CALDER Research Conference 2018

By: Kit Faiella, Policy Fellow

From January 23rd to 26th, the World Economic Forum held their annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Davos was a chance for the great minds of economics to come together to discuss pressing issues facing the world today. Similarly, the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) held their annual research conference in Washington, DC, just one week later, bringing together the top researchers and advocates of education policy. It was a chance for education researchers to showcase their work and discuss the upcoming policy ideas and challenges to education on the horizon. Each panel contained researchers who presented their latest work, after which a policy practitioner would react to the findings. Next, panelists discussed each other’s work, and each panel concluded with questions from the audience. The four panels were:

  • K-12 Student Achievement Gaps: What Are the Contributing Factors, and What Can Be Done About Them
  • Policy and Practice Potpourri
  • Prospects for Changing Higher Education
  • Dealing with the 3rd Rail: The Politics of Data Access

In the first panel, Steven Rivkin of the University of Illinois at Chicago explored the relationship between student achievement and the Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) schools incentive structure in Dallas, TX. The ACE schools implemented aggressive incentives to attract top-quality teachers to their schools in the 2014-2015 school year, and thus far have demonstrated gains in student achievement, especially in mathematics.

Overall, Dr. Rivkin concluded there was an association between attracting top teachers via incentives and student achievement – performance compensation leads to better results for students. Dr. Rivkin also acknowledged the potential unintended consequences of the compensation reforms: drawing the top talent out to more affluent schools could exacerbate staffing challenges in many disadvantaged schools. Unfortunately, this equally interesting topic was beyond the scope of his research/presentation.

The second panel focused on topics such as the impact of the opportunity culture initiative, the effectiveness of the new teacher screening and hiring process in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and the effectiveness of the UTeach program at the University of Texas at Austin. Each researcher found their respective programs and initiatives led to positive results. While her results are not yet final, Dr. Katharine Strunk noted a fascinating observation in her study of the screening and hiring practices of the LAUSD: there seems to be an association between hiring teachers using this process and a rise in student achievement. For a district as large as Los Angeles, this is a noteworthy finding; however, Dr. Strunk stressed these results were preliminary and that readers should not take this correlational observation as causal evidence.

The last research panel looked at the prospects for changing higher education. There were two research papers and one book presented during this panel. The overall topics were fairly broad in their coverage, but all found striking results. In Dr. Cory Koedel’s research, he found there wasn’t a correlation between expanded access to STEM coursework in high school and STEM education coursework in Missouri colleges. The results suggest that using STEM access as a policy lever in high school to promote STEM diversity in college is not effective.

Dr. Harry Holzer presented his research on various inefficiencies within the community college system, in relation to students’ major choices, retention, and outcomes. The goal of his ongoing research was to identify the most effective pathways for students in community colleges. Overall, he found that there is a disturbing trend of low completion rates, and many students who go in with a credential in mind don’t wind up getting that credential. This has financial consequences for these students, many of whom are not completing their degree but are still saddled with the debt. His research is still ongoing.

Lastly, Charlie Clotfelter presented information from his book Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity, where he assesses whether the income disparities playing out in the United States today are also inherent within institutions of higher education. Utilizing the data from UCLA’s Freshman Survey, which surveys incoming freshmen students from post-secondary institutions around the country, he found the wealthiest schools are disproportionately bringing in wealthier freshmen, compared to their less-selective or public school peers. His findings are based off of longitudinal data from 1970, 1990, and 2010. Clotfelter found that the per-student endowment has increased at the wealthiest, most selective schools (he states that in 1990, that figure was around $300k/student, compared to over $1M/student in 2010). At the least-selective and public schools, endowments have remained flat since 1970 at roughly $15k per student). The average family income at highly-selective schools continues to grow, but it has fallen at many of the least-selective and public schools between 1970 – 2010. Clotfelter also found a widening political gap between these types of schools as well, with many students at the wealthiest private schools saying they are much less conservative than in the past – the decline in conservative views among college students can be seen across the board, but is far more pronounced at these institutions. Finally, Clotfelter left the audience with some positive news, noting that institutions across the country are becoming more diverse, a positive sign of the changing demographics of the country.

In its 11th year now, the CALDER conference again produced many fascinating insights for policymakers. While the Davos meeting in Switzerland discussed the various investments firms and countries are making to boost output and GDP, CALDER continues to remind us that the most important investment is in the future of our students. Perhaps one day the students who are impacted by the reforms and policies discussed at CALDER will be presenting at a panel in Davos.

Links to the working papers can be found on the CALDER website.

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