Ep. 304: Researcher Profile — with Angela Dills

March 2, 2022

Drew Catt, director of state research and special projects, sits down with Dr. Angela Dills, Gimelstob-Landry distinguished professor of regional economic development at Western Carolina University.

Drew Catt: Hello. I’m Drew Catt, a choices director of state research and special projects. Today, I’m in the studio to introduce our listeners to a wonderful researcher. I’m here with Dr. Angela Dills, Gimelstob-Landry distinguished professor of regional economic development at Western Carolina University, and an EdChoice fellow. Thanks for joining me today, Angela.

Dr. Angela Dills: Thank you for having me.

Drew Catt: So would you mind introducing yourself beyond your title, and telling us a little bit about what attracted you to issues in K12 education and educational choice?

Dr. Angela Dills: Sure. The title’s long enough at all to be a good introduction, but great. So I’m an economics professor at Western Carolina University, fellow at EdChoice. I got into ed policy in general, I’m going to credit first my mother who was a middle school math teacher for decades. So needless to say we’ve had many conversation about education policy, both growing up and throughout my career. As a researcher, my career probably got mostly interested in education policy in graduate school. I went to Boston University for a doctorate in economics, but I had the opportunity while I was there to take a class from Caroline Hoxby, who was at Harvard University at the time. So we were allowed to go across the river for class credit, and I sat in on her economics of education class. I wrote a paper for her class. She very generously provided excessive quantities of feedback, and it was one of the first papers I published. So I will also credit Professor Hoxby for her influence in getting me into ed policy and school choice eventually as well.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That’s a heavy hitter of a name here in the school choice research world.

Dr. Angela Dills: Yes. It was quite a wonderful experience. She’s a brilliant researcher, and was very generous as a professor as well.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So what drove you to pursue economics?

Dr. Angela Dills: I think in college I got into economics because the first economics class I sat in on, I was like, “Wow, there are other people in this world who think like me,” and I think that economic way of thinking, of thinking about people’s incentives and how people choose the things they choose, just really sat well with my own sort of intuitive way of thinking, and it was great to have a way to sort of fit the math that I love into that framework as well, and as I went through, I think sort of the more I studied economics, particularly in graduate school, I’m honestly, Drew, I’m the biggest data geek you’ll find. Maybe not the biggest, but I’m definitely geeking out over data, and so I think one of my favorite things to do is to dig into a great data set and figure out what’s going on in the world, and education’s sort of valuable in that way. One, it’s a topic I’m interested in and passionate about, but there’s also a lot of really interesting data, and we have a lot to learn about how it works, what works well for whom, and sort of how can we think more carefully about policy that’ll work well for children.

Drew Catt: As somebody that works with educational data, how do you feel about the lag in the data that we have to work with, especially compared to polling data, but sometimes we’re working with data from two to three school years ago?

Dr. Angela Dills: I think realistically we’re always sort of looking backwards, and that has some challenges to it. I think it also brings a little bit of humility to the research of thinking about we like to make predictions based on what we’ve seen happen in the past, but really what we’re able to confidently tell you is what’s happened in the past. So I think the data lags make it challenging, particularly when you want to have a policy relevant discussion, when you want to sort of talk to people about what might be good or bad policy. We are consistently working with lagged data. I think the polling data that you guys are collecting at EdChoice is great. It’s great to hear what people are thinking. Economists tend to be a little bit more skeptical about polls than other kinds of data because people will say lots of things, right? So the nice thing about the polls is when you can track people, what people are saying over time, so you can think about sort of what they are and aren’t willing to talk about or to agree to, or what policies they say they favor and how that’s changing over time. But talk is cheap, Drew. We like to see what people do. Right? It takes time to figure out how to observe those behaviors. Particularly these days, with all these pandemic changes going on, there’s a lot of really interesting changes going on, and the data analyzer in me would love to get by hands in it and it is a little bit frustrating to either think that it’s going to really complicate long term empirical work, work that is observing students over a longer period of time. It’s going to really complicate those kinds of analyses over the coming years, unless what you’re doing is focusing specifically on the pandemic. I think these past few years have proved challenging.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and it’s even, in terms of data collection, we use the most recent American community survey results from the census bureau when we’re doing our eligibility estimates for the ABC’s, and due to the COVID pandemic there’s a nice little disclaimer on the census bureau’s website that’s basically, “Due to the COVID pandemic, we are not doing our normal one year estimates. These will be deemed experimental and will be available on a separate website.” It really is going to be a challenge working with data, as you said, and especially if we’re looking at trying to measure program effectiveness for anything related to education. Students change academically, how much of it was due to the positive or negative experiences of a program versus how much of it was just due to the pandemic happening?

