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The University of Chicago Urban Education Lab

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Why Experiment?


Improving educational outcomes in urban areas is one of the nation’s top policy priorities. The four-year high school graduation rate in the U.S. as a whole in 2005 was distressingly low (71 percent), but for the 50 largest cities in America was much lower still – equal to just 53 percent (Swanson, 2009). These educational problems harm the life chances of some of our most disadvantaged children, and harm the economic competitiveness of the nation as a whole. Schooling makes people more productive in the labor market (Card, 1999, Deaton, 2003), improves health (Lleras-Muney and Cutler, 2008), substantially reduces risk of criminal involvement (Lochner and Moretti, 2004), and affects other non-academic outcomes that are key to leading a healthy, productive life, such as critical thinking, social skills, self regulation, and patience (Becker and Mulligan, 1997; Oreopoulos and Salvanes, 2009). Addressing this problem becomes increasingly important as urban areas become more important. A century ago only 10 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, but now nearly half of all people around the globe (and 80 percent of Americans) live in urban environments.

Graduation Rates in 50 Largest U.S. Cities

(Principal Districts)

Swanson Grad Rates

(Swanson, 2009)

Unfortunately far too little is currently known about how to improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged children growing up in urban areas. Basic research has taught us a great deal about how children learn, and what developmentally productive interactions between children and teachers look like, but we know remarkably little about how to use our available policy levers to improve the quality of developmental environments that children experience. Support for this claim comes from the steady decline over the past 40 years in the rate at which young people receive high school diplomas (Heckman and LaFontaine, 2007). Additional support comes from the nearly complete inability of policymakers to be confident that their decisions are leading in the right direction.

The field needs to recognize that many of our most important education-policy questions are empirical, not philosophical. A policy intervention either is or is not more effective than the status quo for improving student outcomes. A given teacher performance-pay or promotion policy, or a given set of regulations for charter schools, either does or does not increase learning. The answers to these types of questions are in principle knowable, even if the education research field has traditionally not organized itself in effective ways to generate reliable policy-relevant evidence – particularly through the increased use of randomized controlled trials and process evaluations. In fact, the problem has not been a lack of ideas or new programs. Rather, the problem is that in the context of urban education, new programs are rarely implemented in ways that can be rigorously evaluated.

The lesson is that progress in addressing the problem of urban education is extremely difficult without learning from experience - we require guidance about what programs work, for whom, why, and how they can be improved. The University of Chicago Urban Education Lab looks to partner with government agencies and community organizations to conduct and rigorously evaluate promising programs that aim to improve on the current education system.