Tufts Prof. Elizabeth Setren on METCO’s Proven Results

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Tufts Prof. Elizabeth Setren on METCO’s Proven Results

[00:00:34] Albert: Hey everybody and welcome to another episode of The Learning Curve podcast. I’m your co-host this week, Albert Cheng from the University of Arkansas and my other co-host is Alisha Searcy. What’s up, Alisha? Good to see you again.

[00:00:50] Alisha: Great to see you too. How are you?

[00:00:52] Albert: Doing fine.

[00:00:53] Alisha: You doing all right too. I am doing well. I’m over this virus. If anybody has had it, oh my goodness, but I’m free again. All right. Yeah. Good deal.

[00:01:03] Albert: Well, don’t know if you’ve we’re able to pay attention to the news being under the weather, but I’ve got a news story for you to, kick us off.

[00:01:09] Albert: So this is a, uh, an article that’s summarizing what I guess is some Instagram posts that some of our school leaders and teachers are, posting about addressing behavior in school. And I mean, there’s a lot to it, but I’ll, maybe say some highlights about what they’re observing.

[00:01:26] Albert: 1 of the observations is that they’re getting a little skeptical over how many kinds of behavioral therapy works in trying to address class, you know, for classroom management for addressing some of the special needs that our students have. You know, this actually reminds me of a couple of recent articles that I’ve read where folks are being critiqued of just the kind of behavioral therapy and psychology approach to trying to deal with misbehavior.

[00:01:56] Albert: And actually reminds me of something I think we talked about a while ago. [00:02:00] mentioned, I think in a conversation with you an article that Martin Luther King wrote way back in the day when he was still a college student. And he said that education is intelligence plus character. And you know, this article really reminded me of that because it really seems like the way these teachers and school leaders are describing.

[00:02:19] Albert: We’ve really gotten away from the character thing and we’ve reduced character development to just behavioral therapy. And you know, we need to get back to a place, I think what, these folks are arguing where we really tend to shape kids to become the right people to love the right things, to recognize that there are certain moral obligations that they have you know, to do that.

[00:02:42] Albert: More than just simply conditioning them to act a certain way without really changing who they are as people.

[00:02:50] Albert: Anyway, I think there are some thoughts that these school leaders and teachers are offering from the front lines. And I think it’s really worth our consideration.

[00:02:58] Alisha: Absolutely. Very [00:03:00] interesting piece. my heart goes out to educators right now who are classroom teachers and, school leaders who are having to contend with significant behavior issues.

[00:03:10] Alisha: I think there’s a lot going on, right? They’re contending with The aftermath of Cove it. They’re dealing with all the social issues that kids are coming to school with social media, all these things. I also cannot forget that these Children are microcosms of society, right? And they’re emulating what they’re seeing in their parents and adults.

[00:03:31] Alisha: And frankly, I think as a country, we could probably use some lessons and reminders and character and how to treat people. And as you said, to love the right things so it’s, very difficult, and again, my heart goes out to educators who are trying to manage this, educate kids, and deal with little people who are a representation of what’s happening in the world.

[00:03:52] Alisha: And I think you’re right. We can think about the work of Dr. King and just remind ourselves of the importance of character and good [00:04:00] people and being that as adults and making sure that we’re modeling that for children in schools.

[00:04:06] Albert: Yeah, I think you nailed it. We need to be role models and have more role models for how we got to act and be.

[00:04:13] Alisha: Yes, and speaking of kind of what’s happening in society the article that I came across this week is proof points. Only a quarter of federally funded education innovations. Benefited students report says. This was an interesting article about how essentially 4 billion has been spent over the last 12 years or so in research and finding innovative programs that work in K-12 education.

[00:04:44] Alisha: And the results aren’t good. saying that there’s about a 26 percent success rate in the programs that have been implemented and a couple of those programs. One of them is a reading program. [00:05:00] Another one has to do with kind of early interventions. One is called building assets, reducing risk, or all about catching students before they start to fail. And so what I appreciate about this article, though, number one is it acknowledges that we’re spending money federally on research and development and trying to figure out what works in our schools. What I found interesting, though, is, you know, you may think 1.4 billion is a lot of money. If you know anything about the federal budget, you know, that’s a drop in the bucket. And if you compare that to, let’s say, defense spending we spend about 90 billion a year on research. And when it comes to health research, we spend about 50 billion a year.

