Dollars and sense of education policy: Human Ecology economists are doing the reading, writing, and arithmetic on education reform.
Subject: Educational reform (Analysis)
Education and state (Laws, regulations and rules)
Educational planning (Methods)
Author: Hall, Sheri
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: Human Ecology Publisher: Cornell University, Human Ecology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Science and technology; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Cornell University, Human Ecology ISSN: 1530-7069
Issue: Date: Spring, 2012 Source Volume: 40 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 930 Government regulation; 940 Government regulation (cont); 980 Legal issues & crime Advertising Code: 94 Legal/Government Regulation Computer Subject: Government regulation
Product: Product Code: 9105110 Education Programs NAICS Code: 92311 Administration of Education Programs
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 294821778
Full Text: Ensuring that children and young adults are well-educated and prepared for productive careers is a top priority in communities across the United States. How to achieve those goals and improve our education system is hotly debated at local, state, and federal levels--with policymakers and school administrators trying to make evidence-based decisions on everything from curricula to school funding and the value of standardized testing.

An expanding core of faculty members in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management (PAM) are having a direct impact on those debates, especially in the growing field of education economics. With two new hires in 2011--Damon Clark from Princeton University and Maria Fitzpatrick from Stanford University--the department now has five professors studying aspects of education policy.

"PAM's group of education scholars focuses on critical issues in our public education system," said department chair Rosemary Avery. "Their research informs the public debate over school performance on issues such as the effect of universal prekindergarten on children's academic achievement, the impact of bilingual education on school performance, and the impact of higher education standards on student outcomes."

Early start on the right track

Assistant professor Maria Fitzpatrick is examining the effects of early-childhood education on children's long-term academic achievement. She has shown that universal preschool programs allowing children to start school at age four, instead of the usual age five, improve the academic achievement of low-income children and those in rural areas--while having no negative effects on the achievement of other children.

Professor Jennifer Gerner, also focused on early-childhood education, has found that children's school experiences prior to kindergarten have an impact on their performance in kindergarten and beyond. Gerner compared achievement scores of children in states with varying mandatory ages to start school to assess what policy is best for kids.


"The evidence is increasingly piling up that the younger you start kids, the better off they're going to be," she said. "Early-childhood education has an impact on graduation rates for students 15 years down the road. Basically, if you miss something in your education early on, you don't get a chance to make it up. When kids are 12, you can't give them something back that they missed when they were four."

Inducements for teachers

PAM faculty members are also investigating the most cost-effective methods to improve how we recruit, evaluate, and compensate teachers.

Assistant professor Michael Lovenheim delved into a teacher pay program in Texas that awards teachers when their students score well on standardized tests. "It's something that policyinakers seem to love on both sides of the aisle," he said. "But the evidence is not as strong that this works in developed countries."

Fitzpatrick's work has focused on whether public school employees value their retirement benefits at the same level it costs taxpayers to provide them.

"Given the potential burden on taxpayers of public-sector wages, the importance of education for economic success, and the stark contrast to private-sector compensation mechanisms, determining compensation structures for public school teachers that attracts the highest-quality teachers is an imperative," she said.

Fitzpatrick's research has found that public school teachers do not value increases in their retirement benefits at a level that justifies the costs of those benefits. Paying teachers higher current wages and lowering their retirement benefits would therefore be a more efficient way of attracting good teachers into public schools.

Together, Lovenheim and Fitzpatrick are looking into teacher retirement incentives and the impact of retiring teachers on children's academic achievement.

"The teacher labor force is aging, and a huge mass of teachers is approaching retirement now," Lovenheim said. "The question is what's going to happen when you replace these experienced teachers with new, young teachers."

The pair used data from all public schools in Illinois from the 1990s, when the state provided additional benefits to teachers who retired early. "For the most part, the retirements did not have a negative effect on students," Lovenheim said.

Low-down on higher education

Higher education is also an important field of study for Lovenheim. His project on public schools in Texas, with colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas, links demographic information and test scores from students' school careers with their higher-education records and subsequent earnings. One aspect of the project traces how students move through the higher-education system.

"We have this idea that you're in high school, you apply to college, you go, and you graduate," Lovenheim said. "But over the past several decades, that model has been inaccurate. It's really more of a story of students moving across institutions and having enrollment gaps."

Students who start at community colleges, for example, with the plan of transferring to a four-year university tend to have lower graduation rates and earning potential. "The evidence is clear that it does hurt the student," he said. "Community colleges are serving so many different groups and with fewer resources compared to universities. When you expose students to lower resources, they tend not to do as well."

Lovenheim is also looking at the issue of how the real estate market impacts college enrollment. He's found strong evidence that students from lower-income families whose parents experience increases in housing wealth while they're in high school tend to go to more expensive universities with better resources and tend to graduate more often. "The study looked at students whose families earned less than $75,000 a year," he said. "Those are the students you worry most about being able to afford college, because they don't qualify for financial aid but they don't have a lot of extra money."

