Ep. 28: Researchers to Watch with Frederick Andersson, Christian Buerger & Mike Ford

January 18, 2018

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, our Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt interviews three up-and-coming school choice researchers: Frederick Andersson and Christian Buerger of IUPUI and Mike Ford of the University of Wisconsin. They talk about why they chose to research school choice, their current and future projects and tips for other school choice researchers.

Drew Catt: Hello. I’m Drew Catt, at EdChoice’s director of state research and policy analysis. And today, I’m in the studio to introduce our listeners to three researchers to watch. I’m here with Frederick Andersson and Christian Buerger, both assistant professors and researchers at Indiana University, Purdue University, Indianapolis. As we like to say here at home, IUPUI, which is also where I went to grad school. And Mike Ford, assistant professor and researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. Welcome to the podcast, guys.

Christian Buerger: Thank you.

Frederick Andersson: Thank you.

Mike Ford: Thank you.

Drew Catt: So our listeners can gauge whose voice is whose, would you each introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about what attracted you to issues in K–12 education and school choice.

Christian Buerger: My name is Christian. What attracted me to research in education, I grew up in East Germany. When I was 11 years old the wall came down. The reunification happened, and I was exposed to a choice system which I used and I think it was, maybe, the best decision of my life. I ended up getting a Ph.D. in the U.S. being now here a professor at IUPUI. But I also could see that the students that were in my initial class didn’t even get a high school degree. So, out of 20, there were only 3 students including me with a high school degree. So, I was always puzzled on what makes school choice so valuable for some, but not for others. That really drew me in to school search research training.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s really fascinating.

Frederick Andersson: This is Frederick. So I’m probably the odd fellow out among the group that were here because my background is really not so much in education research as it is in organization and entrepreneurship research. And I think what really attracted me … and part of it I can say it’s Mike Ford that, sort of, dragged me into this. So, I will blame him. But also because I think K–12 education, what is happening here, and also in my native Sweden, is that, sort of, school choice is trying to do something new and innovative and how that is, sort of, impacting an entire sector. Which is something that attracts me, no matter what sector it is. But, just education, as such, therefore, was very attractive to me as a way of, sort of, studying entrepreneurship and innovation, new market entry, and so on.

Mike Ford: This is Mike Ford here. I worked from 2004 to about 2013 in advocacy related to K–12 education in Wisconsin. So I got to see school choice issues first-hand and I was attracted to them and wanted to keep studying them.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s all awesome. Y’all have a very different backgrounds and it’s great to bring you all into the studio today. So, would any of y’all like to talk about some of the research that you have done or are currently doing related to K–12 education and school choice? Whether that be a private school choice, or charter schools.

Mike Ford:  Yeah, sure. This is Mike here. So, some of the work that Frederick and I are working on is trying to explore choice programs using the school itself as the unit of analysis. So, we care a lot about the supply side, what leads to the creation of new schools participating in voucher programs and what makes those schools, ultimately, successful once they are participating in a private school choice program. So, issues of governance, issues of school turn over, issues of human capital. These are all things we’re looking at both in Milwaukee but in other programs here in Indiana as well.

Drew Catt: That’s great, and what about you, Christian?

Christian Buerger: So, of different projects … one of my biggest focus is charter school finance. So, one project that I’m working on right now and finished is charter schools can affect the spending in traditional schools in basic two ways. They can increase or decrease efficiency. But, they also can change the cost traditional schools are facing in educating students and bringing them up to a given performance level.

So, what I’ve found is that they do increase the cost for traditional schools in New York state, but they also increase efficiency and that efficiency is greater than the increase in cost.

Also, just came here from New Orleans before I started here at SPEA IUPUI and was looking in to how spending changed in New Orleans after the reforms we saw there. Almost all traditional schools in New Orleans were replaced with charter schools and I find that these … the district now, the entire district including [inaudible 00:04:35] actually spends more for education, spends a lot more for administration. Spends less for instruction, which is, for some people, a surprise.

The changes in instruction or spending for instruction are driven by decreases in benefits so a lot of the charter schools do not participate in the state pension system anymore. On the administrative side, we can see that schools outsource a lot more of their services but also pay their administrators more but also need more administrators. Which can be, maybe, attributed to different things but it is very likely that a decentralized school district loses some of the economies of scale. And, it is also very likely that salaries are higher now and that can be for different reasons some people argue it is because people use autonomy also to increase their salaries. But, we also know that the administrators know New Orleans rates are very different from the ones we have before there, and they are most likely asking for higher salaries. For instance, when coming from the private sector.