Dr. Angela Dills: I completely agree that the pandemic’s going to cause these challenges. I have three school-aged children myself and they were in school for most of this pandemic, thankfully for us, but it’s still been a stressful experience for families, for communities, and changed sort of all of the other enriching activities that families do with their children. So it’s going to be hard to untangle out those effects, which on one hand there’s been so many changes in policy and changes in children’s classroom experiences, in children’s schooling choices, all of those things over the past coming years, which will provide some really interesting variation. But we’re going to have to be really careful as we do those kinds of analyses to think about how to deal with the effects of the pandemic, both in and outside the classroom.

Drew Catt: It’s also interesting, I don’t know why, I just had the thought of my previous job working in grant making, learning how much families rely on community centers for the wraparound services outside of the school, and not having access to some of those venues, whether they’ve closed or whether the family has transportation issues. Yeah, just wondering how much some families not having their child in school has impacted the family beyond just that student’s education.

Dr. Angela Dills: I completely agree. Some of our big sort of after school programs in town, not only do they do a lot of regular activities, gymnastics and ninja classes and martial arts classes, all kinds, but they also provide afterschool care for working parents, and I think a lot of families have missed those kinds of opportunities for their children. I think that’s part of it. I’m actually thinking even maybe bigger than that, I like to think that all parents spend some portion of their children’s time educating them, homeschooling them. Even if we’re not homeschool schoolers, we go to museums. We go out and see the world. We talk about the world around us, and learn about how people behave and what do our children want to do when they grow up and what are their options, and just sort of generally learning about the world around them, and a lot of that was restricted too. I think some of it maybe was even more accessible. So there’s some positive effects too. You can go see a museum on the other side of the world through these electronic tours that people were posting because you didn’t actually go in person. So I think there’s a whole sort of richness of children’s lives that they missed out on too, and who knows? I’m not sure we have great understanding of what those effects are in a regular sort of year, let alone in these kinds of years.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I was always interested by the team out at the University of Arkansas that look at the impact of field trips to museums. I’ve seen a few of those reports over the last few years, or articles, and that’s something that, I was a homeschooled student. So that was my enrichment activity. I remember when my dad had some business trip to D.C., that the whole family tagged along, and I had to write reports on the Vietnam War Memorial, and I wrote a report on something I saw at one of the Smithsonian’s. Yeah, just to think about those experiences being taken away. Thank you for bringing that up. I hadn’t really thought of it in that way before.

Dr. Angela Dills: I was thinking of their work as well. We know that these field trips happen, but people, we go places on the weekend too. We go to the zoo. You go to all these other places, and I think that’s some of particularly what my children missed over the summer, over spring 2020, when we were really limited in what we were able to do.

Drew Catt: We’ve definitely been taking a lot of trips to the zoo in the last year and a half since it is outdoors.

Dr. Angela Dills: Right. Zoo’s are great. Outdoors is lovely, so…

Drew Catt: Yeah, but on the flip side, fewer trips to the children’s museum.

Dr. Angela Dills: Right, which are fun. My kids are a little bit older than that now, but we spend a lot of time in children’s museums and they do a great job providing enriching activities to young people, and I think a lot of children missed out on that.

Drew Catt: So Angela, do you mind talking a little bit about some of the research that you’re currently working on and kind of maybe some of the highlights, why you enjoy researching some of the specific things that you do?

