Can tutoring for math lower crime rates? Can a education program show a Nobel Prize winner wrong?

It could have been a typical Freakonomics-question, can teaching more math lower the crime rates? I was asked this question by Belgian radio on Monday based on this article in the NY Times: Closing the Math Gap for Boys. The article discusses a very interesting “math-tutoring-on-steroids experiment” in Chicago for teenagers who were as many as seven years behind in reading and 10 in math:

After just a single year in Chicago’s intensive tutoring and mentoring program, known as Match, participants ended up as much as two years ahead of students in a control group who didn’t get this help. A report that is being released Sunday by the University of Chicago Crime Lab also finds that they performed substantially better on the Chicago school system’s math test; their scores on the N.A.E.P. math exam reduced the usual black-white test score gap by a third. This success carried over to nonmath classes, where these students were less likely to fail. Greater success in math also helped get them on track to graduate. It also led them to become more engaged in school, and they were 60 percent less likely than members of the control group to be arrested for a violent crime.

So I wanted to learn more about this project, and indeed it’s relevant, if you check the report:

There is growing concern that improving the academic skills of disadvantaged youth is too difficult and costly, so policymakers should instead focus either on vocationally oriented instruction for teens or else on early childhood education. Yet this conclusion may be premature given that so few previous interventions have targeted a potential fundamental barrier to school success: “mismatch” between what schools deliver and the needs of disadvantaged youth who have fallen behind in their academic or non-academic development. This paper reports on a randomized controlled trial of a two-pronged intervention that provides disadvantaged youth with non-academic supports that try to teach youth social-cognitive skills based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and intensive individualized academic remediation. The study sample consists of 106 male 9th and 10th graders in a public high school on the south side of Chicago, of whom 95% are black and 99% are free or reduced price lunch eligible. Participation increased math test scores by 0.65 of a control group standard deviation (SD) and 0.48 SD in the national distribution, increased math grades by 0.67 SD, and seems to have increased expected graduation rates by 14 percentage points (46%). While some questions remain about the intervention, given these effects and a cost per participant of around $4,400 (with a range of $3,000 to $6,000), this intervention seems to yield larger gains in adolescent outcomes per dollar spent than many other intervention strategies.

Why mention the price? Well it’s the true innovation aspect of this intervention:

One major innovation of the Match model, and a key reason we selected it, is the recognition that the instructional “technology” of tutoring is quite different from that of a classroom and so the set of skills and experiences required to be a successful instructor are different. This enables Match to expand the pool of people to recruit to be tutors and focus on people who are talented with strong math skills and willing to devote a year to public service, but who do not necessarily have extensive prior training or experience as teachers. As with other public service programs like Teach for America or City Year, the tutors were willing to work at relatively low wages ($16,000 plus benefits for the nine-month academic year). This makes the incredibly high dosage of the Match tutoring model feasible.

This seemingly little innovation actually is telling Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner, that his curve maybe could be wrong:

Because the Match-program shows that a smart intervention, even at a later age can have a big impact to a relatively small cost.

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