Social Sciences faculty work to improve urban education

Addressing the challenges facing urban education underpins much of the research conducted by faculty across the Division of the Social Sciences. From studying the political and economic implications of early childhood programs to the exploring the psychology of how children absorb knowledge, faculty are tackling these vital issues and helping to inform how and where the next generation learns.

John List

John List

Much research has consistently shown that low-income and under-represented minority children in urban settings regularly experience learning delays that can affect their entire academic careers. Investigating the social, political, cultural and psychological reasons for these delays, and testing strategies to overcome them, is an important area of research for our faculty. “We have been at public education for over 100 years in the US,” says John List, the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, and the chair of that department. “The fact that we know so little about what works and why is a travesty for under privileged children who are never given a fair shot in life.”

Susan Levine

Susan Levine

List, along with Susan Levine, the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor in Education and Society and chair of the Psychology Department; and William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics and chair of Political Science, are three social science faculty members who have dedicated much of their research to issues related to public education. “I’m a psychologist, Will is a political scientist, and John is an economist, but we all focus on education as part of our discipline,” Levine says. Each is deeply invested in uncovering the truth behind disparities in urban public education, and devising scalable interventions to close these gaps.

In the field

William Howell

William Howell

Unlike many researchers who rely largely on empirical studies of existing data to validate their theories, List prefers to conduct research in the real world collecting novel data. Throughout his career, he has relied on field experiments to test his economic theories and to generate real-world data that builds on existing knowledge, adding to the national dialogue. For the past decade, many of these field experiments have focused on public education in Chicago and how to drive academic success among students in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“I’m a product of a public education myself, and this has always been an area of interest,” he says. Since 2006, List has been conducting field experiments in the classroom, studying all aspects of the learning environment among pre-schoolers to high schoolers, including their parents and teachers, to understand how children learn, and what impact economic incentives may have on student and parent performance.

Early in his career, List studied the impact of targeted interventions on junior high and high school students to increase rates of graduation in Chicago Heights school district. But he found that in order to have a significant impact on the academic success of disadvantaged students, one had to start long before they got to high school. “When you enter a person’s life in ninth grade, you’ve already missed so many years,” he says. 

So he decided to build a preschool.  

Sociology of the city

In the Spring/Summer 2017 Dialogo, two projects led by Sociology faculty revealed benefits that specific interventions in urban settings can have:

As co-author of The Ambitious Elementary School: Its Conception, Design, and Implications for Educational Equality (University of Chicago Press, 2017), Stephen Raudenbush showed how rethinking schools to address educational inequality and its entrenched causes head on can ameliorate existing social inequalities and initiate opportunities for economic and civic flourishing for all children. Read more: IN THE CITY, IN THE FIELD

As member of the investigative team for the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), Kathleen Cagney has discovered new connections between poor communities and olfactory loss, between increased neighborhood housing foreclosures and declining mental health, and between social isolation and undiagnosed hypertension. NSHAP findings suggest that interventions to reduce loneliness may be more effective in preserving health than those aimed at combating obesity. Read more: MORE THAN JUST A NUMBER

In 2010, with the support of a $10 million grant from the Chicago-based Kenneth & Anne Griffin Foundation, List opened the Griffin Early Childhood Center, a tuition-free all day preschool where his team studied the impact of a cognitive-focused curriculum on three-to-five year olds.  He also created a Parent Academy, where parents of three-to-five year olds received payments for attending parenting classes, completing lessons, and applying educational techniques at home. Some parents received cash payments and others received contributions to their child’s college tuition fund. During the two-year study, one group of students only attended the preschool, in another only the parents took part in the Academy, and a third group received no interventions.  

The results showed that after four months, students from the first two groups achieved meaningful improvement in their executive function, literary, and cognitive skills, putting them roughly on par with students from more affluent neighborhoods. They also found that the siblings of students whose parents attended the academy showed improved academic results, and that parents who received contributions to a tuition fund continued to stay more involved in the child’s academic career in the ensuing years.

“It suggests that providing short-term incentives for parental involvement can be a cost-effective and saleable strategy,” List says. Since completing the study, List has helped develop parent academies in the US, the UK, and Bangladesh, and is exploring how to best scale these programs for nationwide adoption.

List has since tested the impact of financial incentives across a variety of academic environments. In one study, he offered cash incentives to middle and high school students based on their standardized test performance. Some students were promised $20 if they saw an improvement over their previous score, while others were given $20 and told they had to give it back if they failed to exceed their prior score. “The idea is to use behavioral economics and leverage loss aversion,” he says. “The theory is that once the student has the money, they will work harder not to give it up.” The theory worked. He found the students who received an up-front payment averaged a half-grade higher than the other group.

In a related study, he gave teachers cash incentives for their students’ performance before and after tests, and found similar results. “It caused them to work harder in the classroom, adding more value to the student experience as measured by cognitive test scores,” he says. List’s research continues to show intriguing links between economic behavior and academic achievement.

Through these ground-breaking field studies, he’s adding vital data to the national conversation about how to improve public education, and how simple incentives can have a powerful impact. Working directly with students, teachers and parents is a critical component of his success, he says. “When we go into the classroom we aren’t just teaching the kids, we are teaching ourselves what works and why.  This has been the missing piece in our education system—not recognizing the opportunities that exist before our very eyes.”

Let’s talk about math

Levine is similarly interested in the role of early interventions on the long term academic performance of children in lower socioeconomic communities. As an undergrad, Levine majored in mathematics, education and psychology, then completed a Ph.D. in psychology at MIT before joining the University of Chicago’s psychology department where she focused on cognitive development.

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This combination of academic paths drove her career-long interest in the psychology behind mathematical thinking, and how young children develop numerical logic and spatial skills. “I have always loved math, and this is a fruitful and important area of research,” she says.

