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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: A Natural Experiment

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Natural Experiment

Since the end of the Jim Crow era, elected officials have attempted to mitigate poverty and racial inequality.  A slew of policies poured money into programs designed to improve educational achievement of poor minority urbanites.  Measuring the success of different programs is challenging.  In Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, Edward Glaeser describes how Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer (“Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Close the Achievement Gap? Evidence from a Bold Social Experiment in Harlem”) cleverly used data to measure the success of the Promise Academy in Harlem.  I divide two of Glaeser’s paragraphs into three parts: the first explaining the school and available data, the second, how Fryer organized the data, and third, the conclusions he reached.  If, after reading his the section about the problem and data, you figure out how he organized the data, perhaps you too can be a Harvard economist.

In 2004, as New York began to allow more experimentation in its schools, the Harlem Children’s Zone opened its own charter school, the Promise Academy.  The school’s curriculum is intense, requiring long hours from its students, and it offers financial incentives for success.  The school’s leaders worked aggressively to lure the best teachers available, and the academy fired almost 50 percent of its teachers in its first year.  Entrance into the school is determined by lottery…

Dobbie and Fryer organized data.

, which led my colleague Roland Fryer to perform a true natural experiment comparing similar lottery winners and losers. 

Dobbie and Fryer found

…that the school had strong, positive effects on its students: the Promise Academy eliminated the block-white achievement gap in mathematics.  The teachers had particular success with boys, which is unusual and remarkable.

The Harlem Children’s Zone proves that investing in segregated areas can work, as long as that investment targets children, not stadiums or monorails. 

While writing this post, I learned from Greg Mankiw’s Blog that Fryer was named as a recipient of this year’s MacArthur Foundation fellowships.  The award includes a $500,000 grant to conduct research that follows his natural interests (“Three named MacArthur Fellows”). 

1 comment:

  1. The location of the school, the students’ economic circumstances, and family support, and the school administration, those are a lot of factors to consider. I believe it is impossible to say that just investing in the kids is the reason for their success. The students were selected by lottery, so the parents filled out an application in hopes that their child would be accepted. This means the parents felt education was important and the kids are influenced. The administration selected teachers that were motivated financially and emotionally. This project did not eliminate the black-white achievement gap; it only proved that money buys a better education. The difference is the money came from donations and grants, and not the parents.
    I think it is a great opportunity for the students that are picked but I think every public school should be just as good. We are stunting our growth as a country by not investing in our educators; the teachers I know do it because they enjoy teaching. They would be capable of so much more if they had the resources of the Harlem school.