A banner year for behavioral science and policy

Guest post by Benjamin L. Castleman

castlemanOn Tuesday, September 15, President Obama issued an Executive Order encouraging federal agencies to use insights from behavioral science to inform the design and implementation of policies aimed at improving the lives of Americans. On the same day, the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team issued a report documenting collaborations with federal agencies over the past year that leveraged behavioral strategies to improve outcomes in areas ranging from health insurance enrollment to retirement savings among military personnel. These announcements by the Obama Administration come on the heels of several other important milestones over the last year, including the inaugural conference of the Behavioral Science and Policy Association and the publication of a directory of academics who focus on applying behavioral insights to address pressing societal issues. Simply put, behavioral sciences has entered the mainstream of American public policy innovation, development, and implementation.

Few sectors have experienced as rapid proliferation of behaviorally-informed policies over the last several years as public education. From pre-K through college, researchers and policy makers in communities across the country have implemented a variety of behavioral strategies to improve educational outcomes for America’s youth. These approaches tend to be guided by one of the following principles:

  • Change policies so that participating in important educational opportunities is the default condition rather than what students have to actively opt in to.
  • Simplify information to help students and families understand their educational options and make choices that are well-suited to students’ personal abilities and circumstances.
  • Prompt students to complete important tasks before they miss binding deadlines.
  • Creatively leverage available student data to make outreach as personalized and salient as possible.
  • Use delivery channels, like text messaging, that effectively reach students and their parents.

In San Francisco, all incoming kindergarten families are automatically enrolled in a college savings plan. These accounts encourage families to begin saving for college at an early age, and more importantly, create a new cultural status quo that all children in the city are going to college. Pediatricians across the country now capitalize on well visits with infants and toddlers—a regularly scheduled occurrence for families across socioeconomic backgrounds—to promote early literacy with parents. Stanford researchers went a step further, sending parents weekly text message prompts with concrete literacy strategies they could practice at home with their children.

Behaviorally-informed strategies continue as students advance in their schooling. In communities where families have a wide variety of choice in which elementary, middle, and high schools they attend, students and parents receive easy-to-digest brochures highlighting, with visual cues like star rating systems and school quality and academic performance information. Parents receive text messages and emails with personalized information about outstanding assignments their child still needs to complete. States from Maine to Illinois have made college entrance exams mandatory for all high school juniors so that students, regardless of their family’s education background, complete important milestones in the college application process. High school seniors receive text message prompts to apply for financial aid, and receive real-time updates if their application is incomplete and requires additional information.

These behavioral interventions are in most cases very low cost, and consistently generate substantial and lasting improvements in both educational achievement and attainment. Behavioral insights are being applied to new educational challenges every day, like helping college students make more informed loan borrowing choices, and to new populations, such as nudging incarcerated youth and adults to continue their education. The Obama Administration’s support for and prioritization of these strategies ensures that creative applications of behavioral insights to improve the lives of American youth will only continue to gain momentum.

Benjamin L. Castleman is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia and the author of The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve EducationRead more about the book and his research in Slate and the Huffington Post.

Use promo code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount when you order your copy of The 160-Character Solution.