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December 2017 Newsletter

Faculty Profile: Scott Imberman, Economist and Expert on Education Policy

Scott A. Imberman Photo
Scott Imberman,
Associate Professor of Economics

Although the effort to improve the quality of education in America dates back to the 1800s, it is only in recent decades that economics has been seen as a social science that could play an important part in that effort. It was in recognition of the growing ability of economists to contribute to the development of innovative and effective education policies that the Department of Economics teamed up with MSU’s College of Education in 2012 to hire Scott Imberman, an economist with a strong record of producing high quality research on education and education policy. Since coming to MSU, Prof. Imberman has continued to build his reputation as a leading expert on education.

When asked about what economists like himself have brought to discussions of education policy, Prof. Imberman emphasizes two things. A first is the range of new ideas obtained by applying economic theories to questions that arise in the context of educational policy. For example, economists have used their theories of choice and market competition to understand the potential impact of programs that allow parents some degree of choice over what school their children will attend. And a central assumption of economics – that people respond to incentives – has been fruitfully employed in the analysis of how students, teachers, and administrators respond to the incentives created, often inadvertently, by the policies that govern classrooms, school buildings, and school districts.

Prof. Imberman also mentions the introduction of the more advanced statistical methods of econometrics into education research. Economists have emphasized the importance of going beyond the information provided by impressions, anecdotes, and potentially unrepresentative case studies, to the analysis of systematically collected, representative data. And they stress that it is essential to analyze more thoroughly the simple correlations or relationships observed in statistical data, such as the fact that students in poorer neighborhoods perform less well, or that school districts that spend more money on school buildings have students who perform better. Econometrics provides a set of statistical tools that can explain the factors that lie behind such relationships, that can determine, for example, whether more expensive buildings really improve student learning, or whether more expensive buildings and better student performance are both the consequence of a local population that values education. Obviously, knowing what really causes the observed relationships between various circumstances and good or bad educational outcomes is enormously important in designing policies that promote the good outcomes.

Asked about where one can see most clearly the influence of economists on education policy, Prof. Imberman cites the increasing importance of accountability systems, that is, programs explicitly linking the rewards received by teachers and administrators to measures of student performance. This trend is in part attributable economists’ focus on the importance of understanding how incentives affect the behavior of teachers and administrators. In Prof. Imberman’s opinion, the spread of accountability programs has been good for education – test scores have clearly risen, and this is due at least in part to increased learning rather than simply “teaching to the test”. But he emphasizes that the progress has been uneven, as many accountability programs actually introduced by school districts are seriously flawed. The most important contribution of economists in this area has been to evaluate the effectiveness of various programs, and identify the characteristics of the ones that work.
In his own research Prof. Imberman has examined the effectiveness of accountability programs, but also a number of other issues. He has analyzed data on student performance and behavior to assess the impact of school uniform requirements, of school-provided breakfast, and of gifted and talented and bilingual education programs. He has looked at how charter schools have influenced not only student achievement, but also residential property values, and has also measured the effect on housing values of making public various statistical measures of local school quality.

In a recent study, Prof. Imberman and Michael Lovenheim of Cornell University used data on student performance in Houston’s public school system to analyze the effectiveness of a group-based incentive pay system for teachers. Some school districts offer incentive pay to teachers based only on the performance of their own students, while in other districts “group-based” systems give incentive pay to groups of teachers (all teachers at a certain grade level, or in a certain building) based on the performance of all students taught by members of the group. Group-based systems encourage teamwork and eliminate competition and rivalry between teachers who should be working towards the same goal. However, a potential disadvantage of such systems lies in what economists call the free-rider problem: An individual teacher has less incentive to work hard for the reward when he or she knows that the reward is based only partly on his or her on effort, and largely on the efforts of other teachers. This weakening of each group member’s incentive is greater the larger the group. Imberman and Lovenheim found evidence that this problem existed, in that the less impact the performance of teacher’s own students had on the determination of the group reward, the less the performance of that teacher’s student improved. This implies that group-based incentives offered to smaller groups of teachers will be more effective than group based-incentives offered to larger groups.

Prof. Imberman’s current research looks at issues related to autism, including a study of the impact of Michigan’s requirement that health insurance plans cover autism treatment on the educational outcomes of children on the autism spectrum.

Economists like Scott Imberman do much to maintain our reputation as one of the nations’ top economics departments. In addition, his work exemplifies MSU’s core values of quality and connectivity: a program of highly regarded research that will create the knowledge needed to solve the most difficult and important societal problems – in this case, the problem of creating a better education system for the nation’s children.   

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Michigan State University Department of Economics