Ep. 103: Researcher Profile – Danish Shakeel

March 5, 2019

In today’s episode of EdChoice Chats, our Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis Marty Lueken talks with Harvard post-doctoral student and researcher Danish Shakeel about his history with school choice and what research he has in the pipeline.

Marty Lueken: Hello, I’m Marty Lueken, EdChoice’s director of fiscal policy and analysis. Welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats.

Today I’m in the studio with Danish Shakeel, a post doctoral student at Harvard University, and a graduate from the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform.

Thanks for joining me today, Danish.

Danish Shakeel: Thank you very much, Marty, for inviting me.

Marty Lueken: So, Dani would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little about what brought you into the K–12 education reform and school choice space?

Danish Shakeel: Thank you.

You’ve already talked about my academic background in the U.S. I originally come from India. My mother was a public school teacher. More than half of my family teaches in public schools in India. I was interested in education from the beginning, and my parents wanted to send me to the best school, so they choose a private school, and private schools happen to outperform the public schools in India.

I saw the experience, I grew around kids who were going to public and private schools in my family and around, and that motivated me to improve education.

I joined the program in Arkansas with that zeal. My background is that I was a physicist before I changed to computer science, to mathematics. Didn’t find satisfaction. I wanted to improve schools and that’s what brought me to the field of school choice.

Marty Lueken: Well that’s fascinating. So you’ve had quite a lot of personal experience with this. You’ve also studied some fascinating topics, not just school choice but you’ve looked at private Islamic schooling and whether it promotes terrorism.

You’ve looked at the intersection of school choice policies and Islamic schooling here in the west, and you’ve also investigated the relationship between school climate and school choice. Could you tell us about some of your research? What you’ve done and perhaps what you’re working on now? And what are some of the data sets that you tend to focus on, or maybe have even created yourself?

Danish Shakeel: Sure. The idea is that I’m motivated to study all these topics because I believe schools should look like home, to the maximum extent possible, because people want their values represented in the education system and school choice is a mechanism to provide that. Within that I think religious schooling, strong families, strong communities, all those things are the main drivers for people to select schools.

Yeah, so I studied all these topics. Whether it’s Islamic schooling or religious education in general. Some people who oppose school choice, they claim that if you have school choice, some radical schools may pop up. The claim generated a lot of discussion, but there was no empirical study on this topic.

It is difficult to collect data, so we started with preliminary research on this topic by looking at the educational background of both the Islamic and the White Supremacist acts of terror within the U.S. since 9/11, and we found that the claim, that having school choice will lead to radical outcomes, is not supported by the data, at least at the preliminary level.

It’s not causal, we need more evidence more data points, but that’s the initial finding we found.

Concerning the second study, I was motivated further to see, “How does the Western World assimilate the immigrants?” Because there had been a lot of immigration from the Eastern part of the world, and religious schools, specifically Islamic schools, have grown.

That led me to the second study to look at all the evidence on Islamic schools within the entire west. I did a systematic review. Totally, I can tell what I found there. I found that, I was actually amazed that, not only countries are providing support for religious education, through vouchers, they’re also allowing people to study religious schooling within the public education system.

The U.S. is an exception. France may be an exception. But, largely in Europe, this option is available.

Marty Lueken: Interesting.

Danish Shakeel: This is very interesting. Netherlands for example, has Hindu schools, it has Muslim schools, it has all kinds of support within the public system.

It has the maximum of degree of choice in Europe. Thirdly, some countries, such as Finland for example, they even provide support for training teachers for teaching religion in the schools. This is also very interesting, because if you don’t have good teachers we cannot inculcate values and cannot address peoples’ needs.

This is fascinating, I am impressed, and I want to replicate a similar study to look at, “How have Christian institutions helped people get education in the developing world in the last fifty years?” I don’t know of any topic, at the larger review level, which has looked at this particular issue, so in the future I want to also do another review of this nature.