[00:05:46] Alisha: So if you’re only spending 1.4 billion over 12 years in education, I think an argument could be made that more needs to be invested. I’m not bothered by the 26 percent success rate in terms of [00:06:00] Finding out what works and what doesn’t work. Number one, we’re not spending as much money comparatively, but number two, I think you have to invest these funds to figure out what’s working.

[00:06:10] Alisha: But to this point about kind of behavior, I think what we can never forget is it doesn’t really matter what the program is. If you’re not dealing with the social issues that kids are coming to school with the right behavior issues that teachers are having to deal with. Sometimes the program itself doesn’t matter.

[00:06:27] Alisha: You still have to deal with some of these issues. So an Interesting piece. I hope that the U.S. Department of Education will continue to invest these dollars. I think that over the years, particularly through the Obama administration, I think that we did some really good things in terms of innovation.

[00:06:44] Alisha: And so I hope that will continue making those investments. But interesting. Yeah.

[00:06:47] Albert: Yeah. You were talking earlier about how we adults, are part of the problem too. And you know, it just reminds me of how the other side of the implementation issue is it’s tough for school districts and [00:07:00] school systems to do new things.

[00:07:01] Albert: There’s definitely a lot of inertia and they all have their own local politics. And so definitely a lot of challenges to implementation which is why you might find something an intervention or program that works somewhere and flops in another location. So, lots of challenges to really reform education and doing our part to make it better. Exactly. Thanks for sharing that and stick with us, ’cause coming up on the other side of the break, we’re gonna have Dr. Elizabeth Setren talk to us about her research, speaking of which, on Boston’s METCO program. So stay tuned.

[00:08:10] Alisha: Dr. Elizabeth Setren is the Gunnar Myrtle Assistant Professor of Economics at Tufts University. Before joining Tufts, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Her research in the economics of education includes studying the academic impact of Boston’s charter schools, While her most recent work focused on the long-term effects of Massachusetts’ voluntary integration METCO program.

[00:08:35] Alisha: Professor Setren’s research has been covered by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, the 74, NPR, and other national news outlets. Setren earned her BA in mathematics and economics. With highest departmental honors summa cum laude from Brandeis University and received her Ph.D. in economics from M.I.T. Welcome to the show, Professor.

[00:08:59] Albert: Dr. Setren. [00:09:00] I want to add my welcome for you being on the show. So thanks for being here. Thanks for having me. you’ve got this study that’s out on METCO so let’s why don’t we start with what METCO is just for some of our listeners who are unfamiliar with the program, the Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunity. It’s the largest and second-largest continuously operating voluntary school desegregation program in the country. And actually a model for a few other voluntary design programs currently in existence. So tell us a little bit about the background of this program.

[00:09:32] Albert: What do you know about its history? What communities does it draw from? Where is it? It sends students to the size and yeah, just give us some of the background detail.

[00:09:41] Elizabeth Setren: So MECO started in 1966 in the Boston area with eight suburban school districts in the Boston metro area that elected to accept students from the city of Boston to their suburban schools. The premise is that their suburban [00:10:00] resident students would benefit from increased diversity and exposure to people from other backgrounds in their school district and some families from Boston wanted to choose that option for their children.

[00:10:13] Elizabeth Setren: It’s been running continuously since it started in 1966, and the enrollment has been rather stable the past bunch of years with around 3, 100 students in the city of Boston. And then there’s a much smaller program in the city of Springfield and for surrounding suburbs in that area.

[00:10:33] Albert: So let’s get into some of the I guess descriptive statistics, if you will, of the students, you know, just the student composition of who’s participating. Pioneer Institute in 2022 released a research report and mentioned how METCO students make up more than 40 percent of the African American population in receiving districts.

