Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reforming health and education

I've been reading a lot about Tyler Cowen's new book, including this review from Ezra Klein. One theme in the commentary that continues to pop up is health and education are the two fastest growing sectors and the two sectors that seem to be disappointing us. They seem ripe for reform.

I haven't heard a lot of good ideas, so here is my take as those are two of my fields of interest.

1. On health, we are looking at the wrong things. There has been a ton of growth in two important health "sectors," but they have nothing to do with hospitals or doctors. One in lifestyle choices: food makers are providing more whole grain and low sodium foods and people are eating more of them. Look no further than Wal-Mart's new program to improve nutrition. Exercising more is also becoming both hip (see yoga) that ever rich people want to do it (rich people run so much now that they often call it their "sport") and a priority (see things like Play60).

But that is actually the lower priority change. The biggest gains will come from improvements in mental health. Positive psychologists have developed a battery of interventions for preventing depression and improving quality of life over the past few decades. Few are in the mainstream: personal improvement is still dominated by quacks. But if some of these things penetrate our schools and catch fire, that is where I see most of the improvement in quality of life coming over the next few decades.

2. On education, I think there are a lot of minor improvements to suggest: more discipline, more testing, start the school day later, perhaps single gender classrooms, paying teachers more, firing bad teachers, using video lectures, and others. But none of that striking me as the big fix because I'm not sure there is a consensus on what education is about. There are two questions: (1) is education (and college esp.) about education for its own sake, to cultivate the mind (see Mathra Nussbaum's new book) or is it about getting a job. I think this debate is fading: its about getting a job. But there is a second issue that you boil to the front the most when people talk about PISA scores. Roughly the issue is something like: are schools supposed to teach facts and abilities or should they be cultivating something that could be described vaguely as creativity or an entrepreneurial spirit (or both). Under the former view PISA is a good test that shows we're behind. Under the later view we don't even have the right metrics.

However those debates are resolved, the biggest idea in education for the next couple decades can be summed up in one word: experiments. We can make dramatic gains in any direction is we start taking the ideas of experimenting and letting experiments guide policy seriously. We would have a debate about what an online class needs to achieve to be worthwhile, test it, and if it achieves the benchmarks end the discussion. I don't know how long or how far we an move in this direction, though.

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