schools

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1) Yale’s Dean Karlan says it’s not a surprise that taxes on junk food are more effective than subsidies for healthy food at changing consumer habits. It’s about loss aversion: “People are just more responsive to price increases than decreases.”

2) Colleges are trying Trayless Tuesdays. Is yours?

3) San Francisco has adopted a public school matching algorithm similar to the one mentioned in the school choice chapter of Nudge. Hat tip: Market Design, which notes “the nice thing is that the underlying choice architecture will make it safe for parents to state their true preferences however the priorities are adjusted.”

4) Pepsi is cutting sugary drinks from schools around the world.

5) More women are asking surgeons to remove a healthy breast along with a cancerous breast, even though removing the healthy breast doesn’t change their odds of survival, says the New York Times. Why? “But women who have opted for the procedure say it’s not about the statistics. Once they receive a breast cancer diagnosis, they never again want to experience the stress of a mammogram or biopsy.”

Addendum: A pilot project using Netflix like technology to predict which patients need checkups and send them email alerts. Hat tip: Marginal Revolution.

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There is no rite of passage in American life more celebrated than the driver’s license (or at least there wasn’t until gas became so expensive). For almost two decades, making school attendance a prerequisite for earning and then maintaining a license has been a popular idea in the United States. After a burst of activity in the 1990s, the policy has continued to find support among state politicians.

Republican Governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty endorsed the idea in 2004. Earlier this year, New Mexico moved to link school attendance and minimum proficiency standards to drivers’ licenses, and West Virginia, which was the first state to adopt an attendance-license program in 1988, has advocated revoking the licenses of students who do not earn at least a C average. Democratic Congressman Rahm Emanuel, from right here in Illinois, introduced a national proposal to revoke the licenses of dropouts on the House floor in July, drawing the protest of members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. They argued that the measure unfairly punished students who were forced to drop out of school through no fault of their own.

Other critics (here and here) of these programs say that they only lead to a small or temporary increase in attendance, although West Virginia saw sharp reductions in dropout rates immediately, which continued into the 1990s.

In general, the Nudge blog supports the concept of the attendance-for-license initiative, particularly in suburban and rural areas, not because there should be any necessary link between studying hard and getting a license, but because the program creates a mildly irritating (but hardly painful) nudge to keep students around a school campus for a few more days each year. The purpose of these laws is to give teachers as many opportunities as possible to reach possibly unmotivated students, in an age when competing distractions are everywhere. They are fundamentally about winning back student attention, not about rewards or punishments. We’re curious to hear the reactions of many of the teachers who read this blog, especially those in states where the law exists.

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When it comes to making government accessible to the public, California is showing itself to be among the leaders in the U.S. First there was Ready Return, and now along comes the equally innovative, although less creatively named, School Finder. The online tool allows people to search and compare up to three neighborhood schools along the dimensions of academic performance, graduation and dropout rates, student-teacher ratios, per-student-spending, and course offerings. Information from as many as three schools can be compared side by side.

Compiling all of this data into one site in impressive, although not unique. The U.S. government’s Medicare site features a tool for comparing hospitals that features a surfeit of detail, right down to survey results about whether doctors and nurses “communicated well” with patients. What makes School Finder stand out is its ease-of-use, which may not come as a huge surprise since the state partnered with Google and Microsoft. Users will instantly recognized the Google Earth satellite photos, which are supplemented with Microsoft GIS technology, to help time-pressed, keyboard-averse users easily find and compare schools with the click of a mouse.

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Patrick Emerson of the Oregon Economics Blog has been thinking about how to handle the huge backlog of maintenance projects for Portland’s public schools. Which projects should Portland Public Schools (PPS) tackle now? Which ones should PPS tackle later? Drawing on the ideas of behavioral economists Matt Rabin and Ted O’Donoghue, Emerson makes the following suggestion.

As an economist, intertemporal problems are routine. You have to weigh the present value of the costs and benefits when taking a decision about fixing something today versus letting it go a while longer. This would seem a fairly easy problem for an institution like PPS (though it is in no way an answer to the overriding problem of resource constraints). But the reality is that parents have a time horizon that is much shorter than the school district itself. If a parent knows their child will be in a school for only 5 years, the present discounted value of deferred maintenance cost is much smaller than for PPS itself which is thinking of school buildings lasting for 50 more years. This is true in many aspects of government business – it is often hard to get the public to be far-sighted (especially true when you talk about very long time horizons and add some uncertainty like in global warming).

It seems like an appropriate response would be to put some welfare weights on the current concerns of parents and the concerns of future parents and be explicit/transparent about it. Simply deferring maintenance and hoping for better times in the future seems like a fool’s errand. It is likely to never happen and often you end up having to pay a much higher price when systems fail like the heating system at Cleveland. Once we decide how to weight the concerns of the current generation and future generations, we can then start to allocate resources systematically. Why is this a good idea? Because it is often very hard to resist fulfilling urges today – people tend to place undue weight on current needs and desires. Ex post, however, they often regret not having exercised more self-control…In the parlance of (Nudge), my welfare weights idea would be introducing ‘architecture’ to the choices made by the PPS. This architecture acts as a commitment device and will ensure that we are not shortchanging future kids for the sake of the current ones. Instead what we have is a bunch of discretionary decisions that add uncertainty and inefficiency into the system which serves no one well.

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In the late 1980s, the architectural firm Gruzen Samton Steinglass suggested that the public school system of New York City get rid of a century-old classroom design — the square. There was nothing terribly wrong with the square – it was certainly familiar and cost-efficient to reproduce – the firm concluded, but there were better ways to allow teachers to take advantages of their personalities and learning styles, and to hold student attention when multiple activities might be occurring in the same space.

“We if you just give the square a jolt?” said Peter Samton, recalling the creative process for the New Yorker magazine in 1991. “A whole handful of problems solved with a single jolt. You could turn one of the protruding ends of the new shape into a bay window, which would bring more light into the classroom. You could have little bays to put the independent-study groups in and a little niche to put the computers in. But at the same time the teacher would remain the real focus of the room instead of being just a bit player.”

Are there any New York City public school alumni out there who’ve been taught in these classrooms?

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