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.”