Help! How do I keep my students in class?

6th March, 2010

Dear Economist,
I teach special education at an urban public high school. Every period, as many as half my students ask to go to the bathroom. I am pretty confident that most of them are just looking for an excuse to leave the classroom, but going to the bathroom is a right and I don’t want to run my class like a prison.
Beside making my content more engaging, how do I allow students to go to the bathroom in a way that’s equitable and limits the numbers outside the classroom in a given period? Three stipulations: grades are off-limits; I also don’t have much money, so I’m reluctant to offer prizes; and I’d like this system to have as little to do with me as possible. I’m a teacher, not a gatekeeper.
Anon, Washington, DC

Dear Anon,

The great Kenneth Arrow is famous for his “impossibility theorem”, which proves there is no satisfactory way to aggregate individual preferences into a group preference. I am tempted to propose my own “bathroom impossibility conjecture” – which is that the requirements you specify cannot all be simultaneously satisfied. (Let’s summarise them: the bathroom remains a right; making lessons interesting is a side-issue; neither monetary nor academic incentives are to be deployed; no input from you is to be required.)

I do have one suggestion, inspired by Roland Fryer, a Harvard professor who has been running policy pilots that offer cash to good performers at school. Since Fryer’s earlier work suggests that peer pressure explains much slacking at school, some pilots group kids into teams which succeed or fail together.

Perhaps you could group the kids into two or four teams and offer a reward – or just praise – to the team with the strongest bladders. It might work. It might also lead to accidents and mockery. I wish you luck.

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