Drew Catt: Which sort of course makes sense because people do what they are accustomed to in a lot of areas.

So, it’s interesting that you all attack this issue of researching school choice and K–12 education from very different avenues and through very different lenses. So, if there were ever, in a dream world of the three of you collaborating on a single project, given your varied interest areas, what would that potentially look like?

Frederick Andersson: Oh wow! Okay, should I take a stab at this first? Well, I think that what we all agree on, and what we all, ultimately, would be interested in understanding is that it’s never going to be possible to understand why something is more successful or more efficient, more impactful, whatever terminology you want to use, unless you have the ability to study both internal and external factors over time. And, one of the challenges that we always have as researchers is that we are often being asked to publish a certain number of things per year. So, we tend to study things that we can get into the pipeline but creating something that would allow us to look over how things evolve over maybe 10, 20, 30 years.

Looking at the different aspects that we’re interested in, why do people start new schools? Why are some start up schools more successful than others? What happens in terms of their internal structure and vis a vis. What’s happening with, sort of, the policy environment around them? And how does all these things impact the overall performance, not only of a school, but of a school district?

All those things will take enormous time to study and I think it would be a dream project that maybe we could speed up time so that maybe we could get that data set, you know, in there tomorrow. But yeah, down the line, I think that’s personally what I would hoping that sort of the collaboration that we’re engaged in right now is actually going to result in.

Drew Catt: Something that we’re all talking about earlier today is issues with getting the data in the first place. Can each of you maybe speak on something positive or negative with data collection or maybe lessons learned for those out there in the podcast sphere that have not done their own request for data from a state DOE or the US DOE or government agency or anything like that?

Mike Ford: This is Mike here. I’d say that definitely be comfortable working with government documents. Be capable at quickly navigating things like budgetary reports. Because, oftentimes, the type of data that is going to be available is not going to be in the form that you want it. So, oftentimes, there’s nothing that can replace, basically, hard work and man-hours to assemble data sets.

In a dream world, we would actually have these data sets in a usable way by the entity to which they’re being reported. I’m not trying to be critical there. There’s reasons that they’re not.  But I think that every city, especially, every city that has a mature choice … doesn’t even have to be mature, any type of operating choice market, should have some type of centralized data entity that can be used for both accountability purposes but, more importantly, for management purposes. because it’s a whole different thing to say we’re going to look at data after the fact and use it for accountability, but to actually be able to give practitioners like teachers, principals real-time analytic data to guide decision-making. To me, that’d be a very powerful thing.

So, that’s a long way of saying that it’s a pain to gather data, especially, when you’re dealing with entities that kind of bridge that public versus private line. But, I hope we’re getting more and more sophisticated and getting those out into the open so they can be used.

Drew Catt: Yeah.

Christian Buerger: I just want to add something to that. I think that in Indiana there’s actually a lot of data available. But, it’s just, when you start and when you know it’s difficult to find. So, I think what you have to do, you have to invest time yourself before you harass other people just to get yourself the knowledge. What is out there? What can I use?

And then the other thing with data is always, I think the most important thing is really like: What are you interested in? What do you think is important? What do we need to know? That’s always the first questions and then when you create these questions and you know that they’re important, not only for yourself for some academic reason but really for Indianapolis, for Indiana, for the entire community.

Then we’d say, okay, if you have that, write it down and try to get the data. And, so far, I’ve been in touch with several people at the state, for instance, they have been all very nice but, it’s also, it’s just a lot of work for them. So, we also have to be cautious that we’re adding another burden to what they’re already carrying. And we want to be a little bit careful about that.

Frederick Andersson: I mean, what I would add is, sometimes we often rely on that data should already be existing somewhere from some agency somewhere. But, more and more, as with many academic disciplines, if the data is not there, it might be up to you to actually go out and collect it. You know and there’s various ways you can do this, surveys and so on. And when someone who has done that in previous research quite a bit, one of the sort of tips that I would have is there is … one of the problems one has when you send out a survey is that you send it out to 1,000 people and you get 10 responses. Okay, is this … one way of often mitigating that is to be … find ways and be willing to work with organizations that are actually out there and let them, sort of, be partnering with you when you go out and actually try and collect that data.

Those things, they bring legitimacy to what it is that you’re doing. They bring trust to when you can have someone who backs you up and saying that this person is actually doing this for a good purpose or for x, y, and z reason. And so, I don’t think one should hesitate to try and engage in those types of data-gathering projects. Even though, again, to go back to my earlier comment, again, that’s something that takes time. It is something that takes quite a lot of resources. But, if it’s not there, don’t sit around and wait for it to come. It’s probably up to you to go out and actually do it.

