Teacher effectiveness, and the use of student value-added data to measure it, are a hot topic in education these days. The University of Missouri's Cory Koedel is among the researchers helping to build our knowledge base in these areas and shape public policy as a result. Koedel has studied issues related to teacher quality, value-added measures of teacher effectiveness, school choice, and curricular effectiveness. He service on the VAM Technical Advisory Board for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the Missouri Department of Education's Growth Model Technical Advisory Committee, and the National Report Technical Advisory Panel for the New Teacher Project, has also helped to inform public policy related to teacher effectiveness and evaluation. A California native, Koedel earned his bachelor's degree and Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, San Diego, before settling in Missouri, where he lives with his wife and daughters.
Why did you decide to become an economist?
The economic approach to problem solving has always been intuitive for me dating back to my first economics course in high school. I had a great economics teacher; he really promoted my interest in the subject. After I received my bachelor's degree in economics I took a few years off and worked in private industry, but I didn't feel challenged. Ultimately I decided I'd be happiest by really developing my expertise as an economist, so I signed up for graduate school and haven't looked back since.
How did you come to do research focused on education issues?
When I entered graduate school I didn't have a clear topical focus. I knew that I wanted to do empirical work, and education research appealed to me because I feel so strongly about the importance of an effective educational system. My advisor, Julian Betts, was in the midst of doing some really neat work in San Diego around the time when I was choosing a dissertation topic. Julian's presence at San Diego made it an easy choice.
What research questions in education do you find most interesting?
I am most interested in teacher compensation and teacher evaluation. I believe that adjustments to how we evaluate and pay teachers have the most promise in terms of leading to real improvements in student outcomes. For example, taking some of the resources that we currently devote to fund teachers' retirement benefits and using them to increase teachers' upfront salaries could improve initial selection into the profession. I am also concerned that the lack of recognition for excellence in teaching makes the profession less appealing to those who are the most likely to be successful. Smart, hard-working people like to be recognized for their accomplishments.
I am also interested more generally in promoting an evaluative culture within education. An example outside of teaching is in the area of curriculum-materials adoptions. Unbelievably, most states do not track which curricula are being used in which schools, which makes it impossible to empirically determine which curricula are the most effective. Yet most students use textbooks every single day. How can we afford not to have an evaluation system in place for determining which curriculum materials are the most effective?
What are your other research interests outside of education?
The list is getting smaller and smaller. I am generally interested in what skills are rewarded by the labor market (which is only partly an "education" question). I am also interested in applied econometrics and public finance.
You've served on some panels advising states or districts on growth or value-added models. How do you see your role as an academic engaging in practical application and policy at the state/local/national level?
To be honest, this is a role I didn't expect to have, at least at this stage in my career. I am still feeling it out. But I think that it is important for academics to engage with policymakers and my various policy interactions over the past few years have only reinforced this belief. Policymakers have a different set of considerations than the typical academic, but we can be useful resources for policymakers who want to use data properly. I spend a large fraction of my life glued to my computer thinking about how best to use all of the great data we have in education to measure and improve student outcomes. Much of the ongoing academic work in the area of modeling student performance can be of great value for education policymakers.
What's your take on the current move to adopt new teacher evaluation systems that incorporate value-added or growth as a key component? What are the benefits? Are there potential pitfalls that people aren't thinking enough about?
I think the pitfalls are out there, and some of my work shows what they are. But here is the question: Is the information coming from the models better than what we have? I hate that the notion of some impossible "perfect" system might torpedo a system that would be a vast improvement over what we're doing now. To me, the folks that give a blanket "no" to value-added but don't offer any other solution aren't being very helpful. Right now we have a system where students who choose to major in education have among the lowest entrance-exam scores of any major discipline, and they all earn exceptional marks in their education classes. Virtually all K-12 teachers receive exceptional performance reviews. But in the data we see incredible differences across teachers in terms of actual classroom performance. We need some sort of actionable information to reward the best teachers, and perhaps more importantly, to minimize the damage done by the worst. I am continually surprised by people who don't seem to be considering the students who are being taught by the mediocre teachers who are protected by the current evaluation system. I know some people have a kneejerk reaction toward the idea of firing teachers, but I wonder if these same people are thinking very hard about the classrooms full of kids who won't be as successful in life because their teachers are ineffective.
What experiences, individuals, or books have most influenced your thinking about education?
I suppose the most influential experiences I've had are from my own childhood, growing up and going to school. That's an easy answer for an education researcher. I also have several friends who grew up in what I would consider to be very disadvantaged circumstances. They attended some notoriously bad schools. Our informal conversations have had a great deal of influence over my thinking about how we should approach education policy in the places where it is probably most important. As an aside, I think a common problem in research circles is that many of the top researchers made it to where they are precisely because they didn't attend terrible schools. Sometimes I feel like as a group, we're just not getting it.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
That is a tough question to answer. I suppose I view my role as providing information--so I guess I hope that I'll be able to look back 10 years from now and think that the work I have done, and the insight it has provided, has led to smarter education policy.