[00:10:52] Albert: In some districts, METCO students represent more than two-thirds of the African American population and more than 20 [00:11:00] percent of the Hispanic population. So, talk about who’s participating, who’s enrolling in this program what’s their demographic background, and other things you know about them.

[00:11:08] Elizabeth Setren: Sure, so historically METCO has been predominantly Black enrollees and this comes from the legacy of a bunch of great black activists that were involved in the founding of MECCO, but over time it has become more diverse And in the period of my study Which is roughly the past 20 years a little longer when we look into the college and labor market outcomes But roughly in the past 20 years little over 70% of the students coming through the METCO program have been Black or African American, about 20 percent Latinx, and about 4 percent Asian. and I know it’s a priority of METCO now to make METCO representative of the vast in the city of Boston. Yeah. And then in terms of the suburban peers, yes, as you mentioned, a lot of these suburbs [00:12:00] are predominantly white students in these schools with very low proportions.

[00:12:05] Elizabeth Setren: I’m seeing in my sample about 10 percent of the residents are black during this time period and about. 6 to 7 percent are Latinx and 10 percent Asian. So, the METCO program is really adding a lot of diversity to these predominantly white suburban communities.

[00:12:22] Albert: Yeah. So let’s dig into your study a little bit more.

[00:12:25] Albert: You just kind of gave us a description of who’s participating. But you actually availed yourself of the wait list that was there. know, I think there’s, an annual report released in, at least in the 2019, or 2020 school year. There were, nearly 1,400 applications that led to 335 new enrollees.

[00:12:45] Albert: So, I know we economists like that. we like things allocated, with wait lists and allocated by lottery. So could you talk about your analytics sample, if you will, you know, who’s on the waitlist and what that allows you to do?

[00:12:57] Elizabeth Setren: Until just about a few years [00:13:00] ago, MECCO admissions was run by a wait list that was set up to be first come first served.

[00:13:06] Elizabeth Setren: Meetings could apply as early as birth. So there were people would joke that after you bring your baby home from the hospital, you should stop by the MECCO office to sign yours. Um, I don’t know how often that happened. Actually, I could check in the data how applicants were but some are certainly very, very young with the most common application ages being zero to one.

[00:13:30] Elizabeth Setren: So infants and one-year-olds. And I think that reflects also the popularity of the program, which is reflective of that. long waitlist. Now, a few years ago, they switched the waitlist. I helped work with MECCO leadership they’re very interested in kind of moving MECCO into a new era uh, with more access and accessibility to families in Boston.

[00:13:53] Elizabeth Setren: So it can be more representative of, folks in Boston. And so now it is a lottery system. That’s where we are. [00:14:00] digitally, but historically it was this long waitlist. So families would apply often very early on. And then once their child was old enough for kindergarten or first grade, they had the potential to be referred from the waitlist to a specific suburban district.

[00:14:16] Elizabeth Setren: And so I use that waitlist assignment system in my study design. So other research prior has compared Boston students in general, those in BPS, and maybe also those in charter schools. It compared people living in Boston going to other school options to METCO students.

[00:14:40] Elizabeth Setren: And the issue with that is there might be different characteristics of families that choose to apply for METCO. Perhaps they have knowledge of the program that could reflect. Some social capital awareness of how to navigate the education system could also help their student do better in school, perhaps.

[00:14:58] Elizabeth Setren: So [00:15:00] we want to make sure any comparison of how MECO students are doing has a proper comparison group. So students from similar families with similar advantages and disadvantages. And that’s why the wait list comes in handy as a research design. It allows us to find a proper control group. So we’re comparing the outcomes of students who applied to the program and were able to be admitted to students who applied to the program and maybe applied a few days later than their peers.

[00:15:32] Elizabeth Setren: And as a result of that, we’re not admitted and we can check for this and some really rich outcomes and data to see that the students who applied and got in and applied and didn’t get in have very similar characteristics in terms of parents education in terms of their economic status.

[00:15:53] Albert: Great. So, well, I’m curious to see if this worked. I think, Alicia, you want to ask about that.