Drew Catt: Yeah and I think that was part of the impetus behind why EdChoice  started conducting surveys of private schools, to kind of, gather some of that information that isn’t being necessarily gathered by other organizations or individuals.

So, two final questions: First, why should someone be interested in school choice research? And the second, what’s your favorite part about being a professor?

Christian, you want to go first?

Christian Buerger: I have to start again? That’s fine. Favorite part about being professor, there’s obviously a lifestyle attached to being a professor that I like. So I like…

What makes me happy is two things. Learning is one of them. The other thing is I like these little problems that you always have in research and I like to solve them. And that, kind of keeps me motivated, you know, almost endlessly. That is great. I think being a professor is one of the few opportunities you can do research that you think is important because you don’t need any grant money because you already got a salary. So you can do the research that you think, or that the group of people that you’re with, is important.

And last, but definitely not least, is I do like teaching as well because it keeps you on your toes. You know, if you’re just in your cave for an entire year, it’s kind of boring. But, if you start teaching students, you have to explain your research. You have to think about it if they have questions and it keeps you on your toes. It keeps you fresh.

Is that an answer? Does that suffice?

Drew Catt: That’s a great answer! Yeah, what about either of y’all?

Mike Ford: Well I can say, first off, why school choice research? There’s all kinds of cool reasons to pay attention to school choice research. But, the fact is, more and more students are getting an education through these programs and to ignore that fact, and to not study it is to basically say we don’t care about how it’s going. What those outcomes are going to be. So, that’s why you need to be paying attention to this if you care about educational outcomes in the United States.

In terms of being a professor, well I’m a public administration professor so maybe I’m a little different than these two. I’m always telling my students we all give up treasure and freedom to be a part of a governed society. And, for me to be able to get up every morning and go study that process and understand exactly how everybody’s money and everybody’s freedom is being distributed in an equitable way that’s, kind of, maximizing outcomes is a pretty fun thing to do, pretty monumental task and that motivates me everyday. I enjoy it.

Frederick Andersson: Yeah, I mean, I would say ditto to everything that’s been said. In particular, when it comes to what is good to be a professor, the fact that you get the autonomy to sort of to study things the way you do I think it’s great.

Also, the opportunity that you have to, sort of, collaborate with a lot of people. Not only, sort of, within your own university but across the country, but even internationally as well. So, that, I think is great.

And finally, I also, to Christian’s point, while it’s, I think it’s important for professors try and seek answers to wicked or intriguing problems. One of the things that I really like with being academic too is you also have a platform where you have the possibility of asking new questions. And what questions should actually be asked? And why do we need to study those things? And I think school education, you know, school choice … understanding, sort of, what works and what doesn’t work ought to be something that interests all of us. You know, I mean, because we’ve all gone through it. We have children. It’s something that we’re going to send our children through at some point. And so, yes, one should definitely pay attention to it.

Drew Catt: Yeah, so, never stop questioning. Do either of you y’all have any forthcoming research you’d like to quickly plug?

Mike Ford: Well plenty, I’ll say that hopefully, soon, I’ll have an article out looking at charter school governance and trying to understand exactly what independent charter school boards can be doing to maximize performance. And, the basic finding is that, when they’re more efficient at addressing, you know, key problem areas, they tend to have better group dynamics, become a more high-functioning board and that actually translates into academic gains. So, I’m excited about that.

Frederick Andersson: And I think, and this is a joint product, with Mike, trying to … getting better data, I would say… I don’t think necessarily would there, but more towards answering this question: Why do some start-up schools, new schools that start up, why do they, sort of, succeed and survive when others under similar circumstances and with similar goals do not? I think we are, sort of, approaching, you know, a way where we can start providing some more definite answers to that by looking at both, sort of, successes and failures over a long period of time.

Christian Buerger: I’m hoping to have, soon, some research on Indiana, Indianapolis. I just moved here in August. We like it a lot. So, you know, the hope is that my research will contribute also to make better decisions here, to understand the system better and help parents, educators also, to improve education in the state here that I’ve chosen to be my home.

Drew Catt: That’s amazing and I’m, we’re definitely all excited to have you here and looking forward to seeing that research in the future.

Well, thank you so much for sharing some time with us today. And, to our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our podcast for more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats, and more.

Thank you for listening and we’ll see you soon for more EdChoice Chats.