with the dismal science

  1. School should be about accomplishment, regardless of academic level. Instead of moving a student to the next grade work academically, when she’s not prepared, they keep working at the old “grade level” until they have mastered (90-95, demonstration of a full understanding) the work. This is especially important in math and English as the next year’s work build on the prior year. Passing should be a 90 or 95 on a test, not a 70, because students making a 70 will not have the base to do the next level work. Give bigger parties and rewards to students who are behind academically. The top performers need no motivation, the bottom ones need a lot. Also, testing should move students to areas where they can be successful. If a student can’t do Algebra II, but can fix cars, or air conditioning, or help customers as a hostess or bank teller we should encourage that. We can’t all be rocket scientists or senators. Our goal should be that every US citizen who is not disabled severely should be able to get and hold a job.

    • Our goal should be that every US citizen who is not disabled severely should be able to get and hold a job.

      We’re getting close to that point now as the economy approaches full employment. It’s really a macroeconomic issue, not an education issue. A very large portion of all jobs require little education or training.

  2. Why waste time teaching science in high school if we are going to offshore research, engineering, and manufacturing anyway? Just to appease Google and Facebook? they are hiring abroad like there is no tomorrow and expand in places such as London and Vancouver, because they cannot bring talented engineers to the US as the annual visa quota is used up by the Tata Consulting goons as well as by cantaloupe pickers.

    Well, I do remember those movies from the 90s where the Asians are depicted as stiff, dimwitted robots who are pathologically suspicious of anything we smart and enterprising Americans say and do. And why would any millennial want to look like one of those? A better idea would be teaching our kids to paint “by the color”, and that’s where our future lies; see:

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