Asking the hard question, no matter how obvious, followed by full engagement with the “next” question is a hallmark of a K education, explained alumnus Will Robbie ’04 during the inaugural economics and business department SIP symposium.

“Next” Questions

May 2014, the first ever Kalamazoo College Economics and Business Development Senior Individualized Project (SIP) Symposium was underway, and the excitement at Hicks Center was palpable. President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran walked from project to project, leaning in to examine the details, taking time to question the seniors. The economics professors mingled, glowing like proud parents.

President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran asks senior economics and business major Kari Paine about her Senior Individualized Project

President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran asks senior economics and business major Kari Paine about her SIP.

“For me, seeing these SIPs is seeing the culmination of a K education,” President Wilson-Oyelaran said, pausing between posters. “We are seeing the power of faculty mentorship. I’m thrilled the department of economics and business is doing this. I hope it will become a tradition.”

“It will be!” assured Ahmed Hussen, the Edward and Virginia van Dalson Professor of Economics. “This is our new tradition. We had workshops with the students and saw great improvements—we had only 14 of our majors participate this year, but we expect the symposium to grow over the years.”

Topics varied greatly: crowdfunding and the lean startup; new growth opportunities in Detroit; economic analysis of property rights in outer space; measuring the effectiveness of a buy-local campaign; economic impact of hosting the Olympics; analysis of produce pricing dynamics in Kalamazoo; effects of patient protection and the Affordable Care Act on the medical cost trend; a marketing plan for a luxury travel planning business in Spain; and more. Something for everyone, yes, even those who might one day prefer to live in outer space.

Among students, faculty and administration, and here and there the proud family members of seniors, wandered Will Dobbie ’04. A decade from his own school years at K, where he majored in economics with a minor in political science, he has made a name for himself as a result of his research on school effectiveness. Dobbie today is an assistant professor himself, teaching economics and public affairs at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs. He was back on campus to deliver the keynote address for this inaugural symposium.

“When I received the invitation to speak at K,” Dobbie said, “I wondered – about what? Then my fiancé reminded me. She said, ‘Everything you do, Will, everything you are today is because of K. Talk about that.’” Dobbie smiled. Obvious. His talk on this evening at K would be about the value of a liberal arts education in business.

“We raised the bar immeasurably this year,” said Timothy Moffit ’80, associate professor of economics and business, in his remarks at the dinner that concluded the symposium. “All in the spirit of learning,” he said. “Friction was natural in this process of making improvements. It was the friction of change.” Then Moffit introduced Hussen, who serves department chair as well as (in Moffit’s words) “the SIP czar.”

Senior Katie Moffit discusses her research with Ahmed Hussen

Senior Katie Moffit answers discusses her research with “SIP Czar” Ahmed Hussen.

“I loooove talking about my former students!” Hussen crowed, and his audience laughed. “It’s a way for me to brag about what I’ve done, to claim that everything this former student has done is because of me,” Hussen smiled. Then he became more serious.  Will Dobbie, was special. Will, Hussen explained, earned the highest grade he had ever given a student.

“Will Dobbie’s SIP on the decentralization of government in Kenya is one of the best, still, that I’ve seen,” Hussen said. After K, Dobbie earned his master’s degree in economics at the University of Washington, and his Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Just a few weeks prior to the economics department SIP symposium, he had been in Kalamazoo to receive the W.E. Upjohn Institute Dissertation Award for best dissertation on employment. In addition to his teaching at Princeton he serves as a research fellow at the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University.

Dobbie’s speech that evening was titled “The value of an (economics) liberal arts education,” and Dobbie illustrated that value by talking about his November 2011 study, “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City,” in partnership with Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

In their study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dobbie explained, the two professors compared 39 New York charter schools to find out if the charter schools were any more effective than traditional models of education. Did class size make a difference? Would spending more money per pupil improve quality of education? Did teachers with more credentials and advanced degrees teach better?

Quite simply: no.

Dobbie and Fryer state in their study: “Improving the efficiency of public education in America is of great importance. The United States spends $10,768 per pupil on primary and secondary education, ranking it fourth among OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Yet, among these same countries, American fifteen-year-olds rank 25th in math achievement, 17th in science, and 12th in reading.”

When the two conducted interviews with school principals and teachers, studied lesson plans and conducted student surveys, made video observations, and examined homework assignments, the usual remedies to improve the quality of education made no measurable difference in student outcomes.

“We looked at social outcomes, we looked at health outcomes, we looked at crime outcomes in terms of incarceration,” said Dobbie. “The conventional solutions were ineffective. We seem to be spending a lot of money on education, but not getting a lot out of it. Everything we’ve tried, if it worked at all—it was barely.”

What Dobbie and his research partner did find was that looking at a child’s life in the classroom was not enough. Other influences in that child’s life could have just as much, if not more, effect on how well a child does in and after school, throughout life.

“Community programs also seem to have little to no effect,” Dobbie continued. “Yet they are fantastically expensive. Head Start, for instance, as popular as it is, does show some positive effect, but it’s very small.”

“Everything you are today is because of K. Talk about that.”

So what does make a difference? What are the magic buttons of quality education? Dobbie smiled as he gave the answer, and more than one audience member reflected that smile. What he described often sounded like a description of a Kalamazoo College education.

“It’s basic stuff,” he said. “The five tenets of effective schools are: extended day, week, and school years; individualized tutoring; rewarding teachers for performance and holding them accountable if they are not adding value; data-driven instruction, with students being assessed frequently, then being retaught the skills they haven’t yet mastered; and students buying into the school’s mission that education will improve their lives.”

No surprised faces lit up in the audience. Preaching to the attentive choir.

“Charter schools educate only about five percent of our kids nationwide,” Dobbie said. “Can we duplicate their success in traditional schools? When similar policies were implemented in 20 of the lowest achieving schools, they worked. They worked everywhere. Having high expectations for kids, expecting them to go to college, was effective. Making them fill out just one college application, that alone increased the number of students going on to college by 10 percent.”

More: in schools where the five tenets were implemented, incarceration rates dropped to zero. Education proved to be the solution to keeping kids away from crime. Teenage pregnancy rates also appeared to take a dip.

Dobbie then flashed the next question on the screen above him. It said: “The value of a K education?”

“Passion,” he began. “Intellectual creativity and flexibility. Critical thinking, or asking the ‘obvious’ question. Professors at K really care about their students. When I was at K as a student, when there were speaking events, we had standing room only—people were that interested. People at K study what excites them, not just what they should be studying. That’s passion.

“We develop critical thinking skills. When we wrote a paper, we didn’t just write the facts, but how they fit together. As it turns out, that is remarkably rare out there in the world. Asking the obvious question seems normal to us at K, but out there,” Dobbie raised a hand and held it out in a gesture that would encompass the world beyond the campus, “out there, asking that obvious question is incredibly rare. Even rarer is what K students learn to do well: ask the next question.”

Dobbie’s words seemed to resonate with the K students in the audience. When he opened the room for questions, the passion to which he’d referred was evident. He was peppered with “obvious’ questions and “next” questions.

Why is education not a priority in the United States the way it is in some other countries? How to get past the political pushback of extending the school year? What about funding? What is corporate responsibility and how does one get corporations involved? What are the incentives? It was a lively interchange of passionate inquirers.

“So many people do things by default,” Dobbie concluded. “People choose their jobs because that’s where Dad worked or what Mom did or wants. I wanted to do what I wanted to do.”

For Dobbie, what he wanted to do and what still drives him as a lifelong learner today is to keep asking the next question.

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