An Interview with Josh Angrist: School Quality – Who Decides?

May 27, 2012 by

Joshua David Angrist is an American economist. He is Ford Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Angrist, a labor economist, has taught at the university level since 1989

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Joshua Angrist is the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT and a Research Associate in the NBER’s programs on Children, Education, and Labor Studies. A dual U.S. and Israeli citizen, he taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before coming to MIT. Angrist received his B.A. from Oberlin College in 1982 and also spent time as an undergraduate studying at the London School of Economics and as a Masters student at Hebrew University. He completed his Ph.D. in Economics at Princeton in 1989. His first academic job was as an Assistant Professor at Harvard from 1989-91.

Angrist’s research interests include the effects of school inputs and school organization on student achievement; the impact of education and social programs on the labor market; the effects of immigration, labor market regulation and institutions; and econometric methods for program and policy evaluation. Many of Angrist’s papers use data from other countries, but he does not especially like to travel and prefers to get data in the mail. Angrist is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Econometric Society, and has served on many editorial boards and as a Co-editor of the Journal of Labor Economics.

He received an honorary doctorate from the University of St Gallen (Switzerland) in 2007 and is the author (with Steve Pischke) of Mostly Harmless Economics: An Empiricist’s Companion (Princeton University Press, 2009). In addition to academic work and teaching at MIT, Angrist occasionally ventures abroad to teach an Empirical Strategies short course based on Mostly Harmless Econometrics. The Angrist family lives in Brookline, Massachusetts and enjoys activities like hiking, mountain biking, skiing, skating, sailing, and eating.

In this interview, he responds to questions about school choice, finance and economics.

  1. School quality and human capital ARE major issues for all Americans. But we all know that some schools are failing. What can the typical parent do for their child other than attempt to home school?

Some schools are better than others. For many parents, however, this is not worth worrying about. For example, I never worried much about my kids schooling. I told them that teaching is hard, many teachers are mediocre at best, and they should try to get something out of badly taught classes as well as inspiring ones. The evidence suggests that’s a reasonable approach for children in educated families like mine. I worry most about the children of teen mothers, from families where there isn’t much adult supervision, little in the way of role models, and little hope for a middle class life. In this situation, a good school can make a huge difference. That’s something we see clearly in our charter studies (e.g., our study of Boston charters published in 2011). The effective charters in our sample provide a lot of structure and learning for children who come in with very little.

I’m skeptical of home schooling. I haven’t seen any evidence this is a good alternative. I’d be happy to study it someday.

  1. The only thing I have ever heard Obama say about education is that all kids deserve a “ world class education “ ( gosh, who could argue with that? ) But I have never heard him define a “world class education”- Have you? Or has Arne Duncan said anything about this?

The president spoke in surprising detail about human capital policy in the January 2012 state of the union speech. Among other things, he proposed to increase the compulsory attendance age to 18 nationwide. Along with Alan Krueger, who is now the head of the CEA, I published a paper in 1991 suggesting that additional compulsory schooling is likely to have a big payoff for those who would otherwise drop out. Perhaps because people are young when they drop out, they make poor decisions. Forcing more schooling on some will very likely increase their earnings as adults.

Another good idea I heard in the speech is to make it easier to promote effective teachers and fire bad ones. There’s been great progress in teacher evaluation in the last few years, so this is an idea whose time has come.

Research by Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Jonah Rockoff, Tom Kane, Doug Staiger, and Rick Hanushek, among others, has convinced me that statistical models of teacher value-added have real predictive power.

I also very much like the president’s idea of national standards, implicitly, I think, based on some kind of national test. This would replace the current hodge-podge of state tests and make it much easier to determine which policies are most effective. A nice thing about our democracy is that the states give us a kind of laboratory for reform. But it is hard to see what the lab work is showing when everyone uses their own instruments.

No, I don’t recall a definition of a world class education.

  1. What is this School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative (SEII),? What do you hope to accomplish ?

SEII is a new center at MIT that is meant to provide a home for the work we’re doing on the evaluation of school effectiveness and the links between human capital and the labor market. My academic partners at SEII are Parag Pathak, an expert on school assignment, and David Autor, a leading labor economist. The three of us work together on what’s sometimes called “impact evaluation,” that is, we study the causal effects of particular educational models or policies. This includes the work on charter schools I mentioned above. In addition, Parag is an expert on school assignment. Along with colleagues from Harvard and Boston College, he designed the mathematical algorithm that the Boston and New York public schools use to match children to schools. The algorithm is designed to make as many families as happy as possible, while still satisfying whatever constraints the district imposes (such as sibling or walk-zone preferences). As a by-product, the algorithms have a random element that we can use for research. David is doing important work on the way policies related to international trade and labor market intermediaries interact with worker skills to either benefit or hurt them. His work has been central in showing the increasing importance of schooling for the labor market.

  1. Now, charter schools—-they seem to control a certain number of variables- discipline problems—special education students etc. Can you really do good comparative studies?

The ideal research design for us is a randomized trial: for example, we’d like to randomly select students from the pool of applicants and send some to charter schools and others to regular public schools. Then we’d know that any later differences are truly generated by the schools and not due to the fact that a certain type of student is more likely to attend charter.

And, amazingly enough, in Massachusetts, that’s how it’s done! When charter schools have more applicants than seats, they must use a random lottery to pick their students. That’s when our team comes in – these lotteries produce the strongest evidence we have to date on school effectiveness.

  1. Okay….. let’s consider a school whose students produce mediocre test scores”—could this be due to an emphasis on sports, could it simply be random variance- you got the middle 68 percent of the bell shaped curve?

The level of a particular school’s test scores is very hard to interpret. The right question is whether a particular school or approach is better than relevant alternatives. We use admissions lotteries to ask that about Massachusetts charters.

  1. Successful schools appear to “adhere to the “no excuses” educational formula”. Tell us more about this formula and why is it so difficult to impement?

The most effective charter schools (indeed, the only effective charter schools in our sample) are the subset of urban schools that adhere to No Excuses practices. This term was coined to describe schools that tend to have a long day and year, emphasize discipline and comportment, focus on traditional math and reading skills, have a highly structured and time-efficient classroom environment, highly selective teacher hiring, and intensive monitoring of teachers’ classroom performance. A good reference on this approach is K. Merseth’s book-length study of high-performing urban charters. The schools she profiles are in our Massachusetts sample.

Difficultly seems hard to gauge. I’m always encouraged when good things are possible. Roland Fryer at Harvard Econ has just taken about a dozen of Houston’s lowest-performing schools and converted them to No Excuses practices, with promising early results. It wasn’t easy or cheap. But this is a pioneering effort, which shows that such conversions can be effective.

  1. What is this “peer illusion”—and is it based on Vygotskian thought or just modeling?

Peer illusion is a term we use to describe the fact that people tend to confuse the level of student performance with school quality. The fact that the level of achievement is high does not tell you much about whether a child is better off at this school or some other school. A great example of peer illusion is described in our study of Boston and New York exam schools (such as the Boston Latin School and New York’s Stuyvesant). The kids at these skills are awesome. But not because of the schools; these kids would have been awesome anywhere. Our results show those who attend an exam school are doing no better as a result.

  1. What and where is your web site to find out more about this topic?

You can find us at

The site has links to our work, information about our team, descriptions of work in progress, and links to some of the news articles our studies have generated.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

Positive developments and some surprisingly good news are coming out of the last decade or so’s education research. The quality of this research is higher than it’s ever been, and some of the results, such as those for teacher value-added models and No Excuses charters, are encouraging. You forgot to ask me if I’m optimistic about American education. I am.

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