Somewhere, Milton Friedman is smiling. Last month the American Economic Association announced that Parag Pathak, an economist from MIT, is the recipient of the 2018 John Bates Clark Medal. Each year this award is given to the most impressive economists under forty. Historically, the winners—including Dr. Friedman—have had about a one in three chance of winning the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Over 65 years ago, Milton Friedman suggested that while the government should pay for every child to be educated, the government shouldn’t necessarily run the schools. Breaking the public school monopoly by allowing parents to choose their children’s school should lead to parents selecting the most effective schools. Low-performing schools would have to either improve or close.
Similarly, Dr. Pathak’s research has focused on finding smarter ways to allocate education resources. He has studied market design and how parents choose schools when they have to provide their top choices to a system that matches students to schools. Looking at students in Boston, he discovered that some students (and presumably their parents) are simply more sophisticated choosers than others, which makes them better at securing spots in the most-desired schools (even if sometimes the schools picked by the sophisticated choosers weren’t the best fit for them). This discovery led to a revision in the matching algorithm of the enrollment system so that it is now more difficult to game.
Dr. Pathak pursued similar work in New York City and in New Orleans. Overall, he found that improving the choice system can lead to better matching of students and schools. This better matching can, but doesn’t always, lead to improved outcomes for the students. Pathak has also contributed significantly to the growing body of evidence that urban charter schools can generate large achievement gains for low-income students of color.
Unfortunately, Dr. Friedman didn’t have a chance to study school choice systems after they were implemented. But his efforts have allowed others to pick up the torch, and results suggest that his hypotheses had merit. I look forward to learning more from Dr. Pathak.