From fair schools to vaccine distribution

Parag Pathak
Economist
MIT

Parag Pathak, featured in 2019, strives to make public education more equitable. He has used data and algorithms to overhaul school choice systems in Boston, New York and other U.S. cities. Now he’s applying his research to the question of how to equitably distribute vaccines and other medical resources.

What’s the most notable progress in your work since 2019?
Since we last talked, I released a paper on the effects of universal preschool. A lot of people are interested right now because [universal preschool, which is open to everyone with no income rule,] is part of the White House’s agenda. Because of the work we had done with Boston with their school choice algorithm over the years, we had some files on school admissions going back to the late 1990s. Boston was a leader nationwide in expanding slots for children in preschool. But, like many cities, there weren’t enough slots for demand, so they had to ration. And that’s where the lotteries come in.

Fast forward to now. We linked these applicant cohorts to standardized test scores and educational outcomes all the way into college. And what we found was pretty exciting: Those who won the [preschool] lottery are more likely to graduate high school, they score higher on SATs and they’re more likely to enroll in college. Boston has continued to refine and try to improve [the lottery system]. It’s a model for other cities that are expanding public preschool.

Are you pursuing any new questions or projects?
COVID-19 was this huge shock. We all were looking around for how we could be useful, using our respective toolboxes. Tayfun Sönmez, M. Utku Ünver and M. Bumin Yenmez, all of Boston College — the four of us — started to study how scarce medical resources are rationed. And it turns out, there are some parallels with the way school seats are rationed.

One of the ideas that we’ve explored is the idea of a reserve system. In cases where people can’t agree on what’s fair, who should get a vaccine first? It’s very similar to who should get into a school. And the way that [schools] have handled that is they set up more elaborate versions of priority systems. With a vaccine reserve system, you basically have a [supply] that’s reserved for cardiac communities, and one that’s reserved for frontline medical personnel, so on and so forth…. States like California and Massachusetts have used some of our ideas [for their reserve systems].

My wife [Ruma Rajbhandari] is a medical doctor, and my sister [Sapana Adhikari] is an emergency room physician. A big part of my interest in medical rationing guidelines was their having to go to the hospital in March 2020 not knowing what the risks were and not having personal protective equipment. That was something that got me really keen on this debate about frontline health care workers, do they get first priority or not?

How has the pandemic shifted how you view your work in the area of education?
I have a kindergartner who was virtual this past year. And he did an amazing job with it. I think what the pandemic has done is rip the Band-Aid off on these lingering problems in society — inequitable access to health care, inequitable access to education, inefficiencies in both of the systems — and has made them much more pronounced. That’s been the theme of our research throughout. We hope more people take these issues on, because the way COVID-19 played out was really a scarring event in terms of haves and the have-nots.

— Interview by Cassie Martin