This issue of Dialogo explores the work and legacy of Allison Davis, renowned UChicago scholar, anthropologist, and champion of educational reform for students in underserved communities. Davis retired from the University in 1978, but his impact is reflected in the work of several current faculty members, including Micere Keels and John List.

Professor Keels is an Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development, where her research interests concern issues of racial-ethnic and income inequality. A core aspect of her current work is focused on improving the outcomes of children living in high crime communities. She founded the Dissemination of Trauma Responsive Educational Practices (TREP) Project, which aims to help schools better meet the socioemotional and academic needs of students who have been exposed to trauma.

Professor List is the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the College. He is an innovator in using field experiments to answer economic questions.  A focus of List’s work is shaped by field experiments conducted with children and their parents to understand how behavioral economic theories apply in the real world. Much of his research focuses on brain development from 0-5 and how pecuniary and non-pecuniary incentives can be used within childhood development.

Dialogo sat down with Keels and List to talk about their unique approach to field work, their concerns about inequality in the educational environment, and the work they are doing to improve the academic experience and environment for all students.

Dialogo: You each spend a lot of time in the field. Why are field studies so important to your work?

List: In economics, historically the way people have done empirical work is to start with an idea, write down a theoretical model, then beat up mounds and mounds of naturally-occurring data until they can say something causal.  I come at it from a different angle. My research agenda is more about using the world as my lab and going into that lab and figuring out what works and why by generating new data experimentally.  I then explore if we desire to generalize or scale up that insight what is the science of using that science.  This is a new area of research for me, but a critical next step in that in many cases results from a small scale experiment tend to change at scale.   

Some of the issues I’ve been working on include why inner city schools fail, what early education for zero-to-five-year-olds should look like, and how we can use field experiments in schools and with parents to determine why there are educational inequities and what we can do about it.

Keels: Theoretical and lab-based studies have identified great practices that should improve schools, but those research advances are rarely observed in schools, and often when implemented you don't see the outcomes that you would expect.

Field studies try to figure out what happens on the ground and why. I live in intermediary space between theoretical and lab science and the world as it currently is. We already have a lot of research on many topics related to education inequality. My goal is to find the gaps between where we have come to some consensus on what schools and classrooms should look like, and what is really occurring in schools and classrooms in the real world. There is such a big gap between what scientists know and what actually happens.

Dialogo: What are your current projects with regard to education?

Keels: I’m currently working on issues of inequality in education from pre-K through college students, by focusing on kids from historically marginalized backgrounds, including those defined by racial ethnicity, poverty, and immigration status. I’m looking at how their background affects their educational experiences, in school and out of school, and how that affects outcomes and maintains existing systems.

In response to the concentrated community violence in Chicago, I focus on students who are coping with the trauma of exposure to community violence, and how concentration of violence is linked to issues of racial and ethnic socioeconomic segregation. I come at this from the developmental perspective that when students are exposed to community violence, the resulting dysregulation makes it difficult for them to meet the self-regulation expectations of education environments. From the science side, we know what to do but it's not translated for what would work in an educational context and so there is a big disconnect between research and practice.

List: I began to think about the economics of education around 2007 out of idiosyncratic luck. I lived in Flossmoor, roughly 20 miles south of Hyde Park, and one day the superintendent of Chicago Heights Schools called me. He had read some of my work on the economics of philanthropy and asked if I was interested in helping their school district.

There are two high schools in Chicago Heights, and back then drop outs were major issue:  for every 1,000 kids that entered the ninth grade each year only about 480-500 would make it out with a degree. The rest drop out, usually around their 16th birthdays. We started by trying to figure out how to get kids to stay in school. The Kenneth & Anne Griffin Foundation were generous enough to fund this first study in Chicago Heights. After a lot of work, we found that for roughly $400,000 we could change the trajectories of dozens of kids by inducing them to graduate.

What struck me from that experience was the number of ninth-graders who were reading at a second-grade level and doing math at a third-grade level.  For these kids, it's very hard to make foundational changes such as sending them to be engineers.

At that point, I became much more focused on early childhood, where the benefit-cost ratio could be much higher. Around 2012, the Kenneth & Anne Griffin Foundation gave us $10 million to start two schools in Chicago Heights for three, four and five-year-olds. Our field experiments typically had roughly 1000 kids sign up each year, and we randomly placed them in various treatment cells.  For example, one group went through an all-day pre-K program teaching executive function and cognitive skills. In another group we are not teaching the kids directly but we're teaching their parents through our Parent Academy, and a third group are the control and get no formal training from us, but we follow their progress.

We plan to follow these kids the rest of their lives, and our oldest children are now in the eighth-grade, and some are near the top of their class.  The early interventions remain with effects, especially when we consider executive function skills. 

Dialogo: How has your work evolved throughout your career?

Keels: I started in clinical psych but I realized that I wanted to work on more than what was happening in individual counselling sessions. Because I wanted to work with families from socio-economic disadvantaged backgrounds I quickly learned that I had to look at the broader social context.  

Fortunately, I was able to transfer to an interdisciplinary graduate program; my primary advisor was an economist and I was able to learn more about the broad range of factors associated with inequality, especially educational inequality. After working on that for several years, I wanted to go beyond predicting the impact of unequal outcomes, and describing why policies weren't working to developing interventions that improve outcomes.

Now I spend most of my time working on a whole school intervention that will shift school practices in ways that are more supportive of students who are behaviorally, emotionally and cognitively dysregulated because of chronic traumatic stressors.

We know quite a bit about stress, and there are validated clinical practices and small group supports can improve cognitive, emotional and behavioral regulation. If you don't have those supports, it's hard to function in schools. Because few teachers are proficient in the practices that support kids who are dysregulated, they just get punished for their inability to cope with traumatic life experiences.

