Dollars and Sense of Education Policy: Human Ecology Economists Are Doing the Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic on Education Reform

Article excerpt

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.

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"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. …