California education officials recently dropped a little project in economist Susanna Loeb’s lap: lead a $2.6 million project involving more than 20 studies to diagnose the ills in the Golden State’s schools.
She has a year to deliver.
“We’re trying to answer three questions in a very short time period,” says Loeb, ’88, an associate professor of education. “What does the system look like? How can resources be used more effectively? And what additional resources are needed to meet whatever goals we’ve set?”
These are what Loeb calls “huge questions” that “are not answerable in a way that any pure social scientist researcher would be satisfied with.” Plus time is of the essence, she says—otherwise, “we might lose what many consider a window of opportunity, when there appears to be multipartisan interest in school reform.”
Indeed, “Getting Down to Facts: A Research Project to Inform Solutions to California’s Education Problems” is backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence, Democratic leaders in the state Senate and superintendent of public instruction Jack O’Connell. California ranks 48th in basic reading and math skills, according to a 2005 RAND report.
Much of the research on school finance systems in the past has been driven by litigation. But Loeb says researchers working on this project are “without agendas.” And the fact that the study is independently funded by four major foundations means that “we’re not trying to argue one side or another.”
Loeb and her colleagues are talking with teachers, principals and superintendents to see how they would allocate a given amount of money in California. “And we’ll also have statistical analysis, looking at the effects dollars have had when they’ve suddenly gone into schools,” she says.
Loeb, who has previously looked at teacher labor markets in New York, says there’s a bottom-line question driving the new studies: “What we want to really get a sense of is, ‘If the dollars were well used, what kinds of student outcomes could we achieve?’” To find answers, she’s turning to some new sources, including school business and human resources offices. “We’re asking whether it really is the rules in the contracts, or some kind of bureaucracies or cultures that have developed, that keep districts from being as effective as they can be with teachers.”
After researchers submit final reports this winter, Loeb will turn out a paper that summarizes the project as a whole, drawing major conclusions. “It’s not the typical way I do research, which is to spend a bunch of time trying to get this one little fact exactly right,” she adds. “This is much more the state of our knowledge about these questions that can help people.”