David Figlio

Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics | IPR Director


IPR Director David Figlio conducts research on a wide range of education and health policy issues from school accountability and standards to welfare policy and policy design. His current research projects involve studying the interrelationship between health and education, the ways in which parents confer advantage and disadvantage to their children, and the role of educational institutions in affecting these relationships; higher education policies and practices such as online education and educational staffing; K-12 education policies such as school accountability, school choice, and teacher tenure; and early childhood health and education policies such as early interventions for autism spectrum disorders. He is also leading a National Science Foundation-sponsored national network to facilitate the use of matched administrative datasets to inform and evaluate education policy.

Figlio's work has been published in numerous leading journals, including the American Economic Review, Journal of Public Economics, Journal of Law and Economics, and Journal of Human Resources. Organizations supporting his research include the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Education, and Health and Human Services, as well as the Annie E. Casey, Smith Richardson, and Spencer foundations, among others.

Figlio is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a member of the executive board of the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. He served as the inaugural editor of the Association for Education Finance and Policy's journal, Education Finance and Policy (MIT Press), and currently serves as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Human Resources and Associate Editor of the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Journal of Urban Economics, Education Finance and Policy, and Public Finance Review. He has been part of many national education task forces and panels, such as the Institute of Medicine's panel on the Science of Child Development from Birth through Age Eight, and advised several U.S. states and foreign nations on the design, implementation, and evaluation of educational policies.

Figlio joined Northwestern in 2008 from the University of Florida, where he was the Knight-Ridder Professor of Economics.

Current Research

Intergenerational issues in health and education. Using matched birth records and school records, Figlio is currently studying the degree to which public policies might influence the outcomes of children from different backgrounds. With Jeffrey Roth and Sarah Hamersma at the University of Florida, he is studying the role of information in determining WIC Program participation and later school outcomes. With Umut Ozek of the American Institutes for Research, he is studying the degree to which immigrant children integrate into American public education and the ways in which schooling factors affect these transitions. With Jeffrey Roth of the University of Florida, IPR economist Jonathan Guryan, and IPR postdoctoral fellow Krzysztof Karbownik of Uppsala University, he is studying how early life and prenatal factors affect children’s cognitive development, and with these three scholars as well as IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, he is investigating the degree to which early life factors can explain regional differences in intergenerational income mobility. Also with Jeffrey Roth, Northwestern graduate student Claudia Persico, Janet Currie of Princeton University, and Joshua Goodman of Harvard University, he is investigating the effects of early autism detection on children’s development. With Roth and Karbownik as well as MIT economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, he is studying the roles of family factors in explaining persistent gender gaps in education and other outcomes. With Damon Clark of Cornell University, Heather Royer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Paco Martorell of the RAND Corporation, he is investigating the pathways through which the intergenerational transmission of human capital operates.

Student learning outcomes in higher education. Figlio conducts research on issues related to how students learn. In work with Mark Rush and Lu Yin of the University of Florida, he presents the first experimental evidence on the effects of live versus Internet media of instruction. Their key finding is that live-only instruction slightly dominates Internet instruction, with particularly strong results for Hispanic students, male students, and lower-achieving students. He also has a recently released working paper with higher education economist Morton Schapiro, Northwestern University president and professor, that uses data on 15,000 Northwestern freshmen to examine the relative effects of tenure versus non-tenure track faculty on student learning. Controlling for student and “next-course-taken” fixed effects, they find consistent evidence that “students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses,” and these cut across a wide swath of subject areas.

School accountability and school practice. Together with Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University, Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington, and Jane Hannaway of the American Institutes for Research, Figlio is currently analyzing original survey data collected from a three-wave census of public school principals in Florida and a two-wave survey of teachers in a state-representative sample of Florida schools. The researchers hope to measure the degrees to which accountability is changing school policies and practices in an attempt to get "inside the black box" of the performance effects of accountability. (See a related journal article.)

With Tim Sass of Georgia State University and Li Feng of Texas State University, Figlio is also studying how school accountability has influenced the teacher labor market. With Jonas Vlachos of the University of Stockholm and Lauren Linzmeier (WCAS '12), a former IPR summer undergraduate research assistant, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is investigating the effects of school accountability on family sorting across neighborhoods. With Cassandra Hart of UC-Davis, he is studying how school accountability changes the demographics of schools. On a related topic, he is collaborating with Tim Sass of Georgia State University and Celeste Carruthers of the University of Tennessee to evaluate the effects of Florida’s recent accountability-based reform of the teacher tenure system on student learning outcomes and teacher labor markets.

