What Do Ken Griffin And Oprah Have In Common?

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Besides both being Chicago residents who give out gifts at year-end in elaborate presentations that involve screaming and crying?

They both now have their own schools (hers for girls in Africa, his in Chicago, run as part of an experiment by a University of Chicago professor).

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...List wants to use experiments to solve youth violence in schools and gender bias in hiring. In each case, he wants to isolate why people behave the way they do.

Squatting on a toddler’s chair in one of the classrooms in the Griffin school, List sketches out the design of the experiment with a magic marker on an easel. 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.

So, that sounds nice. Humanity and all that jazz. Unfortunately, not everyone is thrilled by the idea and some people are even suggesting Ken Griffin's being taken for a ride.

“That’s a crazy idea,” says Clancy Blair, who studies how young children learn. “It’s not based on any prior research. This isn’t the incremental process of science. It’s ‘I have a crazy idea and I convinced someone to give me $10 million.’”

As an experiment, just to test if Ken Griffin knows the score, give him a call at the office today and pitch him on whatever crazy-- really crazy-- idea you've got (finance-related or otherwise) that needs funding. If he whips out his checkbook, Citadel investors may have cause to worry.

Chicago Economist's `Crazy' Education Idea Wins Ken Griffin's Backing [Bloomberg]

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