You also talked about my interest in school climate. I have the belief that schooling, initially began with the idea that it should look like what we do in homes, and provide some skills, but as things progressed things became more bureaucratic. Schools started to look like something unlike homes. James Coleman, for example, had the idea that schools look like prison.

So, there was a survey, which we utilized from the Institute of Education Sciences, and collected data from principals to ask them about the frequency of problems in the schools and what kind of security measures they adopt. We looked at security measures, like random metal detectors, using dog sniffs, using drug checks. I was shocked. I never thought that these things happened in the schools. So, the idea that schools look like prison perfectly makes sense to me.

Marty Lueken: It’s different from India, then?

Danish Shakeel: Yeah. I have not seen such things in India, at least in my experience.

Marty Lueken: In your experience, yeah.

Danish Shakeel: So, I understand that we want to protect kids, but at the same time protection should not mean that we turn schools into prisons. The reason I say that is because, if someone is going through an environment of prison for twelve years, the marginal cost of going to a prison becomes less. And that’s what we find a lot of studies on school choice, that if these people go to schools of choice they are less likely to end up going to prison.

Corey DeAngelis, my friend and my former colleague, has done a study on that, which you are aware of.

Marty Lueken: Yes.

Danish Shakeel: So we published that study, and I look forward to do more work in this area. You also talked about which databases I compiled, or I have utilized. As of now, I have looked at data from the NCES, the National Center for Education Statistics, and data on principals, data on, for example, crime, things like that.

I have also compiled data myself from the voucher estimates around the world, and I did a meta-analysis, which is a method to combine the evidence at the statistical level to claim the average effect from these studies.

Marty Lueken: That’s interesting. Especially something you said early on, that you think that schools should look like homes, or at least be able to reflect the values in, that parents should have option to be able to have more say in the types of education that kids receive, and whatnot. So, can you talk a little bit about what you hope to work on from here on out, or into the future, what topics are you interested in pursuing?

Danish Shakeel: So I have a developed a recent interest in, “How does family structure affect education? How does the frequency of religious, or with attendance, affect education?”

Some of the results coming from my reading on what is happening in the medical science world. So at Harvard, they have a center for program interactive education and human flourishing. And there are a lot of professors, that have medical school, that have looked at the effect of attending religious services and outcomes such as happiness and health outcomes, generally.

What has been found in the U.S. and Europe, that attending religious service is positively related to longer life, happiness, and health outcomes.

This makes me wonder whether religious schooling could provide some of that opportunity for people to engage in communal activities, and tie that to the earlier idea of Coleman, that schools are communities, specifically private schools. So this is what I’m really interested in. Moreover in the last thirty years, the family structure has changed tremendously. We used to have two parent family, initially, in the early 1990s. That has changed over time.

This makes me wonder whether the social capital theory of Coleman, as applied to private schools, has changed.

I’m very interested in looking at the patterns, how family structure has affected educations. I’m trying to collect some data over the last fifty years that will allow me to do that. I also want to do a systematic review of all the evidence on family structure on education around the globe. I’m in talks with some people who can partner with me, because this will be a huge work.

Marty Lueken: Fascinating. So, we’ve only touched on just a few topics that you work on, and are interested in. Looking at the research that has been done to date, including some of your own, what lessons should policy makers, and families takeaway from your work, as well as other work, and the context of the broader body of research on school choice?

Danish Shakeel: I would say policymakers need to be humble, and by humble I mean, we should not jump to conclusions based on a single study, whether it’s pro- or anti- choice, because people respond to certain programs in different ways. Their behavior changes over time, so data should inform of a decision, it should not drive them.

For example, let’s say if you want to evaluate the impact from a school voucher program. The impact might be different in a year two than in year of one. Should we draw our conclusions from what happens in year one, or should we draw our conclusion from what happens in year two? Especially if the significance level changes across those two years.

In my view, the evidence, that is latest, let’s say a voucher program has been in place for a number of years. People have been able to respond to voucher by changing their inputs, at the home level, and also at the school level. That is the appropriate way to look at the impact of a program, and we see from voucher programs that the more they are used, the better the impact becomes on test schools.