[00:15:58] Alisha: Yeah. So, [00:16:00] speaking of the results I want to talk a little bit about that. According to your research, Professor, 20 years of longitudinal data show that students participating in METCO experience substantial gains in math and English language arts.

[00:16:14] Alisha: On the M. C. A. ‘s test scores, a low high school dropout rate, and a 94 percent graduation rate. Increased school attendance despite long trips to and from school, higher S. A. T. scores, increased college aspirations, enrollment, and graduation rates increased income and employment, and a lot more.

[00:16:34] Alisha: So can you unpack more of these long-term academic benefits that METCO students experience?

[00:16:40] Elizabeth Setren: Sure. Thanks for sharing. First, I want to explain that the modal student who participates in METCO is getting admitted for kindergarten or first grade, and they’re sticking with the suburban school district that they’ve been assigned through 12th grade.

[00:16:55] Elizabeth Setren: So when we think about the impact of METCO, not all students in the sample, of course, some [00:17:00] students move or make different decisions, but most students Students will be entering kindergarten or first grade, and be in the suburban school district for the entirety of their primary and secondary school career.

[00:17:12] Elizabeth Setren: And what we see in terms of the impact of that I think the most striking finding is that it dramatically increases their aspirations to go to college by about 20 percentage points. So this. It was their their peers who were admitted and didn’t get in about 50 percent of them will say they aspire to go to a four-year college, but upwards of 70 percent and more in the Mecco program say that they aspire to a four-year college.

[00:17:42] Elizabeth Setren: And this question is asked in 10th grade by all students in Massachusetts when they take their standardized tests now also impressive. Not only is Mecco shifting college expectations, but. the students are able to follow through with that. So students are about 20 percent [00:18:00] points more likely to enroll in a four-year college.

[00:18:03] Elizabeth Setren: And some of this is driven by students who would have otherwise gone to two-year colleges shifting to four-year, and some of it is coming from students who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to any college going to a four-year college and they are also more likely to persist through the four-year colleges and to graduate so they graduate about a 10 percentage point higher rate than their peers who applied to Mecco and were not admitted.

[00:18:30] Alisha: That is significant. So interestingly too you’re finding that boys in the METCO program seem to benefit more than girls and that first-generation college students appear to be getting more out of participating than those who have parents with college degrees. Can you talk more about these gaps among METCO students?

[00:18:50] Alisha: And what you’re finding?

[00:18:52] Elizabeth Setren: Yeah, so I’m not sure that I would frame them as gaps but more so as who’s benefited most from the program. [00:19:00] And when we look at it by different characteristics, it’s who has the most to gain in terms of where they were at baseline, what their performance would have been had they not participated in the program.

[00:19:11] Elizabeth Setren: Students who have the most to gain are. benefiting the most. Some of that is mechanical, right? So if I have an A plus average, and I go to a different type of school, that school can’t boost my test score that much beyond an A plus. You’d see only minor gains if they were gains at all. But if students start with a C average, there’s going to be a lot more room for growth.

[00:19:33] Elizabeth Setren: So we see the same thing with these students. students. So students from first generation who would be the first students who would be the first generation in their family to go to college. Their peers who don’t get into METCO start off with a much lower expectation of college-going. And so METCO for them, there’s much more gains to be had.

[00:19:52] Elizabeth Setren: You’re starting with the population that, 50 percent of them aspire to go to college versus the population. Where closer to [00:20:00] 75 percent aspire to go to college, which is what we see in the pool of applicants. Who had a parent at least one parent to graduate from a four-year college? Similarly, boys in general have lower educational attainment in the U. S. and also lower academic performance. So they have more to gain in terms of test scores and in terms of college going than the girls.

[00:20:27] Alisha: Thank you for that clarification. so my final question going back for more than a decade, authors and researchers like Susan Eaton and Pioneer Institute have written about METCO and you’ve now produced what we would consider the gold standard research on this program’s performance.

