5 Questions with Education Economist Daniel Dench
Posted September 9, 2021
What do education and economics have in common? The policies that schools and state governments form at their intersection can impact a student’s trajectory for the rest of their lives.
We called up education economist Daniel Dench, an assistant professor in the School of Economics at Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, for expert insight into the unique challenges and opportunities that arise in the field.
In our five-question Q&A, Dench discusses the findings that surprised him most when it comes to motivating students, the policies that do and don’t work in school desegregation, how academic screening can lead to unequal school systems, and much more.
This conversation was recorded on Aug. 13, 2021, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What inspired you to research the intersection of education and economics, and why is this field so important?
Daniel Dench: The story goes back to when I was in high school in a very white suburban area. And I had a friend who I went to camp with every year, and he was from the Bronx. We were equally matched on intelligence and wit and everything like that, but the school system where he was growing up was not great, and the school system where I was growing up was very well funded and very intense in academics.
And so, the course of our lives that I saw us take was also very different. I went to college, he dropped out and went to community college. He worked in restaurants 16 hours a day as a chef and put himself on a grind that was really hard for him and his family, whereas I feel like I've always gotten very good opportunities based on my background and education.
That inspired me to explore the issues that were causing this divergence, especially since I knew how intelligent he was. He should have been able to make it through college and make it into a better life for him and his family. But, for whatever reason, it was just difficult.
I started listening to a lot of different leaders in the education field, and for me, a lot of it came down to the fact that the best teachers are able to motivate their students. And you have to put resources into school systems to hire those teachers. So, those two questions of “How do we motivate students?” and “How do we direct resources to schools so they can succeed?” were the two things that motivated me to study education economics.
You recently ran an experiment on the best way to motivate students to complete homework. What was your most surprising finding in that study?
Dench: In that experiment, I asked: Can we motivate students through different means than grading? Can we tell them, “these are the areas that you need to focus on, that'll be on the test,” and will that help them succeed?
The answer was yes, you can, but it's so marginal in comparison to grading. Students get into this pattern in their early academic careers where they think: if you grade it, I'm going to do it, but if you don't grade it, I won’t.
So, I expected them to have a huge response to grading, so that wasn't surprising. What surprised me was that, given that students seem to put in equal effort on homework, it turns out that they learn about the same amount, regardless of their GPA. So, I think what's really separating low-GPA students and high-GPA students is the effort they put into their work and not their ability to learn.
You can also see that both interventions — grading and telling kids it'll be on the test — impacted how much work the high-GPA students did more than the low-GPA students.
The experiment sets up a challenge: How do we motivate those low-GPA students to do the work, which we know, if we're able to, they're capable of learning just as well as the high-GPA students? I think that was the most surprising finding for me, that the challenge is in motivation and not in the ability to learn. It’s still an open question in education economics.
That’s interesting. Are you planning to pursue that more in your research going forward?
Dench: I have some plans. They're a little bit disrupted by the pandemic because you can't generalize in the time of COVID to the time outside of COVID, because even putting aside the virtual learning part, there's so many things about people's lives that have changed and that could make findings not applicable when we go back to normal.
But I was thinking about directed interventions for low-GPA students. For example, if they fail the midterm, you make them do an additional amount of work so they can catch up to the high-GPA students over the course of the semester. I think it would be fair to say at the outset of the syllabus if you fail the midterm you will have five additional assignments that you'll have to complete before the end of the semester. That might also motivate them, so it would be an interesting experiment. But again, I didn't want to do any of that during the pandemic.
Another area of your education research focuses on how enrollment mechanisms affect segregation in large urban school districts in New York City. What policies did you see in New York City that successfully reduced segregation in schools, and can these practices be successfully implemented in other cities that are facing the same challenges?
Dench: In school districts, you can really only solve segregation as much as you have the administrative ability to do so. Otherwise, you have to bus between districts, and that's very legally and administratively difficult.
My research focused on two of the most diverse districts in New York City: Upper Manhattan District 3 and Brooklyn District 15. They're both very diverse areas, but their schools were very segregated. Because of this, you have the somewhat unique opportunity to desegregate them through policy. In New York, middle schools and high schools use a policy called “controlled choice,” where families rank the schools they want their children to attend. But the details in how they implement it can differ.
In District 3, the Manhattan district, almost all of their middle schools had a screening process where schools rank each student based on a number of characteristics such as their GPA, their test scores, and their attendance records. Then they'll admit students in order based on the available spots. So, screening will naturally advantage people who did well in elementary school, which happens to correlate with economic advantage. And economic advantage correlates with race, so naturally, with screening, you'll get segregation as a result of that process. In addition, there can be differences within neighborhoods that cause families to prefer specific schools, and so those two things combine to create segregation within those districts.
District 3 decided to dedicate 25% of their spots to economically disadvantaged students that are low-performing. But economically disadvantaged students make up roughly 50% of that district, so they set the priority for those students below the average for the district. Therefore, the amount of segregation they can solve through those means will not be equal to the total segregation problem.
And in addition, they're keeping the screening. And keep in mind there could be differences within that economically disadvantaged category in how students did academically. For example, let's say that one student has a Ph.D. parent and they're technically economically disadvantaged because they don't have much income during that time, but they do very well in their tests because their parents sit with them and spend a bunch of time on their homework, etc., etc. Whereas another student's parents are working two jobs, they're a single parent; maybe they don't have time to work with their kids on school homework, etc.
