Using Behavioral Insights to Increase Parental Engagement

WDR 2015 IpadIt’s cute the way interventions in policy to influence people’s behaviour is called “using behavioural insights”. You could also call it commonsensically influencing people’s behaviour based on the idea that they are not instantly, omnisciently optimising robots. Anyway, there you go. Whodda thunk? Sending parents text reminders, setting goals and providing social rewards influences their behaviour. Nice to see the impact is large though.


Parent engagement with their children plays an important role in children’s eventual economic success and numerous studies have documented large gaps in parent engagement between low- and higher-income families. While we know remarkably little about what motivates parents to engage in their children’s development, recent research suggests that ignoring or discounting the future may inhibit parental investment, while certain behavioral tools may help offset this tendency. This paper reports results from a randomized field experiment designed to increase the time that parents of children in subsidized preschool programs spend reading to their children using an electronic reading application that audio and video records parents as they read. The treatment included three behavioral tools (text reminders, goal-setting, and social rewards) as well as information about the importance of reading to children. The treatment increased usage of the reading application by one standard deviation after the six-week intervention. Our evidence suggests that the large effect size is not accounted for by the information component of the intervention and that the treatment impact was much greater for parents who are more present-oriented than for parents who are less present-oriented.

By Susan E. Mayer, Ariel Kalil, Philip Oreopoulos, Sebastian Gallegos
Click here for NBER Working Paper No. 21602

Education Research and Administrative Data

Education Research and Administrative Data by David N. Figlio, Krzysztof Karbownik, Kjell G. Salvanes

Thanks to extraordinary and exponential improvements in data storage and computing capacities, it is now possible to collect, manage, and analyze data in magnitudes and in manners that would have been inconceivable just a short time ago. As the world has developed this remarkable capacity to store and analyze data, so have the world’s governments developed large-scale, comprehensive data files on tax programs, workforce information, benefit programs, health, and education. While these data are collected for purely administrative purposes, they represent remarkable new opportunities for expanding our knowledge. This chapter describes some of the benefits and challenges associated with the use of administrative data in education research. We also offer specific case studies of data that have been developed in both the Nordic countries and the United States, and offer an (incomplete) inventory of data sets used by social scientists to study education questions on every inhabited continent on earth.

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly citations

One vice of academic discourse is the compulsion to cite authorities for the simplest, most commonsensical banalities (Gruen, 2010). Anyway, for my own notes, I record a good example of this in the opening of a paper on vocational education and training.

Teaching and innovation have ploughed forward, at least since Greek scholars about two-and-a-half millennia ago lamented an emerging innovation. Thanks to the advent of writing, learners would rely on written records, rather than solely on their memories (Gumport & Chun 1999). Similarly today, scholars, government agencies, administrators, teachers and learners face a growing universe of educational innovations — ideas and technologies — to lament and laud (Commonwealth of Australia 2013; Barber, Donnelly & Rizvi 2013; Daniel 2012). Administrators and teachers in the background and at the coalface seek efficient and effective teaching innovations (Daniel, Kanwar & Uvalić-Trumbić 2009; Murphy 2012).

Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street



Sesame Street is one of the largest early childhood interventions ever to take place.  It was introduced in 1969 as an educational, early childhood program with the explicit goal of preparing preschool age children for school entry. Millions of children watched a typical episode in its early years.  Well-designed studies at its inception provided evidence that watching the show generated an immediate and sizeable increase in test scores.  In this paper we investigate whether the first cohorts of preschool children exposed to Sesame Street experienced improved outcomes subsequently.  We implement an instrumental variables strategy exploiting limitations in television technology generated by distance to a broadcast tower and UHF versus VHF transmission to distinguish counties by Sesame Street reception quality.  We relate this geographic variation to outcomes in Census data including grade-for-age status in 1980, educational attainment in 1990, and labor market outcomes in 2000.

The results indicate that Sesame Street accomplished its goal of improving school readiness; preschool-aged children in areas with better reception when it was introduced were more likely to advance through school as appropriate for their age.  This effect is particularly pronounced for boys and non-Hispanic, black children, as well as children living in economically disadvantaged areas.  The evidence regarding the impact on ultimate educational attainment and labor market outcomes is inconclusive.