[00:20:45] Alisha: So we thank you for that. And so as a researcher, can you talk about what you would like to see state policymakers do with the growing body of evidence of METCO success? And if you think any additional research. Should be done. What? areas you’d like to [00:21:00] see that produced in?

[00:21:01] Elizabeth Setren: First, thank you for the kind words.

[00:21:03] Elizabeth Setren: I certainly admire the work that’s come before me, and there’s been a lot of great qualitative work. Professor Eden’s work in particular about The METCO program that’s really told the narratives and stories of students through the program, and my emphasis and focus is much more on quantitative research to get at kind of the big picture trajectories of how students are doing in the program, but it can’t tell those granular stories the way that qualitative researchers can.

[00:21:31] Elizabeth Setren: In terms of future research, I have a lot in the pipeline. So I have another project where I’m looking at the impact of METCO on the suburban peers. So students who live in these suburbs have classmates from Boston as a result of the METCO program. When programs to promote diversity are expanding or being put in place a common concern that parents have is that that program [00:22:00] might increase disruptions to the classroom.

[00:22:02] Elizabeth Setren: There might be more behavior issues. And using a similar data set with the past 20 years of schooling data from All 33 districts in the Boston metro area that participate in MECCO, I find a very clear answer that there’s no impact on the suburban students, the suburban residents, their academic outcomes, on their behavioral outcomes, so attendance suspension, and more importantly, they’re not in classrooms with any more disruption.

[00:22:33] Elizabeth Setren: So they’re not more likely to be in a classroom with a higher Suspension rate for their peers in the class and they would otherwise, and I think this is important for policymakers as many schools across the country think about using school assignment to promote inclusion and equity and access. to various schools that this, I hope, can shed some light on a common concern that parents may have.[00:23:00]

[00:23:00] Elizabeth Setren: In other research, I’m interested in the even longer-run impacts of programs like MECCO and integration in general. So, This study that we’re talking about today follows the participants of the programs of students from Boston, it follows them through age 35 in the labor market, and you know, so I see them graduate college at a higher rate, I also see that their earnings are higher largely likely due to the fact that they have a college degree, they can garner higher wages.

[00:23:31] Elizabeth Setren: But my next study that’s in progress looks at the social and civic impacts of the METCO program, both on the urban participants and also the suburban peers. So, are students more civically engaged, more likely to vote, more likely to register with one party or another, or independent? Are they more likely to donate to political campaigns, particularly campaigns of people of [00:24:00] color?

[00:24:00] Elizabeth Setren: And also how does it affect where students are alumni choose to live as an adult? So are they choosing more diverse neighborhoods are Mecca alumni are they moving to the suburban schools that they attended at a higher rate? And does it affect the rate of intermarriage and social mixing than what we would have seen otherwise in cohorts that aren’t exposed to MECO peers and MECO applicants that don’t get admitted?

[00:24:28] Elizabeth Setren: And in terms of policy implications, we’ve seen in the recent, about past four years, really an influx of school districts and school systems that are interested in rethinking school assignment and how to promote equity and access and diversity within their schools.

[00:24:46] Elizabeth Setren: And so I think METCO Research. It can help policymakers and planners in Massachusetts with this specific program. But my hope is, is that it also sheds some light on questions that other districts and other school [00:25:00] systems may be asking as they think about how to increase this. I think one of the biggest takeaways is that this increase in diversity, increase in exposure to peers and families that have higher rates of goals towards, going to college and it seems to generate really large impacts for these students.

[00:25:22] Elizabeth Setren: It’s hard to know exactly. You know what component of the MECO program leads to these specific findings. But I think one really striking finding is that for students who didn’t have parents that went to college, now they’re in an environment where college is a lot more common among their peers and it’s a lot more expected.

[00:25:42] Elizabeth Setren: And so I think, it speaks to the potential gains from being exposed to more diverse student bodies with higher goal setting towards college.

[00:25:51] Alisha: Wow, very telling. I think those of us who support school choice and understand what happens when families [00:26:00] have options and how it could change the life trajectory of a child. I think your research has absolutely pointed that out. And to your point, I hope that policymakers across the country will really learn from this and see what’s possible when you give kids options.

