Education Opinion

Andrew Kelly, Research Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

By Sara Mead — May 19, 2011 10 min read
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Most of the people on this list focus on elementary and secondary education reform. But when I think about how the next generation of education reform leaders are going to transform education, I can’t help but think we’re going to see them driving big changes in higher education, too. The American higher education system is widely regarded as “the best in the world,” in contrast to the mediocre performance of our K-12 public schools. Yet fewer than 60 percent of students who enroll in 4-year colleges earn a bachelor’s degree within 6 years (with much worse rates for many institutions and for low-income and minority students), college costs continue to sky-rocket (and with them student loan debt, defaults, and federal Pell grant spending), and we know virtually nothing about the quality or real value-add of our higher education institutions.

Andrew Kelly’s research is shedding a light on these problems. In 2009 he co-authored (with Rick Hess, Mark Schneider, and Kevin Carey) a seminal report that documented the low graduation rates for American colleges and universities and called out high- and low-performers (relative to their demographics). Today he leads up a research project at the American Enterprise Institute focused on higher education--and we can expect to see his work shape the debate about how to improve quality, outcomes, and reign in costs in higher education in the future.

Kelly, 31, was raised in New Jersey. After graduating from Dartmouth, he worked as Rick Hess’s first research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute before pursuing a Ph.D. in political science from Berkeley. He and his wife, Lindsay, who works for KIPP, recently purchased a home in Washington, D.C. He has driven across the United States 8 times and is an avid Springsteen fan. [Click here for more.]Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D.?

The decision to go back for a Ph.D. was largely a product of my socialization as a recent college grad working in education policy in Washington. My two closest mentors, Rick Hess and Tom Loveless, both had PhD’s (one in government, one in education) as did a host of other scholars that I got to know professionally in the early 2000’s. For anybody who knows Rick or Tom, the thought of them socializing anybody is somewhat frightening, let alone the two of them working in tandem (for those who don’t know them, I’m being sarcastic). In all seriousness, though, these two guys have had an indelible mark on how I see the world and how I do research, and working with them led me to consider the PhD as an option. It was not on my radar screen right out of college.

Rick, Tom, and a list of other ed policy scholars provided an example of what a career in policy work and analysis could look like, and I thought it looked like a lot of fun. I also knew that I had an interest in doing research and writing for a living, but that I lacked many of the tools necessary to do so (quantitative analysis, research design, etc). Graduate work was the way to get those tools.

Why did you decide to come back to AEI rather than pursuing a more traditional pathway in academia?

For starters, I chose to come back to AEI before I finished my dissertation, so the traditional academic pathway was not exactly “open” when I made the decision to return. But in general the decision was made under similar circumstances: continue as a full-time Ph.D. candidate and go on the academic job market, or take a position as a research fellow that allowed me to continue work on the degree but could certainly take me away from the traditional academic pathway.

I quickly found that the community in my PhD program was not a great fit for me. It was a political science program, but I am primarily interested in public policy and its intersection with political science. As a result, few of my fellow grad students shared my interests, and it was difficult to find the areas of the political science literature that resonated with me. I was also coming from what I see as a very vibrant intellectual and professional community--the education policy network in DC--so the contrast was especially stark.

After 3 and a half years of feeling somewhat poorly matched (while jumping through all of the PhD hoops, save the dissertation), the opportunity to go back to return to AEI arose and I jumped at it. I felt that if I were to stay interested in research as a career, I had to do plug back into the policy debates that I care about. I also saw it as an opportunity to make a contribution that was much more difficult to make on the academic track, which often privileges theory and rigor over relevance.

You worked for Rick Hess as a research assistant before you did your grad work, and then you came back to AEI as a research fellow. Are you crazy?

Ha ha! Some may think so (particularly my progressive friends!). Rick and I had an incredibly fruitful professional relationship when I was first at AEI in the early 2000s. As his first RA (we started almost simultaneously in the fall of 2002), I like to think I had a small hand in getting what is now the Hess ed policy enterprise off the ground.

When I was deciding what to do next after years of graduate school, I thought back to how productive those early years were for me. Rick and I were constantly writing and publishing together and ginning up new projects to take on. As everyone knows, Rick moves at a rapid pace, which can make for some long days and/or nights for his research assistants. But I found that I could keep up with him and get the work done, and that we worked well together as writers. The result was a series of really productive years. For somebody like me (recent college grad, history/government major), the opportunity to write and publish was very unique, something that many of my peers never had just out of college. It definitely helped to position me where I am today.

