03-22-07 More on Educational Research

This Weekly Reader is about the contribution of economists to educational research—arguably the geekiest Weekly Reader topic yet. I realized I might not have ever said explicitly why I think those of us who work in Human Resources should be curious and literate about educational research. I see our job as helping the system find, develop, serve, and nurture a workforce that can cause kids to learn. So the more information we can get about the characteristics and behaviors that cause learning, the better able we’ll be to do our jobs. The link is obvious in the case of teachers. The more we know about what makes teachers successful in the classroom, the better we can help in selecting and training them, and the better we can serve their needs as employees. But it doesn’t stop there. I know a system that, driven by some research findings about kids’ readiness to learn, launched a new approach to hiring, training, and supporting janitors and school bus drivers, because they saw them as people who have important impacts on kids’ attitudes. There’s a whole research field devoted to adult learning theory, which can help us understand what causes our employees to succeed in their own learning challenges. Research also helps us understand how and where limited resources can be put to best use.

So now a little bit about economists. More and more, influential educational research studies seem to be based on econometric models. These models range from simple linear regression, in which we look at the relationship between x and y, plotted as a line (for every x increase in years’ education, there is a y increase in income, for example), to very complex models that can estimate the relationships between many different types of variables. These models allow researchers to look at a whole bunch of factors that might influence gains in student learning, and try to see the impact size and relative importance of each factor. They can pose questions like: “holding students’ socioeconomic status constant, what’s the relative effect of teacher certification?” These kinds of models aren’t unique to economists—they are also the tools of political scientists, psychologists, and sociologists, to name a few. But over the past decade or so, economists seem to have taken the lead in quantitative research in education. The Spencer Foundation, a blue-chip organization that supports research to improve schools, explained the kinds of questions economists ask in this way:

“First, economists tend to focus on costs as well as benefits. They ask, for example, not only whether reducing class size results in improved student learning, but also whether the gains relative to the costs compare favorably with other ways to use scarce resources. In other words, said one participant, "we should move beyond asking ‘does reducing class size help?’ and ask instead ‘how much does it help?’" Second, economics provides a strong theoretical framework, one that is particularly valuable in analyzing the operation of markets. The theory provides guidance about the types of data that are needed to evaluate the consequences of educational policies that concern interventions in markets, such as pay increases for teachers, and educational vouchers for students. Third, economists tend to value long-term as well as short-term outcomes. This is critical to understanding the consequences of many programs. . . . Finally, economists have solid statistical knowledge, particularly in non-experimental statistics. "We know . . . about how to handle situations where you don’t have all the data you want and there are omitted variables in your explanatory equation; that’s one of our strengths. . . .”

For more on the educational research approaches of economists, go to:


In a prior Weekly Reader, I talked about the contributions to our understanding of teacher quality at the DOE that have been made by Tom Kane of Harvard, Jonah Rockoff of Columbia, and Douglas Staiger of Dartmouth, all trained economists. If you missed it, you can see this (and all prior Weekly Readers, by the way) at:

http://leighsweeklyreader.blogspot.com/2007_01_01_archive.html (scroll down to the 12-05-06 edition)

And if econometric models appeal to your inner geek, here are a couple other guys who have done very interesting work that has made a mark on the national stage:

Next week, some of my favorite books on leadership and organizational management, and why I think they are relevant to our challenges in education.