[00:26:15] Alisha: Thank you so much, Professor, for being with us today.

[00:26:17]Elizabeth Setren: Thank you so much for having me.

[00:26:19] Albert: Thank you, Dr. Setren.

[00:26:28] Albert: Keep in peace when the day is done, that’s what I mean. This old world is a new world and a bold world for me.

[00:26:46] Alisha: Yeah, great interview. I really enjoyed the conversation as well. Definitely. Well, before we close out here’s the tweet of the week, which actually comes from Marguerite Rosa and she has a tweet uh, I mean, they’ll read the tweet. Perhaps it’s no surprise that some [00:27:00] district investments are producing impressive growth, and in others, the effect has further declined.

[00:27:05] Albert: Here’s Illinois, and if you look at the tweet, you’ll see a nice scatter plot. It really, you know, what, Dr. Rosa is talking about is the end of ESSER. we know these funds are approaching the deadline school districts have to spend and they’re drying up. But you know, it looks like Marguerite Rosa has done some work or is referencing some work about the impact that the funding’s done.

[00:27:24] Albert: And I know, Alisha, you were talking at the beginning of the show about investing in education and we’re talking about some of the challenges associated with that. Well, I think this tweet sums up another part of the challenge. You know, if you look at that spreadsheet tweet or the scatter plot on the tweet, I should say there’s a lot of districts that spend a lot of money and made a lot of improvement.

[00:27:44] Albert: A lot of districts spent a lot of money and didn’t make much improvement. Yeah. A lot of districts spent really little money and made no improvement, but a lot of districts spent little money and made a lot of improvements.

[00:27:55] Alisha: So, lots of variation. All over the place.

[00:27:56] Albert: Yeah, we’re all over the place, and I think that just underscores the challenge [00:28:00] of using money well, making sure targeted well spent in the right places that actually contribute to student learning and student growth.

[00:28:08] Albert: Anyway, take a look at that tweet and some of the other charts and data that she has.

[00:28:13] Alisha: Yeah, I love her work. I went through one of their courses through Georgetown and she does phenomenal work and I think makes a great point. Right. And she would say uh, if districts ensure that they focus on their return on the investment, and put those dollars where they know they’re going to get a return and measure it along the way, we can get better.

[00:28:33] Albert: Well, that brings us to the end of the show. Thanks, Alisha for co-hosting with me for another week. Absolutely. Always good to be with you, Albert. And I hope you stick with us and tune back in next week. We’re going to have Professor Ronald Mellor, who’s a distinguished professor of history at UCLA and the author of Tacitus, the classical tradition.

[00:28:55] Albert: So join us next week for that interview and hope to see you all [00:29:00] then. See you then.

This week on The Learning Curve, University of Arkansas Prof. Albert Cheng and guest co-host Alisha Searcy interview Tufts University Prof. Elizabeth Setren. Prof. Setren discusses her recent study of METCO, a pioneering voluntary school desegregation program under which Massachusetts students in Boston and Springfield are bused to surrounding suburban districts. She discusses METCO’s history, the academic performance of students in the program, enrollment challenges, long-term benefits, and disparities among students. She urges policymakers to make evidence-based policy decisions and calls for further research to enhance the program’s effectiveness.

Stories of the Week: Albert analyzed an article from Your Tango about a former principal’s declaration of how schools need to focus more on academics and less on behavioral issues; Alisha discussed an article from the Hechinger Report on federally-funded education innovation.


Dr. Elizabeth Setren is the Gunnar Myrdal Assistant Professor of Economics at Tufts University. Before joining Tufts, she completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Her research in the economics of education includes studying the academic impact of Boston’s charter schools, while her most recent work focused on the long-term effects of Massachusetts’ voluntary integration METCO program. Prof. Setren’s research has been covered by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, The 74, NPR, and other national news outlets. Setren earned a B.A. in mathematics and economics with highest departmental honors, summa cum laude from Brandeis University, and received her Ph.D. in economics from MIT.


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