No time soon will I be disrupting the way this country makes investments that account for the compounding historical oppressions that are present today as a country, but I've identified schools as one context where some disruption can occur.

John: To continue with the work that originated in Chicago Heights, we found that the parent academies were incredibly effective especially at developing non-cognitive skills. Some folks in London heard about our results, and we have since scaled up parent programs in London. Then some policymakers in Bangladesh were interested in launching a nationwide intervention with our program, so we developed a curriculum around a parent academy, which we are working on right now.

I’ve also recently launched a partnership with my wife, Dana Suskind. She's a brilliant cochlear implant surgeon, and she's very interested in zero-to-three-year-olds so it is a perfect match on every dimension. We've put together a program in Palm Beach for children from ‘delivery room to kindergarten’, which combines her work on Thirty Million Words with the TMW Institute, and my research at the Chicago Heights early childhood center.

Putting those two together hopefully we can create the “super kid”. Though most importantly it's about giving every kid a fair opportunity at achieving success. There are some kids around the world who have all the opportunities they can imagine, which is wonderful.  Yet, other kids are being left behind. By leaving some kids behind we're perhaps losing the most human potential we ever had in the history of humankind, or at least since the dark ages.  This happens simply because we are not giving them a shot.

Kids starting kindergarten who are already one year behind other kids who are 10 miles away makes no sense. These are humanity issues that we're trying to bring science to address. It's incremental, but our goal is to provide equal educational opportunities for everyone.

Dialogo: You come from different departments and research perspectives, but your research topics are similar. Do you see overlap in your work?

Keels: There is broad crossover in the work we do. We are both looking at problems related to educational outcomes and thinking about how to reduce inequality in educational outcomes.

Though the work that I'm doing is not because of larger structural factors beyond the household. My work is about how to help schools serving communities that American society has decided are expendable.

There is no reason that any community should have families that are food and housing insecure, and have kids that are too scared to play outside or walk to school, but that is the world we live in. So I'm working with schools to say how do we make sure school is not another place that fails those kids? To what extent can schools be organized in ways that support mental and emotional health? Because they are not going to grow up to be functional adolescents unless they have coping supports to know how to manage that stress.

I'm not at all trying to put together a playbook for families. I'm trying to reduce the extent to which societal investments continue to compound historical oppressions by focusing on the role of schools in disrupting intergenerational transmission of inequality.

List: I agree that there is much overlap in our work. We both see a social problem, and we want to use data to take it on; and we are both using science to guide our advice to policymakers or to translate our work to other scholars.

Where I think there are departures, which are also useful, is that economists come at problems with a mathematical or formal model in mind. That model has internal consistency and logic that will reveal certain hypotheses or conjectures that will guide the data generating process and the interpretation of the behavioral patterns.  In this way, the model is an incredible guide both shining new insights into a problem and providing a framework for understanding the received data patterns.

For example, in education I write down an education production function, and we think that there are certain inputs that are really important: how hard the child tries, how hard the parent tries, how hard the teachers and administrators try, et cetera.  An economist will ask what incentives are important to each of these actors, and can we leverage incentives in a cost effective manner to change behaviors? Then we explore how incentives change behaviors, and how that behavior change maps to an outcome we care about. This is what really we're about, incentives changing behavior and understanding why.

I think where our research really complements each other is that we both translate data into understanding in the real world. Great tests of theory can get published in a journal and yield tenure, but if you're trying to change the world, you have to translate that theory to a real environment of economic import.

Dialogo: How did you come to the approach you have to your field work?

List: If you look at the manner in which we do empirical work, it tends to be of three flavors. One flavor is lab experiments, the second is field experiments, the third is letting the world give you naturally occurring data and analyzing it. If you think about the knowledge production function, it's clear that you need evidence from all three.

In my field, we've been doing lab work for a long time and we’ve been collecting naturally occurring data for a long time, but there are a lot of field experiments that we still need to do since they are quite new to economics. I think that the best bargain in economics is to do more field experiments, though we should continue doing all three as complementary producers of knowledge.

Keels: For me it is very intentional. There was a point when I realized that there wasn’t anything else I could contribute to this body of literature that would make a difference to the outcomes of the individuals we were studying. Being able to marginally increase our predictive ability wasn’t translating into being able to meaningfully do something about those factors at any level of scale. What is the point of producing all of this knowledge if we're not affecting the participants of our studies?

I absolutely support academics who want to stay with their lab experiments because I need that work to be able to do the work that I do. For some, affecting the world is not their goal. It is the pursuit of understanding. But for the scientist working on a particular area of the brain who wants to have an effect in the world, they need to also think about who's translating that knowledge into practice and policy.

I think collaborations between those who work on the basic science and those who are trying to translate the science into the real world is what is great. If you want to come out of your lab, I think is fabulous, but I don't think it's necessary. The important thing is that all of these  researchers respect and value each other's work and don’t prioritize one as being the true science, and the other being less so.

Dialogo: How has the culture of academia at University of Chicago supported your work?

List:  The beautiful thing about Chicago is that you can look to your right and find the smartest and best advocate to give you guidance; then you look to your left and find the smartest and best person ready to show you why you are going in the wrong direction. We take the criticism and the advocacy and wind it into a much better product in the end.

At the same time it is a place where everybody in the world wants to come and talk about their research, creating a natural audience who are willing to engage in intellectual discourse. That is always going to make your work better.  That is the University of Chicago:  a disciplined approach of combining theory with data to change the world. 

Keels: The University of Chicago is also great for the intellectual freedom they give... If you want to step-off of traditional markers of academic success and identify your own path, you can do that here as long as you can be productive.