By Mike Goldstein
Josh Angrist and Michael Kremer won Nobel prizes in economics, Angrist this year and Kremer in 2020. Future Nobel winners probably include Roland Fryer and Parak Pathak, who each won the John Bates Clark Medal for economists under age 40.
I’ve been a fly on the wall, who lucked into working with all four over the past 20 years in their study of K-12 education. I learned two things.
1. A regular person like me can get a world-class economist to evaluate your K-12 work merely by asking. Imagine asking Stephen Sondheim to evaluate your songwriting, and he replies, “Sure thing.”
I cold called MIT’s Angrist in 2002 to evaluate my small Boston charter school, and he agreed. I met Kremer, then of Harvard and now at the University of Chicago, in 2014, hoping he’d evaluate our 400 low-cost private schools in Kenya. He was eager.
Economists welcome the chance to measure education as a randomized control trial (RCT), like a drug trial. It’s the gold-standard way to know if something works.
But “knowing” is something of a double-edged sword. The RCT can validate your effort or dismiss it. Therefore, many education leaders avoid RCTs.
Angrist and colleagues published a 2009 study with precisely that effect. They examined two types of schools. Each was claiming success. The gold-standard study did validate Boston’s independent charter schools, finding large learning gains for kids. But it found no learning gains for “pilot schools,” a similar approach with different details. This infuriated Boston’s mayor, who loved pilots and hated charters, and he wondered why the study had happened at all.
Even if the Sondheim-caliber economists can’t quite squeeze you into their schedule, they have armies of doctoral students who can. Fryer in 2007 became the youngest-ever African-American to get tenure at Harvard. A few years later, I asked if he’d assess our new technique for parent-teacher communications as an RCT. Fryer connected me with two of his up-and-comers. They not only found large gains, but one went on to develop a “nudge” version of this technique via text messaging, which was much easier to scale.
2. Nobel winners could generate a lot more social value. But they face two obstacles. One is red tape. Just as some leading medical researchers were hamstrung in the fight against COVID-19, top education researchers often find approval gets slow walked.
For example, Angrist and I tried for years, in various ways, to convince the Massachusetts Department of Education to hand over test-score data. He offered several ways to protect privacy and get parent permission. State officials refused. It was five years before another economist, Harvard’s Thomas Kane, and colleagues got through the red tape, and Angrist joined that broader study.
Kremer often faces similar challenges in the developing world, despite his Nobel-winning track record. Fryer once dreamed up an innovative approach to turn around low-performing schools. He asked my team to play a role — to find and deploy 250 full-time math tutors. Even with the top guy’s blessing, resistance to Fryer’s ideas from midlevel district personnel was fierce. He had to personally negotiate dozens of details to get the result we needed: Thousands of students huddled daily with tutors for one focused hour. (The result: “wow” gains, later validated by another team of economists from the University of Chicago.)
As economists would say, the “transaction costs” of doing desperately needed, high-quality education research are too high.
The second obstacle they face is resistance to empirical evidence. Even if they find a “winner,” interest groups try to muddy the waters about the quality of their research. We’ll get a case study when Kremer publishes his Kenya private school study: If he finds “null effect,” school-choice opponents will cheer. If his RCT finds student success, those same people will claim the study is defective.
There is a hopeful note.
Pathak, along with Angrist, developed algorithms to improve school-enrollment processes around the world. When they couldn’t get many schools to adopt that research, they became entrepreneurs, launching a software company to bring that idea to market. Fryer, too, has gone the entrepreneurial route, co-founding a tutoring company so African-American students can get tutoring in more than just the basics of math and English.
Our K-12 field should change to embrace high-quality evidence from the world’s best economists. Until then, perhaps entrepreneurship is a way to bring proven education ideas to children worldwide.
Mike Goldstein worked with Angrist and Fryer as the founder of Match Charter School, and with Kremer as the chief academic officer of Bridge International Academies. Goldstein also served as a startup adviser to Pathak and Angrist’s Avela and Fryer’s Reconstruction.