In general, AEI’s education program (thanks to Rick’s unique position and outlook) is just a great place to set up shop. It is an amazing platform that allows me to interact with and reach a diverse audience and contribute to the policy debate. The idea of passing up an opportunity to work in that kind of environment seemed crazy to me.

How did you come to do research in education? What do you find interesting about education?

I did some work as an undergraduate research assistant on adolescent development and education. It was much more in the developmental psych tradition than the ed. policy tradition (moral development was my focus), but it exposed me to research and writing in education. As part of the research I made two trips with a professor to Bosnia to interview teenagers who had been children during the break up of the former Yugoslavia. The experience was amazing, and it provided me with a first taste of what it is like to be a part of a research team.

More than anything, though, it was a function of my early years as an AEI research assistant and the amount of learning that I had to do in order to be good at my job. Some of it was through osmosis, but a most of it entailed a lot of hard work (reading through collective bargaining contracts comes to mind; reading and coding principal preparation syllabi also). But once I was exposed to the education policy world, with its politics, intrigue, and cast of characters, I was hooked.

What’s interesting about education? From a social science perspective, when it comes to explaining a slew of social outcomes, there are very few characteristic with a more enduring influence on individual fortunes than education. Throw in the fact that the schools are a venue in which we fight myriad political and social battles (questions about race and ethnicity, religion, freedom of speech, adequate government service, etc) and you’ve got a very engaging policy area on your hands. How can anyone not find it interesting?

What research questions in education do you find most interesting?

I find questions about engagement, choice, and accountability the most interesting in education. I don’t only mean choice in the narrow vouchers/charters kind of way, but broader decisions--whether and how to get engaged in the local education reform debate, whether to spend time working on your child’s homework, choosing the right after school tutor for your child, etc. The education world has become much more information-rich over the last decade at the same time that educational options have become more and more plentiful. But it’s not clear that these developments alone have created the thriving educational market of informed and engaged consumers that we all have hoped for. To figure out what’s going on requires a closer look at the microfoundations of these things--what kinds of information do consumers use and how do they use it? Does the learning about school quality prompt systematic involvement and engagement in the system, or does the causal arrow go the other way?

At a more macro level, the need for innovation in K-12 and higher education and the barriers to new ways of thinking strike me as incredibly important questions. The most interesting issue for me is whether governments can facilitate innovation at the same time that they seek to regulate providers. These regulatory barriers often serve to discourage new ways of doing business. Some federal agencies and state governments have a track record as important “venture philanthropists” in policy sectors like health care, agriculture, and technology. We may be on the verge of a more prominent role for the federal government in education in this capacity (see I3), but there are big question marks as to whether the feds can get it “right” over the long-haul.

What are your other research interests outside of education?

I enjoy political behavior and public opinion research, particularly how mass attitudes shape the way Congress and the President make policy. I’m particularly interested in information effects in politics and public policy--the ways in which the provision of information can shape individual-level decisions and improve (or short-circuit) political accountability.

I also enjoy research in behavioral economics, with its emphasis on choice and information.

What experiences, individuals, or books have most influenced your thinking about education?

As I said above, Rick Hess and Tom Loveless have been the most influential mentors and role models for me. Mark Schneider, who I now work closely with on higher education issues, has joined these ranks in the last couple of years. That’s been an important triumvirate for me.

As far as books go, one that has really shaped my thinking on policy design and reform is Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Their insights about how to modify the environment in which individuals make important choices to facilitate positive outcomes fits nicely into many of our current education policy debates.

Two classic books that I keep around are James Q. Wilson’s Bureaucracy and Sandy Jencks’ Rethinking Social Policy. Both are clearly out of date now, but well worth the read. Wilson’s book is still the best explanation of how public agencies work, how they differ from one another, and why implementation problems tend to be so thorny. A must-read for anybody interested in policy and implementation. Jencks’ book does what few policy books are able to do: provide a concise, data-driven exploration of important policy debates in a way that is easy to read and engaging. Even if you disagree with some of his conclusions, you can’t ignore that the arguments are well-crafted. Many of the questions that he takes on are only tangentially related to education, but it is worth a look.

What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?

Well, I hope to have finished a PhD by then! Seriously, though, I see myself doing more of what I have been doing for the last two years, while perhaps making a leap or two into and out of government service of some kind or another. I’ve always had a desire to be on the other side of the policymaking debate, so a stint or two in federal or state education policy is definitely in the cards. While I’d hate to be subjected to the same kind of criticism I dish out, I’m up for the challenge.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.