Big data network. With support from the National Science Foundation, Figlio, joint with Kenneth Dodge at Duke University, is leading a project that teams IPR scholars with faculty, policymakers, and practitioners from around the nation to examine construction of “next-generation” data sets. These large-scale, national sets will link administrative data, such as welfare and school records, to population data and could permit quicker evaluations of early childhood investments and interventions. The researchers aim to create a prototype using data from North Carolina and Florida, states that already have such data sets. Creating a comprehensive data set requires close collaboration between scholars, policymakers, and data administrators at many levels of government. Thus, the network’s advisory board will ensure understanding of the issues policymakers face. Its members include three former governors, two state education superintendents, and the first IES director. The other critical element to making effective use of such data sets is cross-disciplinary knowledge and expertise. At IPR, the network will involve economists Jonathan Guryan and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, social demographer Quincy Thomas Stewart, psychobiologist Emma Adam, and biological anthropologists Christopher Kuzawa and Thomas McDade.

Selected Publications

Journal Articles and Book Chapters

Figlio, D., with M. Schapiro and K. Soter. (Forthcoming). Are tenure track professors better teachers? Review of Economics and Statistics

Figlio, D., with J. Guryan, K.Karbownik, and J. Roth. 2014. The effects of poor neonatal health on children’s cognitive development. American Economic Review.

Figlio, D., with C. Hart. 2014. Competitive effects of means-tested school vouchers. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 6(1): 133–56.

Figlio, D., with M. Rush and L. Yin. 2013. Is it live or is it Internet? Experimental estimates of the effects of online instruction on student learning. Journal of Labor Economics 31(4): 763–84.

Figlio, D., with D. Fletcher. 2012. Suburbanization, demographic change, and the consequences for school finance. Journal of Public Economics 96(11–12): 1144–53.

Figlio, D., with Dan Goldhaber, Jane Hannaway, and Cecilia Rouse. 2013. Feeling the Florida heat? How low-performing schools respond to voucher and accountability pressure. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 5(2): 251–81.

Figlio, D., with L. Feng, J. Hannaway, T. Sass, and Z. Xu. 2012. Value-added of teachers in high-poverty and lower poverty schools. Journal of Urban Economics 72(2-3): 104–22.

Figlio, D., with J. Ludwig. 2012. Sex, drugs, and Catholic schools: Private schooling and non-market adolescent behaviors. German Economic Review 13(4): 385–414.

Figlio, D., with C. Hart. 2011. Does competition improve public schools? Education Next 11(1).

Figlio, D., with S. Loeb. 2010. School accountability. In Handbook of the Economics of Education, vol. 3, ed. E. Hanushek, S. Machin, and L. Woessmann. Amsterdam: North Holland/Elsevier.

Figlio, D., with L. Kenny. 2010. Public sector performance measurement and stakeholder support. Journal of Public Economics 93(9-1): 1069–77.

Figlio, D., with C. Hart and M. Metzger. 2010. Who uses a means-tested scholarship, and what do they choose? Economics of Education Review 29(2): 301–17.

Figlio, D. 2009. School reforms and low-income families. In Pathways to Self-Sufficiency: Getting Ahead in an Era Beyond Welfare Reform, ed. T. Kaplan, C. Heinrich, and J. Scholz. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Figlio, D., with J. Roth. 2009. The behavioral consequences of pre-kindergarten participation for disadvantaged youth. In The Problems of Disadvantaged Youth: An Economics Perspective, ed. J. Gruber. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Figlio, D., with S. Hamersma and J. Roth. 2008. Does prenatal WIC participation improve birth outcomes? New evidence from Florida. Journal of Public Economics 93(1-2): 235–45.

Figlio, D., with L. Kenny. 2007. Individual teacher incentives and student performance. Journal of Public Economics 91(5–6): 901–14.

Figlio, D., 2007. Boys named Sue: Disruptive children and their peers. Education Finance and Policy 2(4): 376–94.

Figlio, D. and with Lawrence Getzler. 2006. Accountability, ability and disability: Gaming the system? In Advances in Microeconomics, Vol. 14: Improving School Accountability - Check-ups or Choice?, ed. T. Gronberg and D. Jansen, 35–49. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Figlio, D. 2006. Testing, crime, and punishment. Journal of Public Economics 90(4-5): 837–51.

Figlio, D., and C. Rouse. 2006. Do accountability and voucher threats improve low-performing schools? Journal of Public Economics 90(1-2): 239–55.

Figlio, D., with J. Winicki. 2005. Food for thought? The effects of school accountability plans on school nutrition. Journal of Public Economics 89(2–3): 381–94.

Figlio, D., with M. Lucas. 2004. What’s in a grade? School report cards and the housing market. American Economic Review 94(3): 591–604.