Rebuilding Economics

“Our Department of Economics has a very good history and focuses on issues I feel strongly about,” said new Economics Head Steven G. Rivkin. “In addition to international economics, there is exceptional work being done in applied economics, which is consistent with the university mission and has important implications for public policy. I was very excited about coming to UIC.”

Steven G. Rivkin

Steven G. Rivkin. Photo by Joshua Clark

Rivkin joined the LAS faculty in January 2012 from Amherst College where he was the Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Economics. A specialist in labor economics and the economics of education, he explained that applied economics is “social-science friendly,” relying on data to answer questions empirically. “That’s the way the majority of faculty and graduate students in the department work. Theoretical economics is more about modeling behavior, modeling the way individuals, firms or governments behave.”

Rivkin’s work in the economics of education is an example of the way in which applied economics can inform public-policy choices. “We’ve looked at the intersection of the movement of teachers under No Child Left Behind and the accountability systems. It’s a somewhat complex issue because one of the goals of NCLB and accountability is to put more pressure on school administrators to ensure that the quality of education is higher in the classroom. That might suggest a more rigorous evaluation of teachers. However, a potentially adverse effect would be that teachers might not want to work in schools in which it was difficult to succeed under the accountability system,” he said.

“I recently served as an advisor for the State of Missouri Department of Education. We were talking about using test score data as part of their accountability system. One of the issues I emphasized is that you have to be careful that people aren’t punished when they are working with a majority of disadvantaged children who are generally not going to score as highly as suburban students.

“That doesn’t mean the teachers aren’t doing as good of a job, the job is simply more difficult. You need to be very thoughtful. You want to set a high bar and conduct rigorous evaluations, but you want to do so in a way that is fair. If the evaluation standards are unfair it not only hurts the teachers, it can hurt the students because teachers will be wary of teaching in schools where it is difficult to succeed.

“Some of my newest work is on leadership—the movement of principals among schools and the way in which school principals influence the quality of education. I’m also involved in a long-term project on Texas Charter Schools: studying the effectiveness of charter schools, the distribution of charter schools and the dynamics of charter schools,” Rivkin said. “I would like to extend that work to Chicago.

“The appeal of charter schools for economists is that we believe that markets tend to be good disciplining forces. Theoretically, if charter schools do well, they attract students and if they do poorly, they either change or shut down,” he explained. “However, there is concern that market forces do not work well in the educational realm because many families don’t have the information to be very good consumers.”

Rivkin looks forward to working with colleagues in the economics department and building on their contributions to scholarship and society. “Our department was really hurt for a long time due to budget issues. We were unable to hire new people, but that is changing,” he said. “In addition to Marcus Casey, whose research lies at the intersection of urban and labor economics and who will be working with me on the charter schools question, we hired Ben Ost, a labor economist who focuses on the economics of education, and Javairia Quereshi, a recent PhD from the Harris School at University of Chicago who works in economics of education and development economics. These outstanding new faculty will really complement the strengths we already have in the areas of health economics.

“People don’t necessarily understand that economists are working on issues that can have a direct impact on the quality of their lives. It is exciting to be part of a department that is emphasizing that and we all look forward to attracting students interested in working in these areas.”