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School & District Management

How Economist Alan Krueger Renewed the Does-Money-Matter Debate in Schooling

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 22, 2019 2 min read
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Alan Krueger, a groundbreaking Princeton University economist, died earlier this week at age 58. While perhaps best known for his study of minimum wages, Krueger also provided critical empirical research on fundamental and often hotly debated questions about class size, school choice, educational attainment, and resources in schools.

“Alan was the rare academic who could do it all: brilliant researcher, great teacher, fantastic adviser and accomplished public servant. His passing is a devastating loss for all of us,” said Wolfgang Pesendorfer, the chairman of Princeton’s economics department, in a statement.

A top economist under both the Clinton and Obama administrations, Krueger’s research often called into question common assumptions in education. In 2000, as schools rapidly expanded their digital technology, Krueger identified a growing divide between black and white students in access to the Internet. A 2003 study found, contrary to other studies of the time, that private school vouchers did not help black students in New York City. In 2011, he found that middle class white students didn’t actually benefit much from attending a highly selective college—but black and Hispanic students and those from less-educated families who attended selective colleges significantly boosted their lifetime earnings.

Larry Hedges, a professor of statistics and education and social policy at Northwestern University and a longtime friend who served with Krueger on the board of trustees of the Russell Sage Foundation, also credits Krueger’s analyses of the Tennessee STAR class size reduction program with helping to reinvigorate research on the link between school resources and student achievement. In a series of studies, Krueger found investing 10 percent more for each student, enough to pay to shrink a class of 22 students to 15, would lead to a 1 percent increase in a student’s lifetime earnings.

“At the time, there was a longtime controversy over whether money made a difference” in education, Hedges said. “I think [Krueger’s study] convinced a lot of people that this was an area that needed better research. It reopened the conversation for researchers ... That’s the thing I would point to in education that Alan did more than anything else.”

Krueger also paired strong data and statistical analysis with shoe-leather reporting; for example, in one study of educational attainment, he and his research partner recruited twins with different school trajectories at a twins conference.

He also maintained a 30-year teaching career at Princeton. Jacob Moss, a former statistics student, recalled in a posted memorial that Krueger was “one of those professors that make an outsized mark on you, or at least me. He was of course brilliant, but he also really enjoyed teaching and made a class that could have been very dry (statistics) almost thrilling. ... He made me want to not only study the subject, but work to apply it beyond the class.”

Krueger died by suicide March 16, according to a statement by his family and Princeton University. His death has also launched a conversation about mental health issues in academia and higher education.

“He was a lovely, lovely guy and the world is a worse place for his passing,” Hedges said.

Photo Source: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Chris Fascenelli (2017)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.