I try to reconcile my persistence (or stubbornness) to pursue academia with the words of Steven Levitt when talking to Freakonomics about people he recommends for Ph.D. programs, “[P]eople either have such an amazing talent, excitement, or passion for doing research, or they’re so socially inept that they really couldn’t function outside of academics.” I do not think I can give an unbiased answer as to which category I fall under, but regardless I am humbled to have the opportunity to research for a better world, teach and mentor future generations, and simply enjoy a vast majority of my work day.
Throughout my schooling, my motivation to pursue an academic career has been questioned by very smart and talented people. Thank goodness. This has certainly prepared me to readily articulate who I am, why I do what do, and how everything else fits in. Similar to most people, I had my fair share of disadvantages growing up, but there was one statement from a teacher that I believe made the difference between where I am now and where I could have been: “Education is a common denominator, no matter where you come from.” Despite the problems a simple statement like this overlooks, I believe in its sentiment, and I certainly believed this to be 100% true for a majority of my schooling. As I reflect, I think the notion of the common denominator- or rather, the complexity underlying this idea- is a useful metaphor for articulating my interests in educational research and teaching.
Similar to most educational policymakers, stakeholders, teachers, and parents, I believe that education could be a common denominator: a determinant of upward mobility, a factor of one’s personal happiness, a global indicator of progression. Though, I am concerned with whether educational policies have facilitated the creation of a common denominator, or instead, focused on the typical, the average, and the accepted. This is not to rag on all educational policies as needing to be absolutely perfect 100% of the time, but I view the purpose of my research is to better understand who is missing out, why, and the consequences. More simply, at the heart of my research are the questions: Who is left out of consideration of education or government policies? What are the consequences? What can we do about it?
At this point in my career, my research has been concerned with issues such as the spillover effects of immigration enforcement on immigrant and non-immigrant youth, disability policy, absenteeism and truancy, and school choice. You might be thinking…”That’s a lot!” What can I say, there’s a lot that I believe goes into the notion of having a common denominator (and certainly, I do not think I’ve covered it all). To me, these are the most pressing issues relevant in educational policymaking decisions today, and full disclosure, some might change in the coming years and some might not. My goal is to have some weight on the scales in hopes that some will, and that I will have to adapt my research contents to reflect the next pressing issue relating to the common denominator.
How I go about addressing a vast majority of these issues is through quasi-experimental methods using secondary data from national and state agencies as well as local school districts. With my training, most people might call themselves economists. I’ll reserve that term for people with Ph.Ds in economics. I am a quantitative researcher who loves looking at large amounts of data. I have equal amounts of faith in data as I do people, which means I think both are incredibly important for answering complex questions in education. For me though (again, not knowing whether I fit into the first or second category of Levitt’s depictions of those who should pursue Ph.Ds), I think exercising some humility with numbers is an important skill that I have developed.
Typically, people interested in my work or working with me enjoy current events, compelling topics in educational policy, and learning a bit about how the numbers come out the way they do. I enjoy working with people who express disagreement with my work, who readily ask questions and raise points of clarification, and who like to find overlap in our interests. These are important skills that I believe help us get closer to refining education as a common denominator.