NBER Working Paper 1229 by Melissa S. Kearney, Phillip B. Levine  -  #21229 (CH ED LS)

#SoftHeadsHardHearts on long-term unemployment

Image result for long-term unemploymentThe HALE index got a bit of attention this weekend owing to the way in which it highlights the cost of long-term unemployment. It’s certainly a graphic illustration of the way in which GDP hides important developments from us. Mostly what people like about the HALE is the way in which it tries to adjust GDP to take account of large and strong impacts on subjective wellbeing that are not picked up by GDP.

Because it’s an index and will ultimately be published as a single number, there’s no point in including things that are not large – as they’ll never get their signal through the noise of everything else. So the main things which are adjusted for known, large and widespread non-economic wellbeing effects are inequality, unemployment, obesity and mental illness. But these things rarely change sufficiently between quarters to generate much news unless the journalist covering the story decides to make them the focus of coverage in some way.

By contrast the things in the index that really drive substantial deviations from GDP are related to the ways in which GDP is a bad measure of economic wellbeing. Because it’s an index of wellbeing, the national accounts series on which the HALE is based is real net national disposable income. This picks up the terms of trade which has been an important part of our economic story particularly lately and the depreciation of capital. This quarter falling terms of trade reduced national income by around 0.7% reducing the quarterly GDP figure from 0.9% to 0.2%.

And one of the things I was most pleased to work out in the methodology of the HALE index was trying to take into account the growth and decay of human capital or the economic value of knowhow on a quarterly ‘accruals’ basis something GDP assiduously avoids as it measures recurrent or income transactions and not capital transactions. I had been highly critical of the leftist stitch up index – the GPI for this reason. Continue reading

STEM, Part culture war, part cargo cult: My latest Fin column

The Future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)Here’s yesterday’s op ed for the Fin published as Technology education is about more than funding:

STEM is all the rage in education – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Part culture war against Australian mediocrity, part cargo cult, a principal goal is more money – for universities and school education. It’s hard not to agree. Lateral Economics’ HALE index of wellbeing values Australian human capital at $18 trillion – over three times all other physical and natural capital combined. Growing it puts every other means of enriching our future in the shade.

Still, I smell a rat.

We’ve nearly doubled educational spending per student in the last few decades. That’s funded popular measures with little impact – smaller class sizes – and politico/educational fads some of which have proven disastrous – like whole language learning. If STEM is simply cranked up and bolted onto the existing system, expect business-as-usual, expensive-as-usual disappointment.

Traditional STEM teaching often turns kids off. If they were ever invited into the debate, they’d see the STEM agenda as baby-boomer finger wagging telling them to eat their greens. They’d ask what exciting jobs will exist for STEM graduates. They’d ask what STEM skills will be in demand in ten or twenty years. And we don’t know.

The vast riches of Silicon Valley use STEM skills sure enough. However not only has old-fashioned entrepreneurialism been the dominant input, but the main STEM contribution has been computer coding. While that’s taught in universities, the valley is full of practitioners who’ve mostly taught themselves with the help of free internet resources and their own workplaces. Silicon Valley has embraced data science but no thanks to university courses. Even today, while they crank out stats grads, our universities barely teach data science.

The innovation we desperately need to get STEM right is institutional. In 2010 I proposed a different approach lunching with the secretary of a state Education Department followed by discussions with his senior managers. I suggested we tap into free resources all around. The net is brimming with free resources. Want to learn how to build a website or learn JavaScript? Head to

Second, while teacher training, support and specialisation in STEM should be better resourced, on its own that would achieve very little. The last thing we should do is insist on widespread STEM in-service training for existing teachers – for instance in teaching computer skills – who’d simply go through the motions.

Meanwhile an immediate human resource is students. We should find those already doing it for themselves and empower them to enthuse and teach their peers – not to mention reverse mentoring their teachers. And if we’re to do that, we must make room for it in kids’ timetables and in the recognition they receive – their marks.

