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Studying school quality, to fight inequality

New MIT center examines education and its lifelong effects.
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Education has long been perceived as a great leveler in the United States, providing opportunities throughout society. But at a time of economic struggle, millions of people are wondering if the country’s schools can still provide a platform for success.

“School quality and human capital are major issues on the American policy agenda,” says Josh Angrist, the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT, noting the emphasis President Barack Obama placed on the issue during his most recent State of the Union address.

Yet it is hard for parents to make confident decisions about the subject. “A very difficult question is finding out what is a good school for your child,” says Parag Pathak, a professor in MIT’s Department of Economics. Moreover, state and local civic leaders must continually evaluate schools as well.

That is one reason Angrist, Pathak and economist David Autor have founded the School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative (SEII), a new center at MIT giving a home to diverse studies of education and its effects on Americans throughout their working lives.

Some of those studies have already made headlines: Angrist and Pathak, working with other scholars, have found that while some Boston charter schools outperform the city’s other public schools, charter schools elsewhere in Massachusetts fail to generate gains in student achievement. They have also found that some highly regarded public schools — which use competitive test-based admissions — may not improve the trajectory of the already-thriving students who are accepted into them.

Mostly random econometrics

SEII’s intellectual roots date back to an influential 1991 paper about education and earnings published by Angrist and Alan Krueger, who is now chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors. That paper used a quirk in state enrollment practices to reveal that among men born in the 1930s, those born in the second half of the year, on aggregate, spent more time in school — they were allowed to start at younger ages, while everyone could exit school immediately upon turning 16 — and earned more in the workplace than those born in the first half of the year.

The study helped trigger widespread use in economics of “natural experiments”: studies that compare two otherwise random groups of people distinguished by a single variable. Today, Angrist explains, SEII’s work is oriented around “high-quality quasi-experimental research designs, which in many cases come close to producing the type of evidence that one would get from a randomized trial.”

To see why this matters, consider a school whose students produce mediocre test scores. “Is this because it’s not an effective school?” Pathak asks. “It could just be that the students came in behind in the first place.” SEII’s charter-school studies therefore focus on schools that use random admission lotteries, to see how an otherwise similar group of applicants eventually perform at different schools.

In one study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2011, Angrist, Pathak and their co-authors — Atila Abdulkadiroglu of Duke University, Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan and Thomas J. Kane of Harvard University — found that many urban charter schools in the Boston area were producing large improvements: roughly a 15-percentile gain annually for middle-school math students on the state exams. But in a similar subsequent study, the researchers found that charter schools outside the Boston area “are largely ineffective and appear to reduce achievement for some.”

Why is this? In a working paper released this month on the Social Science Research Network, Angrist, Pathak and MIT graduate student Christopher Walters suggest that the successful schools adhere to the “no excuses” educational formula, which emphasizes instruction time, student behavior, and traditional math and reading skills. But not all charter schools take this approach.

“The charter schools’ idea is, ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom,’” Angrist says. “Well, many of those flowers are dandelions. … In the urban context, it really is only the ‘no excuses’ schools that are effective. Those are real results, but that is not what’s going on statewide or nationally. Charter schools are very heterogeneous.”

Never too late to improve

Charter schools are, as Pathak has noted, a “politically charged” issue: They draw public funding, but do not employ unionized teachers. But the results of the SEII studies, Angrist notes, go beyond these ongoing debates.

One implication emerging from the SEII research is that it is never too late to help students improve. Many social scientists have published studies emphasizing the long-term importance of early educational experiences at the preschool, kindergarten or early grade-school stages. By contrast, Angrist says, “we’re showing dramatic gains in middle school and later for kids who come in at a very low baseline.” The idea that the social problems underprivileged children face are too great to be overcome, Angrist adds, “is a compelling narrative, but it’s not true.”

Another educational myth may be what SEII researchers call the “peer illusion”: the idea that being around other good peers helps students excel. In a paper released last year, Angrist, Pathak and Abdulkadiroglu found that attending one of the elite “exam schools” in New York City and Boston — such as Bronx Science or Boston Latin — does not seem to change the achievement levels of already-successful students. The study showed, essentially, that students who just miss the admissions cutoff at those schools still perform well at regular public schools.

The SEII researchers aim to expand their studies of charter schools, which currently include those in Massachusetts, Michigan and Texas. The vast majority of states, however, do not yet release the data needed to study charter schools in a rigorous way.

Massachusetts has, in part, because “we have a great community of researchers here,” says Carrie Conaway, director of the Office of Planning and Research in the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The work of the SEII scholars has had “a big impact on policy development,” she notes, and has been “really important” methodologically, thanks to its use of lottery-based admissions as a data source.

Beyond its studies of secondary schools, SEII has received funding from the Buffett Foundation to study the performance of college students as well.

“Our mission in the SEII center is to design studies to learn about different school models whenever and wherever we can,” Angrist says.

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