Levine’s work examines the roles of math learning experiences in both informal environments and academic settings, as well as the math attitudes of adults affect children’s learning experience. She has conducted extensive research into the link between how the quantity and quality of ‘math talk’ that a child is exposed to in early childhood, and their mastery of mathematical concepts. In one study, she found that all children aged four-to-seven performed equally well on a non-verbal math test, in which they watched someone put different sets of coins under a box (for example four were put in and then two more) and could correctly lay out the correct number of coins and could correctly lay out the correct number of coins without seeing them. However, when these children were given a similar verbal math problem (for example, “how much is four plus two?”), those from low socioeconomic backgrounds scored much lower than their peers.

The results of the study suggest that all children have the ability to understand the logic of mathematical operations such as addition and subtraction, but that exposure to math language is important to their ability to solve traditional word problems and to engage in more advanced mathematical thinking, she says.

To test this idea in a subsequent study, she videotaped parents interacting with their young children at home three times a year for several years, and found children who were exposed to fewer number and spatial words, and had lower math-related skills prior to kindergarten entry.

“There was a clear correlation,” she says. “Children who hear less number talk between 14-and 30-months of age were less likely to understand foundational number concepts.”  Importantly, these early differences have been shown to predict children’s long term success in math. “It is a hard gap to close once it opens.” 

Along with the need to hear more and higher quality math language, Levine’s research has found that children are less likely to learn math when the adults they interact with are math anxious.  When children have a math anxious teacher, they learn less math over the school year.  Similarly, when parents are math anxious, their homework help is negatively related to their children’s math learning. In looking at the math attitudes of children themselves, her research team shows that when children are math anxious or  hold negative attitudes about math, in the form of stereotypes “boys are better at math than girls,” they have lower math achievement.  Importantly, the relation between math knowledge and math attitudes is bidirectional, and can create a vicious cycle such that children with lower math knowledge are more likely to fear math and children who fear math are more likely to learn less math and to avoid it. 

With her colleagues and students at the University, Levine has used these research findings to develop and test various interventions to prevent these gaps, including giving parents number-themed books to read to their children, creating the Becoming a Math Family website to help parents support math learning in young children, and providing early childhood teachers with training on how to assess young students’ mathematical abilities and provide targeted lessons to address the deficits.  

“These are all relatively light touch interventions that can narrow the gap among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds,” she says. Identifying low cost, easy to implement solutions is an important aspect of her research, as they are more likely to be adopted by schools and parents. Levine is now collaborating with schools in Chicago to provide training and coaching for preschool and primary teachers on how to use formative assessments and targeted interventions in the classroom.

Like List, Levine sees value in conducting real world experiments to test her theories, and to develop meaningful interventions that have a positive impact on students at risk. To foster the kinds of research-practice dialogues and collaborations that can support educational excellence and equity, Levine started the UChicago Science of Learning Center.  “We use research to inform practice, and practice to inform research,” she says. “It goes in both directions.”

Education and policy reform

Not all educational research studies what happens in the classroom. Sometimes it analyses what occurs in government, including the United States Congress. Howell predominantly studies public policy, and the separation-of-powers in American political institutions. In so doing, he explores many political aspects of the U.S. educational system, including the efficacy of voucher initiatives, charter schools, and the politics of public school choice under No Child Left Behind.

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In his 2002 book The Education Gap, co-authored with Paul Peterson, he exposed startling data that shows the benefits of urban voucher programs are concentrated among African-American students. His research, which looked at the effects of school vouchers on test scores, parental satisfaction, and parent-school communications, found African-American students who used vouchers to switch from public to private schools scored significantly higher on math and reading tests, and that their parents expressed high levels of satisfaction with these schools. In reflecting back on the debate over education reforms, Howell laments that more attention isn’t paid to longer-term outcomes such as high school graduation, college attendance, and the like. “While studying these voucher programs,” he recognizes, “people fixated nearly exclusively on short-term changes in test scores.”

More recently, Howell studied President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which used $4 billion in stimulus money to support K–12 educational reform, by hosting competitions for states to adopt new education reforms like charter schools, new accountability systems, and the development of testing regimes. Howell found the Race to the Top triggered new education policy activity across the United States,.

Howell views these results as a major accomplishment for the Obama administration, particularly at a time when Congress was making it impossible to implement meaningful change. “With a relatively small amount of money, little formal constitutional authority in education, and without the power to unilaterally impose his will upon state governments, President Obama managed to jump-start policy processes that had languished for years in state governments around the country,” he wrote in a 2015 article for Education Next. “When it comes to domestic policymaking, past presidents often accomplished a lot less with a lot more.”

More importantly, the success of Race to the Top offers a potential roadmap for future leaders to work around Congress in structuring and implementing state policies. “Under federalism, the way education policy is made is riven with conflict,” he says. “Democrats and Republicans would do well to take notice of the way this competition led to a political windfall for the president.”

Beyond the ivory tower

These three faculty, like many of their colleagues across the division and the university, share research interests, each contributing more broadly to our understanding of the benefits and inadequacies of the current public education system. “We are an institution that values the whole trajectory of educational research,” Levine says.  “We aren’t just doing research in an ivory tower. We are doing work that can make a difference in the real world.”

“How we stitch them all together is another challenge,” Howell says. He looks for opportunities to draw connections between his own research, and the efforts of others across the University. “Real insights are to be had from bridging connections across subfields and disciplines, each of which, in their own way, speak to education policymaking.”

And while they each chart their own research agendas, they often share their findings via a faculty-led committee on educational research, which can provide a broader context for their efforts. “This is what the University of Chicago does,” List adds. “Our faculty analyze what is happening in the real world, and we determine what we can do, through policies and programs, to make it better.”