Dr. Angela Dills: Sure. Well, this segues pretty well into it. I’m interested in a lot of cognitive aspects of schooling and sort of how… Academic effects of school, but I’m also interested in a lot of the non-cognitive outcomes from schooling, and I got into it, in part, as a way to, in a very practical way, in part as a way to sort of intertwine two research streams as I was thinking about going up for tenure. I have another set of research that looks at risky behavior and alcohol and drug use, and I had a whole set of research on education policy and I was trying to find a way to sort of make a cohesive tenure packet as a very practical academic over here. And so I wrote a paper on school choice and crime where what we were looking at was [TEPO 00:10:44] choice, so choice in where you live in the sense that when you choose a residence you’re choosing a school for your children as well, and sort of how cities that had more or fewer [TEPO 00:10:55] choice, how that affected adolescent crime. And my co-author and my friend Ray Hernandez and I, we found that more public school choice, more [TEPO 00:11:03] choice, reduced adolescent crime. But that interest has kind of continued. I think people tend to like test scores because they’re measured and it helps us do the empirical analysis. But there are all kinds of other outcomes of young people that are important for their lives, and so I’ve been really into sort of thinking about some of those outcomes as well. One of my favorite recent pieces is with Corey DeAngelis where we’re looking at state laws with respect to school choice and adolescent suicide, and we got into the paper sort of talking about a recent school shooting. Not recent anymore. It’s been a few years now, but to of having this discussion about what’s going on with a young person who finds their lives so troubling, and is it just our impression or is it really the case that a lot of these school shootings are happening at public schools, and not at private schools or charter schools, but at traditional public schools? And so we got into this sort of looking at what was happening with adolescent mental health when states were adopting school choice laws, what was happening with mental health for people who, as teenagers, went to private school or went to public school, and generally what our research is showing is that when families have more choice, adolescent mental health is better. We see declines in suicide, particularly when states adopt charter school laws. But also when children attend private school as well. So I think there’s a whole sort of rich set of outcomes that we can think about, and those are particularly interesting to me, in part because I think they’re really sort of valuable aspects of our human experience.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That is amazing. It really, really makes me start to think back into some of the earlier works that I’ve read by some economists talking about the value of choice in general, the value of having a choice and how that can impact your life, and thinking about that and it’s related to school choice, and just the impacts beyond the individual student’s academic scores, but what happens with their entire family, what happens to the parents when they choose as well.

Dr. Angela Dills: I would love to have more data on that. I’ve had this long run sort of thought in the back of my head that one of the benefits of, say, sending your kid to private school is that the parents have access to a social network just like the kids do. But finding that data is challenging. So if you know of anything Drew, let me know.

Drew Catt: Yeah.

Dr. Angela Dills: Would love to think about that a little bit more detail, so…

Drew Catt: Recently, we just did a parent survey. But maybe for the next one we’d love to, yeah, see what kind of question matrix could go in that would be wonderful data for us to have and for you to look at.

Dr. Angela Dills: Always. I like data, as you do. I know. We can geek out together Drew. It’ll be good.

Drew Catt: I’m swimming in data, sometimes it’s hard to remember it’s a… To hop out of the pool every once in a while and just stay in there swimming.

Dr. Angela Dills: It’s hard to find the right balance. Let me tell you about one other project, speaking of the Arkansas folks. I just finished up a report working with Patrick Wolf and the school’s choice demonstration project out of Arkansas, a whole host of others as well, and for me one of the really interesting pieces of that is they have very detailed city level data on traditional public school and charter school revenue sources and expenditure patterns, and it was really interesting to kind of dig into those details in a way that a lot of the data that I’ve worked with in the past hadn’t allowed me to do. So I think it’s hard to find the right level of data for the right question, and for the questions that we were looking at, sort of thinking about do charter schools differ from traditional public schools, and how this level of detail was great. But I agree with you. It’s hard to find the right balance of swimming in data versus enough data to really dig out the kind of information that’s interesting and useful.

Drew Catt: It’s also hard when you’re pulling stuff from NCES, and they’ll change what’s available at what level. Yeah. I used to be able to go in and pull out at the state level, the number of students that were on an IEP, and finally, thankfully the other week, realized “Oh, this is actually still available. I just have to pull up the district level instead of the state level.”

Dr. Angela Dills: Yes. It’s interesting. We were piecing for a totally different project. It’s like you would think that both the federal and state and district data people would have some interest in maintaining that continuity over time, both not just in the way you’re saying and how it’s reported, the level it’s reported at, but wouldn’t our lives be easier if they were all named the same thing over time and formatted in the same way, and it would just make that analysis easier, and I’m not sure what happens between data collection, data reporting, and when it actually gets to us. But I feel you.

Drew Catt: Oh, yeah. It’s diving into the private school data, especially going back to the ’89, ’90 PSS data set, and just seeing the evolution of the survey over time, is quite wonderful, and thankfully they do have continuation more or less of the same questions. But they used to have a question on there about what year was your school founded? Which that, I think the last year they asked that was either ’93, ’94, ’95, ’96? That’s a wonderful piece of information, and they just decided to stop collecting it for some reason when for most schools you just walk outside and see what the number is on that cornerstone and walk back in if you don’t know it by heart. Yeah, that is fascinating. Not just the availability of data, but how some data can be available some years and then it either, the question stops being asked or they just stop reporting it at the same level.

Dr. Angela Dills: As sort of when you’re building service for a choice, the benefit of the continuity is there. But surveys get long too, right? So if you want to ask new questions, some things have to go, and I’m not sure how those decisions get made, but I’m sure there’s some fun meetings to be had that I’m glad I’m not sitting in on. So…

Drew Catt: Yeah. Especially something like a private school survey being administered-

Dr. Angela Dills: Yeah.