However that requires some real transformation of existing routines and priorities. And incumbent organisations find that almost impossible. Much better to seek funding for some new, bolt-on initiative. As we’ve loaded the curriculum with recent enthusiasms and political correctness, what priorities have we jettisoned? Stats was more useful than trigonometry even when I was a kid: Much more so now. But the relative weightings in the maths curriculum haven’t changed in 30 years. I learned more about computer coding in school in the the early 1970s than my kids have done in today’s schools.

What I’m proposing can’t simply be ‘rolled out’. Just as a manufacturer wouldn’t release a new product without extensive design, prototyping and testing, that’s what should happen here. We should draw out in-system entrepreneurs, fund experiments and pilots, fixing or jettisoning the failures, identifying, tweaking and growing successes and rewarding those behind them.

After speaking with the Education Department, I attended a showcase of students’ achievements in IT projects. There I met Ben, a year 8 student. He’d built an iPhone app to hone his brother’s mental arithmetic.

“How do you find maths” I asked.

“Boring! We keep doing the same stuff.

“How’d you like to teach other students to write iPhone apps?


“Wait right there.

I fetched the Departmental Secretary. Here was an opportunity to get going with what I’d proposed. Excited, he summoned his Innovation Chief saying “I want to start on this tomorrow!”

The next year I asked Ben how things had gone. I still have his reply: ”Nothing really went anywhere with my school, didn’t really surprise me”.

The STEM agenda could handsomely enrich our future, but only if it’s part of wider transformation which, though it would cost nothing, offers a richer prize than any amount of new STEM funding.

Postscript: the interview of the blogpost of the column on this page with the mp3 here.

Ben Eltham’s cheap education funding shot at Tone and Chrissie

John Brumby: deregulated the VET sector while Premier.

John Brumby: deregulated the VET sector while Premier.

Ben Eltham has posted an article in New Matilda about the financial and regulatory travails of Victorian VET private mega-provider Vocation:

Christopher Pyne’s higher education legislation will channel hundreds of millions of dollars to private providers. When it happened in Victoria’s VET system, the consequences were dire, writes Ben Eltham.

The share price collapse of high-flying private education provider Vocation reminds us of the perils of privatising education.

On its website and Annual Report, Vocation asks us to “be extraordinary”.

… Vocation presents itself as high-quality and respectable. It boasts none other than John Dawkins, the architect of the Hawke government’s university reforms, as the chair of its board.

But the performance of ASX-listed private training provider Vocation in recent weeks has been anything but extraordinary.

The problem with a voucher-based portable funding system for VET is that it creates a situation that makes it very difficult to monitor and ensure quality of service provision.

Continue reading

How the aged crowd out the young, and how it’s inefficient

This paper is pretty interesting. The last generation has seen the triumph of the baby boomers in attracting resources to themselves, at the cost of other generations, most obviously illustrated in throwing off the shackles of university fees (so other generations and the uneducated could pay for their university education) and then returning to ramp up fees on the oncoming generations. Ditto for the pension – which they’ll enjoy but get later generations to self-fund. Ditto all the tax breaks for self-funded boomers and on it goes though quite possibly the effect of house prices may be as or more important than all that.

Meanwhile think how those who rise to a certain position in the workforce tend to stay there, regardless of merit. This is not so true at the very top of large companies any more that seem to turn over their CEOs pretty quickly and ruthlessly (thought the terms of separation show a great deal of ruth). So economists tend to think of firms as making efficient decisions to survive competition, but they’re full of humangoes, and humangoes, just like mangoes have soft squishy bits that tend to do pretty much what they’re going to do whatever the state of competition is.

Demographics and Entrepreneurship

: by James Liang, Hui Wang, Edward P. Lazear – #20506 (IO LS)

Abstract: Entrepreneurship requires creativity and business acumen. Creativity may decline with age, but business skills increase with experience in high level positions. Having too many older workers in society slows entrepreneurship. Not only are older workers less innovative, but more significant is that when older workers occupy key positions they block younger workers from acquiring business skills. A formal theoretical structure is presented and tested using the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor data. The results imply that a one-standard deviation decrease in the median age of a country increases the rate of new business formation by 2.5 percentage points, which is about forty percent of the mean rate. Furthermore, older societies have lower rates of entrepreneurship at every age.