Dec 042014

Our previous episode — “Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?” — looked at the role of teacher skill in the education equation. But the education equation isn’t so simple — there are a lot of inputs, a lot of variables, a lot of question marks. Our conclusion: sure, it would be great to have a brilliant teacher in every classroom — but that still doesn’t guarantee that every student will be well-educated. Students have to want it; families have to want it. What is a teacher and a school system supposed to do if a lot of its students just don’t really care about school?

That brings us to this week’s episode, “How to Fix a Broken High Schooler, in Four Easy Steps.”




Carolyn ACKER: My name is Caroline Acker. I was the executive director of the Regent Park Community Health Center.

Stephen J. DUBNER: Regent Park, in downtown Toronto, is known for having one of Canada’s oldest, biggest – and toughest – housing projects.

ACKER: So, we’re doing all this work, we’re investing more and more dollars. When I went to Regent Park Community Health Center in 1992, the budget was about 2.8 million. By about 1996, ‘97, the budget was close to 6 million. Instead of things improving, things were getting worse in terms of crime and murder, violence – this kind of thing. We were very distressed over what was happening to our young people, and we didn’t really understand it. We were doing more and more – always investing more – and we weren’t seeing an improvement. There were about nine murders in Regent Park in 2000, which was the year before we started Pathways To Education.

DUBNER: Pathways to Education was a voluntary program for high-school kids in Regent Park. It wasn’t an education program, exactly; it was more like life support.

Philip OREOPOULOS: The Pathways Program, they say, has four pillars. Those are counseling, academic, social, and financial.

DUBNER: That’s Philip Oreopoulos. He’s an economist at the University of Toronto, with a particular interest in education. Over the years, Oreopoulos had heard about Pathways to Education, that it was something of a miracle cure for low-performing high-schoolers. He wondered if that could possibly be true.

Philip OREOPOULOS: Pathways to Education had a pro bono study done in the mid-2000s by a consulting firm. And the director that did the pro bono study was a member of the board of Pathways and came out with a report …

DUBNER: I can feel your antenna as an empirical economist already going up, right? A nice report done by a consultant — this was Boston Consulting Group I believe, right?

OREOPOULOS: It was Boston Consulting Group, and –

DUBNER: Who are good and reputable, but still — a pro bono report commissioned by someone who’s also sitting on the board of the nonprofit that’s running the thing. You might be a little bit skeptical, yes?

OREOPOULOS: Well, what was striking about the report was it suggested that before Pathways, the dropout rate was 56 percent, and very soon after Pathways was introduced, the dropout rate was 10 percent. So you had a 46-percentage point fall in the dropout rate, and the report was attributing it to the introduction of Pathways. And this type and magnitude of effect is virtually unheard of in the education literature. It’s like the Holy Grail of programs that try to improve outcomes, especially among disadvantaged households. And if these results were true, we should try to figure out exactly how to replicate them across the country and in the U.S. because they’re so large it would solve a lot of our problems.

DUBNER: So, on today’s program: were the results true? If so, how did it happen? And, most important, where do the rest of us sign up?


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