Drew Catt: … by the federal government where they’re just thankful that they get responses.

Dr. Angela Dills: Yes. Right. So the shorter, the more you’re going to get. So you might as well focus on what you really need. Right. So I get that there’s a trade off, but I think as data people, we always think more is better, right?

Drew Catt: Yeah. I like to occasionally fondly think of my days in the summer 2010 being an enumerator for the census and having to go door to door, knock on people’s doors and be like, “Hey, I have all of these questions that I need to ask you.” “Okay, why?” “Well, this is the census.” “Well, what’s that.” All right. Didn’t expect this conversation, but let’s go there. Really, I don’t even need to know your names. I just need to know how many people are living here and what ages they are and background, nationality, that sort of stuff. I don’t need birth dates. I don’t need all of this information. Just help me help you fill out this form, and then we can be on our way.

Dr. Angela Dills: So would people actually refuse any of that information?

Drew Catt: Occasionally, yes.

Dr. Angela Dills: Yeah?

Drew Catt: I would just have to visually record what I could see through the door that was cracked open. You’re like, “Well, there are at least five people here, and these are about the ages.” It wasn’t that often. Most people were pretty receptive. There were a few that were very leery of anyone claiming to be with the federal government.

Dr. Angela Dills: I can imagine.

Drew Catt: Yeah.

Dr. Angela Dills: Yes. So we struggle with some similar issues with collecting census data where I currently live.

Drew Catt: I would imagine. So tell everybody kind of what it’s like in the area that you live in, and what you enjoy about Western Carolina University.

Dr. Angela Dills: So I live in rural North Carolina, live up in the mountains of North Carolina. Western Carolina University is a part of the state system, but given where we are sort of in the western region, we serve a lot of students from the region. So we have a lot of first generation students, and for them, being able to finish college is a life changing, family changing experience, and I love being a part of that. We’re here, in part, because my family’s from here. I live in the town my father grew up in, and I work at the university where my parents went to school, where they met. So there’s a little bit of family history too with my work life, and that’s kind of fun too. So I’m very happy to be living here and raising my children next to their grandparents, and letting them have that experience, speaking of extracurricular life enriching events, Drew. So, yeah.

Drew Catt: No, that’s amazing. I mean, personally I enjoyed growing up with my grandparents literally across the corn fields.

Dr. Angela Dills: So I grew up an Air Force brat, so we moved a lot. So we moved roughly every three years until I was in sixth grade, and my mother let us stay in northern Virginia where I went to middle school and high school until we all finished high school. So I think in part, what attracts me about school choice is having experienced a lot of different kinds of schooling and different locations, and different sort of living situations and schooling situations. I have a lot of appreciation for the benefits of a great teacher, the benefits of a supportive school, and a lot of gratitude for my mother in particular being willing to negotiate the mess that is getting children enrolled in the school you’d like them to be and the programs you’d like them to be in repeatedly during our childhoods.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I’m sure that was a huge challenge. Not only learning what each student needs, but okay, here’s a different state. So I have to figure out what’s available in this area.

Dr. Angela Dills: Yes. Yeah, and I think the more kids you have the more challenging it is. We’ve found, I have three children and sometimes what’s right for one child is not what’s right for every child, and one of the things I love about school choice is that it makes it easier for families to make different choices for their different children because families have different needs, but even within families children have different needs.

Drew Catt: It is amazing how much we hear about, especially in media, oh, these private school families versus public school families, which I have lost count of the number of parents that I have met that have multiple students in multiple sectors, one student in the charter school because that’s what works for them, one student in the local district school, or they got into the magnet school versus another student that’s homeschooled, another student that’s in the private school because that’s what they need. But yeah, it’s not something we normally talk about, is each family, not just going to one school, but really focusing on what each individual child needs and giving them the best fit.

Dr. Angela Dills: Right, and that can be challenging for families that are negotiating lots of children’s schedules. But I think the right school isn’t the same school for everybody, and so it’s great when families have opportunities to make all those different choices. Living in a rural area, that’s a little bit more challenging. But I’m thinking of one of my colleagues who has several children, and I think between all of their kids, they’ve been in almost all of the schools which are in a reasonable driving distance from where they live. So she’s got great experience with the choice in this area.

Drew Catt: It’s nice to have that resource as well. Well Angela, thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.

Dr. Angela Dills: Thank you, Drew. Always nice to chat about research.

Drew Catt: To our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you choose to listen to them, for more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats, and more. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you back soon with more EdChoice Chats.