Advances in Knowledge

At ICS the academic progress we usually monitor is of our students, but today we note Parag Pathak, a 37 year old from Corning, NY. He won the John Bates Clark medal for the best economist under the age of 40.  It’s only slightly less prestigious than the Nobel prize.

While it’s unlikely you know his name, Pathak’s work has had enormous practical impact in cities like Boston – where he teaches at MIT – and New York. Lotteries such as the one you entered to enroll your child at ICS are one way to allocate a scarce resource – good schools – fairly. But Dr. Pathak and his collaborators have been busy developing improved systems and studying their effect.

Kevin Bryan, a Professor at the University of Toronto, writes that Pathak labors in:

an area where theorists have had incredible influence on public policy, notably via Pathak’s PhD Advisor, the Nobel prize winner Al Roth and his proteges like Atila Abdulkadiroglu and Tayfun Somnez, as well as the work of 2015 Clark medal winner Roland Fryer. Indeed, this group’s work on how to best allocate students to schools in an incentive-compatible way – that is, in a way where parents need only truthfully state which schools they like best – was adopted by the city of Boston, to my knowledge the first-time this theoretically-optimal mechanism was used by an actual school district. As someone born in Boston’s contentious Dorchester neighborhood, it is quite striking how much more successful this reform was than the busing policies of the 1970s which led to incredible amounts of bigoted pushback.

Pathak’s family came to the US from Kathmandu, Nepal. Atila Abdulkadiroglu and Tayfun Somnez are originally from Turkey. Roland Fryer grew up in challenging circumstances in Lewisville, Texas. At a time when many Americans are anxious about the impact of immigration, trade, and expanding opportunity for previously marginalized groups, it is quite something to reflect on the impact of this talented, young, diverse group of researchers on educational opportunity in America.

Although it is supposed to work like Boston’s, Pathak examined New York City’s [high] school choice program to check that belief. (Critical thinking!)

He concluded that parents do not choose irrationally, but they value the quality of the other children at the school over the school’s academic effectiveness, which may be hard to judge. This creates a perverse incentive for the school’s administration to allocate resources to screening applicants more carefully – in order to get higher quality students – rather than to improving instructional quality. Because of Pathak’s work we know more and have chances to improve this fraught time in kids’ and parents’ lives.

With a lottery as our only entry method, ICS has no incentive or way to screen applications. And as you know, we focus a lot of resources on instructional quality.  But what makes me especially happy is to live in a country where economists like Parag Pathak are given the chance to think broadly about difficult social issues and develop solutions that will improve outcomes and opportunities for all our kids.