The Professor Who’s Wary About ‘Changing the World’

As told to
Photo: Martin Barraud/Getty Images/Caiaimage

Jay Greene, 50
Education professor and researcher
Fayetteville, AR

I am a professor at the University of Arkansas. I have three roles: I train graduate students to be future researchers. I am head of a department, so I help supervise and set policies. I also conduct research on education policy to answer questions that are interesting to me and which I think will be interesting to other people and policy makers.

I usually have about two or three projects going on at a time. If the project is in the getting-organized stage, I’m mapping out research. If we’re in the data-entry or analysis stage, I’m focused on that. If we’re at the writing stage, then I’m sitting down and starting to write.

There are two kinds of questions I try to answer. One kind of question is descriptive: What does the world actually look like in regards to education policy? One of the things that comes up very often in education policy is that people assume that the world looks a certain way; that we have certain kinds of problems or that we don’t have certain kinds of problems. Or we have certain kinds of strengths or we don’t have certain kinds of strengths.

I think that most people, including me, probably start with our direct experience. And from our direct experience we have a hunch about either what the world looks like or what the effects of something are. But, you know, our direct experience is not a systematic analysis. We don’t know if that’s right. I try to describe accurately what the world looks like by using systematic data rather than trying to imagine what the facts are.

An example is work I’ve done on high-school graduation rates. I was living in Texas and school districts were reporting dropout rates in the single digits. But I could see enrollment statistics, and there were twice as many students in ninth grade as there were diplomas given out. Something seemed off there.

I came up with techniques to estimate what graduation rates must be. I did that nationwide, as well as in states and districts around the country. I showed that officially reported numbers were misstating the problem. There were many more students not graduating high school than previously thought — particularly African-American and Hispanic students were not finishing high school.

A second kind of question I try to answer is causal. I try to find out what are the effects of different things we try in schools, so we know whether those things are potentially desirable or not desirable.

The work I’ve been doing recently along these lines is looking at what students learn from going to an art museum or going to see live theater. I grew up in suburban Chicago. My parents would drag us to museums and stuff every weekend, and our school would drag us to these places on a regular basis. I remember having mixed feelings about some of those experiences. I remember the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. It frightened me, because as a little kid I was frightened of the mummies. So, it’s not that they’re all positive, fun experiences, but maybe there’s some reason why I was being dragged around to all these places.

I noticed this was not happening much anymore. We don’t know for sure that’s a nationwide phenomenon, but there are anecdotal reports from a handful of cultural institutions like the Field Museum in Chicago, reporting very steep declines. I began thinking, Why has that changed? Are we losing anything if we stop doing that?

So what I’ve been doing is looking at what students learn from going to an art museum, or going to see live theater. We’re conducting a series of experiments that randomly assign students to go on these culturally enriching activities — or not. That way, if we compare the groups, we know that any difference between them is caused by that experience and not by a preexisting difference.

One outcome we measured was their desire to return to museums in the future. We asked them questions about it and they told us. We also gave every student a coupon for a free visit to a special exhibit. We coded the coupons so we could actually track behaviorally if they were coming to museums later. We found that if students went on the school tour, they were more likely to use the coupons with their families than if they had not been on the school tour. So, that going seems to cultivate a taste for going again.

We also did surveys. We have a tolerance scale. Then we have something called a “social perspective taking” scale. They try to measure these kinds of concepts by asking students a series of questions.

What we find is that students get quite a lot out of these activities. There’s real learning that occurs from culturally enriching activities. It’s not just learning content knowledge. Even more importantly, students seem to have their values changed. They seem to become a little bit more tolerant and empathetic as a result of going on these culturally enriching activities.

I like studies where the outcomes have to do with things like tolerance or self-discipline or being culturally literate. Those kinds of outcomes are much more interesting to me than math and reading test scores. I think our field is way too obsessed with test scores. It’s not even close to the entirety of what schools do.

My interest in education began when I realized my children were going to be partially raised by educators. I wanted a lot for my kids other than math and reading test scores. I wanted them to be tolerant people, I wanted them to be culturally literate people, creative people. I think a lot of other parents do too. It worries me that our field is so obsessed with this narrow measure of education as if that’s what schooling is about. It’s not.

