Faculty Spotlight

Kirabo Jackson

Modeling Social Forces and Interactions

Kirabo Jackson

On the surface, IPR labor economist Kirabo Jackson’s research on taxi drivers and moral hazard, pay-for-performance programs in high schools, and why teachers decide to become teachers represent quite different contexts. Yet in examining the underlying questions behind his studies, they all flow from a central source of inspiration.

“In general, I try to understand how social forces and social interactions affect individuals,” Jackson explained, noting the particularly strong connections to relationships and individual decision making in the field of education.

As an undergraduate at Yale University, Jackson studied ethics, politics, and economics, but it was the rigor and “formalism” of economics that he found most intriguing and thus went on to obtain a PhD in economics from Harvard University. As a postdoctoral fellow and assistant professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, one of the nation’s leading centers for the study of labor economics, Jackson added more tools from several domains to his academic kit—public finance, econometrics, and statistics—providing him with a rigorous methodological base for identifying causal mechanisms and relationships.

“I’m excited about the idea of modeling social forces that exist, mathematically, which allow one to make relatively firm predictions about what kind of effects we expect to see, or the effects of one policy versus another,” Jackson said.

Combining these quantitative tools and the use of natural experiments to obtain “clean, empirical results,” he drills down into the complex interactions between school children, parents, workers, and policymakers, to examine how certain policies affect their actions, interactions, and eventually individual education and job outcomes.

In his 2011 American Economic Review (AER): Applied Economics publication on New York City cab drivers, Jackson and Henry Schneider of Cornell looked at why cab drivers who lease cabs have more accidents than drivers who own their cabs. They find that New York cabbies who lease cabs from owners who originally come from the same country as they do have lower accident rates than those who lease from people of different origins.

“We are looking at the effects of your relationship with someone with whom you have a personal stake, with someone in your community—essentially how you behave with them,” Jackson said. “Are you more likely to behave in ways that are good for the group and less in your self-interest, or in ways that might be more personally beneficial but detrimental to the group?”

In terms of education policy, this means considering how one thinks about teacher and student performance, teacher pay, and social networks, among other topics. Jackson seeks to dissect how the structure of a nation's education system affects an individual’s decisions about how to acquire human capital, or the skills and knowledge needed to make a living. To this end, he has studied such topics as whether attending a single-sex school or a better school can improve student outcomes and how school competition through charter schools, for example, might affect teacher labor markets.

In research with Elias Bruegmann published in a 2009 issue of AER: Applied Economics, Jackson used longitudinal data from North Carolina to show that teachers just starting in their careers perform better as teachers later on when they are surrounded by more experienced teachers at this early point in their careers. The two researchers calculated that the spillover effects of such collaborative learning can account for about 20 percent of the new teachers’ effectiveness in raising test scores. The results also provide some of the first quantifiable evidence for peer-learning effects in the workplace.

Again, this research underscores his point about how teachers interact within a social structure where they can learn from one another. By recognizing that impact, Jackson said, it demonstrates how important it can be in thinking about how to improve schools. He gives the example of performance-based pay, explaining that if teachers are collaborating, it might be more effective to pay the teaching corps of an entire grade to encourage them to work together, rather than paying individual teachers for the outcomes of students in their class.

Particularly interested in the current push for “value-added” education, which uses test scores to measure learning and educational progress and is encapsulated in legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act, Jackson has also studied measures of teacher quality using test scores.

While Jackson acknowledges the value of having such hard, quantifiable measures, he also wonders whether such measures are actually measuring the right things.

This is why Jackson has a line of research, currently available as an IPR working paper titled “Non-Cognitive Ability, Test Scores, and Teacher Quality: Evidence from 9th Grade Teachers in North Carolina” (WP-12-18), examining whether teachers can affect children’s development in ways that are not necessarily picked up by test scores.

“When we are educating a child, we are not looking only at how well he or she can add and subtract,” Jackson said. “If we take a holistic view, we might want to care about teacher effects not only on tests but also on students’ well being, socioemotional health, and ‘soft’ skills like academic engagement and love of learning.” These are factors he points to as possibly being just as important, if not more important, for their future development and how they fare as adults.

“These are the kind of policy questions that a lot of my research speaks to,” Jackson said, “and I would like for policymakers to be thinking much more deeply about.”

Kirabo Jackson is assistant professor of education and social policy and an IPR fellow.