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!