Caroline Minter Hoxby - Getting the most out of education data

Winner of the 2006 Prize for Distinguished Scholarship

Editor's Note: Earlier this month the Fordham Foundation announced the winners of fourth Fordham Prizes for Excellence in Education: Distinguished Scholarship, and Valor. This week, we profile the Distinguished Scholarship winner-Caroline Minter Hoxby of Harvard University. Next week we'll profile the winners for Valor-Michael Feinberg and Dave Levin, founders of KIPP.

Harvard economist Caroline M. Hoxby isn't interested in proving or disproving anyone's agenda; she's all about applying thoughtful analysis to questions about student learning. "I like to stay out of politics and to do my research," she says. And Hoxby would have her wish were it not for one detail: she's as adept a storyteller as she is a number-cruncher. And this fact, inevitably, keeps her in the media spotlight.

Hoxby caught Harvard's attention early. She completed her undergraduate work there in 1988, and the school wasted little time bringing her back as a faculty member in 1994, just after she earned her doctorate in economics from M.I.T. She gained tenure just three short years later.

She first came to national prominence in 2000 when she published "Does Competition Among Public Schools Benefit Students and Taxpayers?" in the American Economic Review. Though written for, and in the language of, economists, that work quickly found a broader audience, namely partisans in the school choice debate. Her paper compared urban areas having only one or a few large school districts to those with many smaller districts. She reached two broad conclusions. First, students in communities with many small school districts perform better. Second, those small districts actually spend less money per child. The reason is fairly straightforward. When parents have many districts to choose among in the same area, they'll move to the district with better schools. Moreover, because these smaller districts compete for families, they're motivated to keep their costs, and thus local taxes, within bounds.

"Neither of these results is huge," says Hoxby with academic understatement, "but there is a positive effect. This suggests there is a role for school choice." But the ensuing outcry was anything but understated. Attacks on this and later choice-related studies have been relentless, particularly from teacher unions and researchers backed with union money.

Through it all, however, Hoxby stayed focused on the results, which she relates with analogies that anyone can understand. Consequently, newspapers, magazines, radio talk shows, and television reporters besiege her for insight into the confusing world of education data.

Hoxby wants journalists to treat education research with the same level of seriousness they treat medical research. "If I were a totally quack doctor," she says, "and came up with my purple pill, and every serious researcher said ‘no,' it doesn't work," the media wouldn't report that story. But in education, she continues, "it isn't like that. The purple pill study gets reported on a lot."

The problem goes beyond media. "Education schools," Hoxby notes, "have not traditionally had an emphasis on evaluation." And among the few that do incorporate evaluation into their training, the methodologies and theories taught are routinely "two decades behind."

Hoxby learned how dire the field of education research was as a student at Oxford (M.Phil. 1990) and at MIT. She wanted to do research on the economics of education, but few economists studied education at the time. Conversely, education researchers knew little economics. Fortunately, this situation has changed-in no small part due to her work.

The daughter of Steven A. Minter, a senior official at the U.S. Department of Education in the Carter administration, Hoxby isn't resting on her many laurels. In fact, she's just hitting her stride. She continues to construct studies that test the idea of school choice. Recent works of note include a "gold standard" analysis of charter students in Chicago showing that children who start off in charter schools not only outperform their traditional public school counterparts, but also that in three or four years they will close the performance gap between urban and suburban students.

As an instructor, she's no less busy. In addition to teaching both graduate and undergraduate courses, Hoxby carries a full slate of doctoral students. Moreover, since arriving at Harvard as an assistant professor in 1994, she's advised some 40 student dissertations.

On top of her Harvard duties, she directs the Economics of Education Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She also plays an informal advisory role for policy makers. North Carolina, for instance, has been collecting reams of student data for years but has done little with it. Its leaders came to her for help. "I don't tell states what to do, but show them what tools are available to them and let them choose."

Hoxby sees a brighter future for America's school children. "We've done the hard part [of education reform]-bearing the tax burden. Now, let's get the most that we can out of our schools." Hoxby is certainly doing her part by getting the most out of education data-taking new approaches to long-standing problems and gaining powerful insights from her original analyses. With decades to go in her already-prominent career, there's no telling what she might learn-and what she might teach us.

The Fordham Prizes for Excellence in Education will be awarded at a reception on Monday, February 27, 2006 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in our Washington, D.C. office. For more information or to attend the event, please call the Foundation at 202-223-5452 or e-mail Jennifer Leischer, Prize Coordinator, at jleischer@edexcellence.net.

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