So even within that category of economically disadvantaged, the students who can still get through the screening process will be different from those who can't get through the screening process. The fact that they're keeping the screening process and also prioritizing a smaller percentage of economically disadvantaged students than is equal to the district average led District 3 to keeping their segregation levels.
This is much in contrast to District 15.
District 15 took off their screening process, so everyone gets admitted to their choices based on a random number. So, if people experiencing economic disadvantages are applying to those schools at the same level that they are present in the district, then it would naturally create desegregation across the district.
Of course, there are differences in demand across schools between economically disadvantaged and advantaged students, so District 15 also implemented a priority mechanism that ensures that 52% of the spots are reserved for economically disadvantaged students. Therefore, even if the demand is different between economically advantaged and economically disadvantaged students, the priority mechanism will still get them closer to the district-wide average, because they’re going to prefer those students for 52% of spots.
And so those two conditions — the randomization and the prioritization — led to a drastic reduction in segregation in those schools. District 15 went from being one of the most segregated districts to being middle of the pack in terms of New York City segregation in a single year. And the remaining differences in District 15 are probably due to geographic preferences. Of course, there will still be some segregation across the schools, but it won't be related to the advantages students had earlier in their academic careers.
Then, your other question was, how can we implement this success in other areas?
It would be very difficult to implement it in areas that are not very diverse. This is where the story gets a little bit harder because, in Atlanta, we have a very residentially segregated school system, except in a few pockets. Where I live around Tucker, it's very diverse, but in general, Atlanta is separated into two areas. In the north, it's very white, and Southern Atlanta is very Black, so as a whole, it would be very difficult.
But, there are some areas where a program like controlled choice could work, like DeKalb County. DeKalb is probably the most diverse in the Atlanta area. From just my initial look into the schools, it seems like there is a substantial amount of segregation, especially in elementary school, and some in the middle schools and high schools, that could be solved by some controlled choice plan. So, there are diverse areas where you could integrate.
That leads to my fourth question, which you've kind of touched on. In the two districts we talked about in New York City, both use a controlled choice plan. But one, District 15, reduced segregation by more than 50%, while the other, District 3, reduced it by only 8%. And one of the main differences that you said was that the district that only reduced it by 8% was also using academic screening, which favors students from wealthier schools and thus reinforces this segregation. Is there a place for academic screening in equitable school systems?
Dench: When you're in high school, and you're separated into different levels of classes depending on your ability — for example, I needed to take calculus in high school because I wanted to learn calculus at that level, but some students aren't ready for calculus yet — those elements of screening within schools are there for good reason. You can't teach calculus unless you've taught precalculus and geometry, and students have learned at different levels earlier on.
But there hasn't been much evidence that academic screening between schools has made much of a difference in terms of outcomes. In other words, if a poor student is admitted to a very good school, they gain about equally to a well-off student that's admitted to that good school, sometimes more because they have more to gain. So, I don't think academic screening at the school level will lead to more equitable school systems, because a lot of the resources within schools are directed at the school level.
In good schools, the principal is a good manager and knows how to place students where they need to be in their academic progress and can direct counseling resources where they need to be, etc. In the poor school systems, that's more challenging because they might have a huge number of students, and it's harder to organize, and the principals might not be as good at managing them.
So, I don't think there's really a good reason to use academic screening between schools, and there's not much evidence that well-off students gain more than underprivileged students. I don't really see it as a good way to create an equitable school system.
For my last question, as the education landscape shifts dramatically with Covid-19 and remote learning, and, as you said, the students have so much more going on in their lives outside of school that might be distracting them, what are the challenges that you anticipate rising in the near future? What do you think is going to be the next trending education topic in the news?
Dench: A topic that I've just started to see come up is: how should we measure the gaps in learning that occurred during the pandemic? There are two camps.
One camp is saying we need to measure the differences in learning that occurred during the pandemic so we can direct resources towards students who struggled and fell behind more.
But the other group says we shouldn't even measure the differences that occurred during the pandemic, because it's unfair. It'll split the students into two groups if we measure them, and it's better not to know.
I fall more in the first camp of people because, if you don't measure the challenges that occurred for these students, how will you direct resources to students who need help? And how are you going to make sure that they get the resources they need to keep up with where they would have been if the pandemic didn't occur?
I just think it's naive to think that if we don't measure it, it won't impact our society, and the people who fell behind won't be harmed by it. When you leave school, you're measured on the human capital that you accumulated during your school tenure. When you get to your job, and there are differences between productivity levels, those things are not going to go away just because we don't measure them when they're in school. So it would be harmful to the students not to measure the differences that occur.
I would say that's going to be a trending topic: how do we measure the impact between students that are well-off and students that are not so well-off, and how do we direct resources towards students to help them catch up to where they would have been if the pandemic hadn't occurred?
Daniel Dench is an assistant professor in the School of Economics at Georgia Tech. He specializes in health and education economics, focusing on e-cigarettes, school choice, and student motivation in higher ed. Contact him for media requests at email@example.com or learn more in his bio.
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