Education policy from A to Z

There's myriad other education policies that are the subject of research by PAM faculty members. Assistant professor Jordan Matsudaira has investigated how mandatory summer school policies affect student achievement in a large, urban school district. His work found improvements in both math and reading achievement. "The study suggests that summer school may be a more cost-effective way of raising student achievement scores than class-size reductions," he said.

He is also looking at how schools respond to incentives in federal subsidy programs to secure increased funding and investigating the impact of bilingual programs on the educational and economic outcomes of the children of immigrants.

Assistant professor Damon Clark has compared the educational performance of children in charter schools--which receive public money but are not subject to the same regulations--with children's performance at traditional schools in the United Kingdom.

"Test scores improved, and the effects were quite big," he said. "It's difficult to explain exactly why the charter schools performed better. One story is that principals are able to make independent personnel decisions, and the other story is that these schools got more money."

Clark has also studied a regulation in Florida that requires high school students to pass an exam to receive a diploma. His goal is to conduct research that helps improve schools. "You want to have an impact on the debate, if not the policy," he said.

Because of sweeping changes in the American economy, the state of our nation's education system is more relevant than ever before, argues Lovenheim. With a steep decline in blue-collar jobs, education is a key pathway to financial stability.


"The U.S. economy in the past 40 or 50 years has shifted from being a manufacturing economy to a service economy," he said. "That means getting an education is more important than probably ever in the history of our country because the economy requires it for you to get a well-paying job."

Matsudaira points out that legislators and school administrators are moving toward education policies that are evidence-based. "Much of federal legislation includes money for evaluation, and there are clearly cases where research has been used to push an agenda forward."

While education policy research by PAM faculty members runs the gamut of ages and topics, the group works together collaborating on specific research projects, co-teaching courses, and sharing ideas and projects in weekly meetings of an education policy working group of 10 education-focused faculty members across Cornell's Ithaca campus.

The team is also expanding its course offerings on education policy for undergraduate and graduate students.

"Every resident of the U.S. has a stake in the success of our education system," said Fitzpatrick. "As voters, taxpayers, and potentially future parents and policymakers, our students will benefit from greater understanding of our educational system. Our expanded courses are designed to teach students of all levels about education policies and existing evidence about their efficacy."

RELATED ARTICLE: Human Ecology courses related to education policy and economics:

* Child Policy taught by Jennifer Gerner

* Waiting for Superman? Perspectives on the 'Crisis' in American K-12 Education taught by Jordan Matsudaira

* Education and the Labor Market taught by Damon Clark

* Education Policy taught by Maria Fitzpatrick

* Education Economics and Policy Analysis taught by Michael Lovenheim

RELATED ARTICLE: Beyond the Rhetoric: Education Policy in an Election Year

As the presidential campaign heats up, the political parties are developing their platforms on how to improve education. A few PAM experts discussed which policies are making the grade and which are failing.

The Obama administration's key policy to improve K-12 education--called Race to the Top--is designed to spur reforms by awarding extra funding to states that implement specific educational policies such as using test scores to measure teacher performance, promoting charter schools, and introducing computers to school districts.

While the policies promoted by Race to the Top appear to help improve student achievement, there isn't a body of evidence that proves they are effective across diverse populations, said Jordan Matsudaira, assistant professor of policy analysis and management.

"For example, a lot of money is available to states that use test scores to evaluate teachers, but there is not a lot of evidence about how these evaluations impact schools because this program has never been implemented on a large scale," he said.

Promoting charter schools is one policy that does seem to work, said assistant professor Damon Clark. But it's not clear if that's because principals have more autonomy to choose their teaching staff or because charter schools typically receive more funding than traditional public schools.

At the college level, the Obama administration's main policy to reduce college costs was to increase Pell Grant and subsidized Stafford loan levels--changes that have fostered college attendance, according to assistant professor Michael Lovenheim. But the administration has not focused on the students who drop out of college, he said. Fewer than half of students who start college obtain their four-year degree, and that share is declining.

"I would like to see our policymakers focus more on trying to get the students who go to college to finish, rather than try to induce more students to go," Lovenheim said. "The evidence we have points strongly to the higher-education system struggling to support the volume of students currently in the system. This issue receives almost no attention by either major political party."

One policy that clearly yields results is investing in early-childhood education, professor Jennifer Gerner said. "But it's a politically tough issue because it's a long-term strategy, which takes 10 or 15 years to see the results in young adults, so policymakers often focus on K-12 education instead."

Another model that has been yielding sizable results is "no excuses" charter schools, exemplified by the Harlem Children's Zone and the Knowledge Is Power (KIPP) charter schools. These are non-profit organizations in low-income neighborhoods that use longer instructional time, rigorous student assessment, high expectations, and, in the case of the Harlem Children's Zone, parenting workshops, a pre-school program, and health programs. The Obama administration has made efforts to replicate these types of programs in other low-income neighborhoods around the country.

"This model delivers results, but it takes a lot of money to do what they're doing," Gerner said.

For more information:

Damon Clark

Maria Fitzpatrick

Jennifer Gerner

Michael Lovenheim


Jordan Matsudaira

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