The impact at a later year is higher than it was at a prior year, and that could be because of investment from parents, more attention from teachers, or allowing students to adjust into new schools. Any of those things could be possible, but I think we should be humble and allow people to learn from their experiences and adapt to the program.

Marty Lueken: I agree, what you said. I think that there is a tendency to just point to one study, and say, “Here, this is how it is and this is how programs are going to look like.” So, some of your work revolves, as you mentioned earlier, on conducting meta-analysis of voucher programs. Can you tell our audience a little about this work and what a meta-analysis is in the first place?

Danish Shakeel: A meta-analysis is a statistical technique to combine the evidence on a similar topic, on a similar outcome, across a number of studies, that in different context or may be in a similar context. By doing that we are able to tell whether the evidence, overall, is pointing in a positive or in a negative, or even in a null direction. That is a statistical technique.

It is more than just taking an average, because we also account for the weight, that is the number of participants that have taken part in these programs across framed context. The nature of moderators, which means, for example, the source of funding could be different; public or private. And other factors could account for difference in context.

We account for all of those things and then get at an average impact from those programs. That is a meta-analysis. And, specifically applying that question to vouchers, there have been a number of experimental studies on vouchers, which means that they’re causal. We are able to…

Marty Lueken: And experimental, you mean random assignment?

Danish Shakeel: Yes, yes. I mean that students were randomly assigned, and they could choose vouchers to go to private schools of their choice. There have been twenty-one studies until today, across the globe, on this topic, and they have looked at math and reading test scores of students. We are able to combine all the evidence, using some techniques, and build some models, and also study whether vouchers are able to raise students’ achievement, overall, or not.

Marty Lueken: Interesting. And is this work complete, and available anywhere, or are you still working on this?

Danish Shakeel: An earlier version was released, publicly, in 2016. Since then, we have updated it. We have applied the latest methods available in the field of meta-analysis. Some of the methods have recently been developed, so we were able to learn and utilize them. The updated version has not been released publicly. It is under review at the Metajournal, and we hope to see a public release sometime soon.

Marty Lueken: Okay. So you are not able to spill the beans about the results yet?

Danish Shakeel: The results are similar to what we found earlier, but is slightly better understanding of what is going on. I could claim that vouchers tend to generate modest achievement on the voucher students. I can also say that we are seeing a timing effect, which means the more time that is allowed in these voucher programs, the better it is. We are also seeing some effect of regulation, which Corey DeAngelis, for example, is finding in his studies that regulations tend to affect the voucher impacts negatively.

All those findings are there in our updated analysis.

Marty Lueken: Certainly look forward to seeing that paper when it’s released. So Danish, what needs and priorities do you see for future school choice research?

Danish Shakeel: I think we need to understand, first of all, how things are changing at the larger level before we even evaluate things at the lower level. For example, Sean Reardon has shown, using census data that private school enrollment has been declining consistently in the last fifty years.

I’ve actually studied this topic, so this makes me concerned why it is happening. I understand some people don’t like school choice, they keep on claiming that privatization is increasing, but the data is showing contrary to what they’re claiming. Again, I want to focus on the variables I talked about earlier: there has been a decline in family structure, a decline in religious service attendance. Those could be affecting people’s behavior, so I think we need to understand the philosophy and sociology of things before proceeding further.

I am all for conducting random assignment studies, to understand things, to scale up the evidence on vouchers, and the last point about scaling evidence is important because, a lot of studies on vouchers have utilized small samples. Unless we do experiments that are at a scale, we cannot learn much from them. We cannot tell whether the impact will generalize to a larger population or not. I would definitely argue for newer RCT’s that have much larger sample than before.

Marty Lueken: Well, thank you very much for sharing all of this with us today, and it’s been a real pleasure, and thank you. Thanks, Danish, for being with us today.

Danish Shakeel: Thank very much. It’s a pleasure to talk to you, and thank you for inviting me.

Marty Lueken: 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.