Faculty Research Spotlight: Dr. Joshua Goodman

Interviewed by Yu-shan Huang (BU Wheelock ’21)

Dr. Joshua Goodman is an associate professor of education and economics at BU Wheelock, where he works as an applied microeconomist on labor economics and education policy.

Goodman’s work has been published in peer-reviewed outlets such as the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Applied Economics, and the Journal of Labor Economics. It has been cited in multiple White House reports and featured by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio. He serves as co-editor of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management  and is a research fellow of NBER and CESifo. Goodman is an affiliated faculty with the Wheelock Educational Policy Center (WEPC).

Can you provide an overview of your research focus and method?

My research is focused on quasi-experimental evaluation of the impacts of education policies on student outcomes. In the world of education, where various factors affect student outcomes, it could be challenging to isolate factors of interest and to make causal inferences. Most of my work looks for specific situations in the world – often a policy that’s designed in a particular way or a policy that has changed over time – and uses aspects of those contexts where an element of randomness is involved such that some students would get treated one way and other students a different way. I then trace out the differences in the students’ education trajectories. A lot of my work looks at how various factors affect students’ college choices and how those choices affect degree completion and other outcomes.

What are some challenges that you have encountered in education research?

As academics, we produce articles and present findings in a very particular way for a very particular audience. They are usually heavy on the methods in order to show validity and rigor in the designs and findings to our peers. But other interested audiences, such as policymakers, journalists, and others interested in learning about education, don’t really have time to get into the weeds of those methods and just want to understand the implications of the results. With practice, especially through previous work that I did for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts, I’ve found that pairing an academic paper with a one or two-page policy brief is helpful in making research more accessible to a wider audience. We’ve also started doing this for the Wheelock Educational Policy Center, and we’ve even talked about potentially making videos of the papers. The bottom line is it’s important to always keep in mind how to communicate research, not just to the academic journal reading audience, but to a wider world.

What is an important implication of the work you do?

Most of my research contributes to a broader conversation about education interventions and policies and whether certain practices may be a promising direction for us to advance education. It’s very rare that a piece of research could immediately translate into a policy change, and that is not the goal of my research. To give an example, nearly a decade ago my research team evaluated a particular financial aid program in Massachusetts and found that the program not only did not achieve its intended goals of promoting equity, but actually hurt some high-achieving students’ graduation rate by encouraging them to choose state public colleges over other more selective and arguably higher quality colleges. The paper caused a big kerfuffle, but the program still exists.

Despite the paper having made no impact on improving Massachusetts’s policy, the findings from that research have become part of the evidence base for this important but sometimes disputed idea that where you go to college matters. If you go to a college that doesn’t have a lot of resources, that tends to be very predictive of poor graduation rates. Similarly, if you go to a well resourced college, those schools tend to have a good track record of graduating students. To this day, there are people who believe that where you go to college doesn’t matter and that it’s only about who you are as a student. But it turns out that we’ve been seeing a lot of evidence showing that this is not true, and I’m happy to have contributed to that discussion.

What are some questions you are continuing to explore?

I can share two projects that I’m working on right now. In one project, my research team is seeing if we can find some evidence about how COVID changed where students were enrolled in school in the state of Michigan. Some questions that this may help address include how concerned we should be about the drop in public school enrollments, who was leaving the public schools, why they were leaving, and whether they would come back. In another project, I’m interested in investigating out of school behaviors—specifically after-school tutoring among students from higher income families and immigrant families—on student outcomes.