Politicians sometimes contact me wanting me to repackage work to be more useful to them. Or they may ask, “Can you go testify about this piece of legislation?” There’s a difference between people wanting me to promote or repackage previous findings, and people paying for what they hope to be positive findings. That has not happened for me, but I think people think that it does happen for me.

In the late ’90s, there was an initiative on the ballot in California to ban bilingual education. I was asked to conduct a systematic review of the evidence on bilingual education. I ended up finding that we didn’t have very much evidence. But what little evidence we did have suggests that teaching students at least some of the time in their native language seemed to be helpful.

I came out with that result. I got an email from a conservative education researcher and pundit that said, “Don’t you know you’re helping the wrong team?” I replied, “I didn’t know there were teams.” That would be an example of an advocate being disappointed, and I didn’t care. Our job is to try and provide some useful information to assist people who have to make decisions. Not to help a team win.

I do confess that the moments that feel the best are when I think someone else has a made an error and I can point that out. Debunking something that someone else said is probably the thing I enjoy most [laughs]. It’s easier to destroy than to build. The graduation rate work was a debunking exercise. There were state and superintendents bragging about their one-percent dropout rates. I said that was phony. I was debunking them and that felt great to do that. It also produced anxiety that they would be angry at me. They did get angry. I keep doing it anyway.

I used to think I was changing the world. That was my job. Changing the world in a way where I specifically knew how it was changing and wanted it to change. I was going to inform policy makers, and they were going to make the world better. I still want that to happen, but hard experience makes me think it’s not a realistic way to think about work. For the most part, what we do doesn’t actually change the world. And sometimes, when you do change things, you thought you were doing something good, and then you then ended up doing something bad.

The work I did on graduation rates work — that did change policy. It wasn’t single-handed; there were lots of people doing work along these lines. I really think my work contributed to change. States acknowledged that officially reported numbers were not accurate. The National Governors Association adopted a unanimous resolution acknowledging the problem and pledging new data systems and methods of calculating graduation rates. The United States Department of Education endorsed those methods and made them part of No Child Left Behind legislation.

But then, paradoxically, the work simply provided perverse incentives for schools to manipulate data in a different way. There began to be this thing called “Recovered Credits.” Schools are very, very eager to give an actual diploma, so students who’ve dropped out are given a “credit” for things they probably learned. Schools handed out actual diplomas, and they got their actual graduation rates up. Was that what I wanted? No! That wasn’t what I wanted at all!

I felt foolish. I knew full well how people respond to incentives. I’d written a lot about how people would respond perversely to incentives. I just didn’t think it through! It’s impossible to think everything through.

The world is way bigger and more complicated and out of your control than anyone realizes. I’m not smart enough to tell everyone how to change. I can only just contribute what I can and then hope that it all comes together in a good way.

So the thing I try to get back to is just focusing on doing my job well. My students, I try to teach them to do that. I think the right way to do this job is to just focus on being true to my craft. Do it well. I try to think about my job like a shoemaker. My job is to make a good shoe. I hope someone will get some benefit out of my shoe. But I understand that, over the long run, the shoe wears out and gets thrown away. There’s honor in just making a good shoe.

I say it more boldly then I actually practice. I say it almost halfway so as to convince myself [laughs]. So, I wouldn’t claim that I’m fully converted into this view. But the meaning I derive from my work is changing over time.

Increasingly I take satisfaction from training other people. I love having students. I think of my students like my intellectual children. I take enormous pride in their accomplishments. I can see reflections of myself in some of the students coming up. Things that were annoying about them allowed me to see annoying things in my own work.

Your research is your legacy, but, a little bit, your students are your legacy. Eventually your research is replaced by their better research. And your name is forgotten. You impart some little bits of intellectual DNA into them and they in turn pass that on to another generation, and so on. If there’s anything enduring at all about academia, it’s that. And that’s satisfying.

There are lots of legitimate ways of understanding the world. My way is that I count things. I find something satisfying about counting a lot of things [laughs]. So I get to count a lot of things, and I enjoy that.

The Professor Who’s Wary About ‘Changing the World’