John List’s $10 million crazy idea field experiment in education

Michael Giberson

Bloomberg Markets Magazine has a feature on economist John List and his $10 million research project on education. Along the way we get an introduction to List’s work on field experiments in economics, a splash of lab-based economics back story, and the reaction of education specialists who think List’s project is wholly off target.

List, along with collaborators Steven Levitt and Roland Fryer, has obtained a $10 grant for a program which randomly assigned 3-5 year old students to one of three groups: (1) free all-day preschool, (2) “parenting academy” for the student’s parent or guardian, or (3) a control group with neither intervention. The program intends for follow the students into adulthood in order to assess the long-term effects of the intervention.

List says he doesn’t know much about education theory, so he enlisted specialists to consult on the preschool curriculum. One such consultant, Clancy Blair, a New York University professor of applied psychology, says he was astonished by the size of the project and by how it focuses on financial incentives without looking at such variables as how the parents interact with their children.

“That’s a crazy idea,” says Blair, who studies how young children learn. “It’s not based on any prior research. This isn’t the incremental process of science. It’s ‘I have a crazy idea and I convinced someone to give me $10 million.’”

List says too many decisions in fields from education to business to philanthropy are made without any scientific basis. Without experimenting, you can’t evaluate whether a program is effective, he says.

“We need hundreds of experiments going on at once all over the country,” he says. “Then we can understand what works and what doesn’t.” …

“What educators need to know are what are the best ways to educate kids, and this is trying to short-circuit that,” Blair says. “We have fundamental problems in education, and this is sort of a distraction.”

List says he understands the objections. “If I was in the field, I’d hate me, too,” List says in November while driving to his sons’ indoor baseball practice in one of Chicago’s south suburbs. “There should be skeptics.”

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4 thoughts on “John List’s $10 million crazy idea field experiment in education

  1. I acknowledge the existence of an extreme experiental bias regarding education and educational methods.

    I believe that the Catholic education system in the US has understood how to educate for decades, including how to establish the classroom environment in which such education can most effectively occur. I cannot speak about other private educational institutions, since I have no experience with them.

    The classrooms in which I received my primary and secondary education were highly disciplined and serious environments, run by highly disciplined and serious people, whether Catholic religious or not. Lessons were taught, homework was assigned and done. Students failed if the lessons were not learned and the homework was not done. Student “self esteem” was solely the result of accomplishment.

    The classrooms were “segregated” progressively by accomplishment, grouping students by their demonstrated ability and willingness to learn. Each student had the same opportunity to learn, but there was no expectation of equivalent outcomes.

    I suspect that most current high school students would be shocked by the atmosphere in a high school run by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The dress code and discipline requirements, while different, are dwarfed by the expectation of and insistence upon consistent effort and performance. I suspect that many teachers would be thrilled to have the opportunity to teach in such an environment. I will never forget the thrill of learning in that environment.

  2. This program matches Kauffman Scholar (Bloomberg Scholar; Brown (LA) Scholar implausibly) and other programs at the ‘examine effects of cash incentives at 8th or 9th grade’ level, as I read it. (Besides touring List’s grind to 132nd place Economist; and hey, Bloomberg Markets Magazine!)
    So it’s really ca. the 130th craziest USA field experiment, with merits for settling *.il.us (judging by the matte-of-decline cop shows,) rather than looking at contracting business lifecycles and folding pluripotent child development for all estates into harmony with those (or vice versa.) By that measure, it notably picks M1 rather than inflation controls. (Space horticulturalist pole vaulting equities in medicine FTW; send us to college prepped with double bachelors’ degrees every n (n complex) years (else fail.))

    Validation for Ed Reid! Baptists insist when you attend Chapel that you sit wherever, occasionally display sweatpants, and murmur along to the songbook as you speculate about profit/loss from knowing outer products or whatever; kicking people out of their parents’ ranks, singing critically and curating every chance is the way. I think the term for fretting classes by accomplishment is declension or formation, though.

  3. Steve,

    Maybe “sorted” would have been a better choice of word. I’m too damned old to start being PC now! I am not an educator, so I don’t know the current “buzz words”. :-)

    I know that I learned as fast as I could in the learning environment I experienced. I would not have had it any other way. I only wish I had been able to send my boys to a Jesuit high school. One of my niece’s elder son is in his freshman year with the Jesuits; and, he is thriving in the environment. The Jesuits had adopted “Be all that you can be”, though not in those words, long before the Army.

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