Education Opinion

Morgan Polikoff, Assistant Professor, University of Southern California

By Sara Mead — May 20, 2014 6 min read
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Outside of education researchers, University of Southern California Assistant Professor Morgan Polikoff may be best known for his prolific twitter profile and active participation in online debates about education policy and other topics. But he’s also an accomplished researcher whose work on standards and accountability is shaping public policy debates on these issues. Unlike many university-based researchers, Polikoff is not content to focus on obscure academic questions, but conducts research that seeks to answer policy relevant questions on issues like Common Core standards implementation and ESEA waivers. Polikoff, 29, was raised in the Chicago suburbs. A former Jeopardy champion, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and their pet greyhound.

What are the primary focus areas of your research?

In one sentence, my work is on the design and effects of standards, assessment, and accountability policies. In practice, my work is divided into two main strands. The first is around teachers’ implementation of standards in the classroom. Here I look at policies and conditions that facilitate or limit implementation - recently, for instance, I’ve begun focusing on “Common Core-aligned” textbooks. The second is around the design of accountability policies for both schools and, more recently, teachers. In this area I’ve written several papers analyzing various school accountability policies and evaluating the extent to which they are well designed to identify the schools most in need of intervention/support. Here I’ve found that (not surprisingly) policy has not been responsive to research on the design and effects of accountability systems. Like it or not, standards and accountability are likely here to stay for the foreseeable future. Thus, my overarching goal is to try to provide evidence to maximize the benefits of these policies and minimize their negative unintended consequences.

You’re an extremely prolific twitterer. How do you find the time to write so many tweets? What do you see as the value in tweeting or other forms of social media?

Haha, I guess it’s all relative. It’s true that I am pretty active on Twitter, but I’m not sure I’d say “extremely prolific”. There are lots of reasons why I spend time on social media. For one, in the fast-changing world of policy, particularly around issues like Common Core, it helps keep me on top of all the relevant goings-on around the country. That’s been really invaluable for my work. For another, I’m someone who really wants my work to have impact, and the relationships I cultivate through Twitter, particularly with policy folks in Sacramento and DC, very clearly help in that regard. And finally I just find it fun - I would do it even if I didn’t think it helped my research/career. So long as I get the stuff done that matters for a young academic-- grants, peer-reviewed journal articles, etc.-- I feel like it’s a fine use of my time. I wish more academics would tweet; I’m not sure how I felt when I recently showed up at an academic conference (Association for Education Finance and Policy) and was basically labeled THE guy on Twitter.

What do you see as the most overlooked issue in education research right now?

Common Core implementation issues. Districts are moving full steam ahead with PD, cobbling together curriculum materials, dealing with new assessments. They need answers to important questions today (if not yesterday or last week or last year). All the political stuff around Common Core aside - and yes, I realize that’s a big aside - if we’re going to do this thing, we should at least want to do it right. Unfortunately the kind of work that’s desperately needed is not really the typical mode of research in the academic community. The point is, all kinds of decisions are being made every day on the basis of very little evidence, and we (the research community) need to try better to help practitioners with the questions they have.

Why/how did you come to work in education policy?

In undergrad I was a mathematics major who fell into education almost by accident. But very quickly, my experiences in the education program at University of Illinois pushed that topic to the front of my interests. For instance, while I’d always known about the yawning opportunity gaps that affected our nation, seeing those figures laid out before me made it much more pressing and urgent. I was also fascinated by the international evidence suggesting that our mathematics achievement (and curriculum and instruction) lagged behind that of many other nations. So in my senior year, when I was deciding whether to become a professional teacher - I student taught and was certified in Illinois - or whether to continue to study education from a policy perspective, I decided the latter route made more sense for me given my interest in more macro-level issues. I wound up in a PhD program at Vanderbilt (and subsequently Penn), and there you go. It’s really a lot of serendipity, but I very strongly believe it’s what I was put here to do. I am incredibly thankful and grateful, every day, for the privileges I’ve had and the work I get to do. It’s trite, but I hope I can pay it forward.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?

I have to start this answer by saying my mother is my biggest hero. My father died when I was quite young, and my mother raised my brother and me alone. She always had a full-time job, but we sat down to home-cooked dinner together every night. There’s no way I’d be where I am today without her.

As for more academic folks, there are too many to list. Of course my advisor, Andy Porter, has provided me with incredible support and guidance throughout my academic career so far, and it’s quite obvious that his research agenda influenced my own. Rather than listing names, I’ll talk about some of the attributes I admire in researchers. I admire folks who can tell a compelling story with data, whether it’s a causal story or a descriptive story, especially if they can tell it to both research and policy/practitioner audiences. I admire folks who are actively involved in policy discussions and take their work outside the peer-reviewed journal. I admire folks who very clearly care, first and foremost, about kids, and who do work to improve kids’ outcomes. I admire folks who aren’t, primarily, ideological, but rather driven by evidence about what works (of course we all have priors that shape our views). Last, I admire folks who inhabit the real world, where absolutism is almost never the answer (that is, they embrace the grey rather than insisting on black or white).

What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished?

Well, the stock answer is that I would like to be a tenured professor at USC continuing to do high-quality research that actually matters. And of course, that’s true. What I really hope is that 5-10 years from now, we’ll have policies around standards, assessment, and accountability that reflect what we’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t in those areas. As a result, I hope that we’ll continue on the trajectory that we’re currently on, but seeing improvements at a somewhat greater pace than we’ve seen over the past decade or so (particularly for our lowest-performing groups). I am bullish about American education, and I believe my optimism is not naive but rather well placed.

What interests do you have outside of work?

Outside of work, my two favorite things to do are cook and travel. I cook dinner every night of the week, and I wouldn’t trade the hour of cooking for anything else. Cooking gives me the mental breather I need to do my work in the rest of the day. I am a very ardent follower of Cooks Illustrated, and I’m one of the rare folks who equally enjoys cooking and baking (my baked good are generally delicious but homely). I also love traveling and am somewhat obsessed with airline status. Seriously, I talk about it way more than I should.

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.