Pondering Checker 3: Is Parent-Change "Beyond Reach" of Policy?

In his essay examining 8 barriers to kids getting a much better education, Checker describes parenting concerns as "plenty real, but largely beyond the reach of public policy." I wonder.

(Note: Checker enthusiastically supports parents choosing schools, as do I. This is about somehow changing the day-to-day behaviors of parents).

Fascinating $10 million experiment that’s underway:

John List, a University of Chicago economics professor, strides through the Griffin Early Childhood Center chatting with teachers, complimenting girls on their braids and hollering out the window.

He acts like it’s his school, and in many ways, it is. The preschool in the low-income suburb of Chicago Heights is the centerpiece of one of the largest field experiments ever conducted in economics, and it’s List’s brainchild.

With $10 million from hedge-fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin, List will track the results of more than 600 students-- including 150 at this school. His goal is to find out whether investing in teachers or, alternatively, in parents, leads to more gains in kids’ educational performance...

The design:

Local families with kids 3 to 5 years old were encouraged to enter a lottery and were randomly sorted into three groups.

Students selected to attend the Griffin school are enrolled in the free, all-day preschool. Children in another group aren’t enrolled in the school, while their guardians take courses at a “parenting academy” and receive cash or scholarships valued at up to $7,000 annually as a reward.

List makes this argument:

List says. “We have too many eggs in the kid basket,” says List, himself a father of five. “We need to spend much more time and many more resources on helping parents.”

Another 300 kids are a control group, get nothing.

What do you predict?

The thing is, what we're testing here is List's particular intervention on parents, the parent academy executed by certain individuals, etc. I.e., his particular Chicago effort may fail, and yet interventions that help people parent better may still be within reach.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, cancer was treated by surgery and radiation. Giving people poisons called "chemotherapy" was not something that anyone considered. Then once we decided that was a good idea, we tried (and still try) lots of chemo trials.

So I agree with List. We have $700 billion a year in the "kids basket," and a tiny amount -- depending on how you classify it -- in the "parent basket." That's just not a good allocation of eggs.

We need many experiments in helping people to change their parent behavior, entirely on a voluntary basis (and perhaps never delivered by gov't -- too coercive -- but by nonprofits, forprofits, churches, etc).