Q&A with Geoffrey Kocks, PhD candidate in the MIT Economics Department

MITili Staff
Kocks Headshot and graphic

Geoff Kocks is a PhD student in Economics at MIT and a research associate at MIT Blueprint Labs, studying labor economics and the economics of education. His research at MIT has examined the long-run benefits of school desegregation and the properties and equity consequences of application systems in school choice settings. Previously, Geoff was a pre-doctoral research fellow for Professor Amy Finkelstein at MIT. He holds undergraduate degrees from Brown University in applied math, economics, and Hispanic studies. Outside of economics research, Geoff enjoys playing classical piano.

Kocks and his team are recent recipients of an MIT Integrated Learning Initiative grant to research educational effectiveness. Their project, “Pipelines and Equity in Gifted and Talented Programs”  will examine enrollees in elementary school gifted and talented (G&T) programs, and follow the educational outcomes of this group through high school in NYC. Racial diversity of G&T programs is a persistent concern among policy makers, with Black and Hispanic students in particular making up a much smaller share of the NYC G&T population than the overall student population. The research team will therefore pay close attention to the effects of programs on racial minorities and study policies that aim to increase program diversity.

What initially led to your interest in economics and education?

I first became interested in economics research through experiences with health economics at Brown University. Working with Professor Emily Oster, I studied questions such as the effectiveness of school vaccination requirements. After my undergraduate studies, I worked with Professor Amy Finkelstein at MIT, using Census data to understand disparities in the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. These experiences showed me how economics can address policy-relevant questions by combining rigorous quantitative analyses with an understanding of incentives and human behavior. 

While I was at Brown, I also tutored in Providence Public Schools, and witnessed both the immense challenges confronting urban school districts as well as the impressive passion and effort that teachers put into their classrooms. Meanwhile, in the news, I would frequently read about policy interventions that were portrayed as a panacea for education problems. I became interested in using economics to assess which interventions actually work and which should be prioritized by school districts facing limited budgets and time. I am particularly interested in policies that have the potential to close socioeconomic and racial gaps in educational opportunities and achievement. 

In your research work with MITili, you’ll be assessing the impact of gifted and talented programs in inner city schools. How important is it, in your mind, to close the diversity gap in these programs?

Across the country, school districts are increasingly concerned about the fact that gifted and talented programs generally don’t reflect the demographics of the overall student body. In New York City, where I am focusing my ongoing research (co-authored with Jimmy Chin, at UC Berkeley), this concern is reflected in recent policy efforts such as expanding G&T programs in historically underserved areas and switching from a standardized test to teacher recommendations to determine eligibility. The popularity of these programs suggests that families value G&T offerings, so closing the diversity gap is important for providing equal access to educational opportunities. The benefits of decreasing segregation – a topic which I have also studied in separate work – provide an additional rationale to be concerned about diversity gaps. 

There is less existing evidence on the long-run consequences of elementary school G&T programs, both overall and among systematically disadvantaged groups. A goal of this research project is to provide new evidence on the precise benefits of these programs and how benefits vary based on student characteristics. We hope analyses will inform future policy discussions on these programs by making clear both their potential and limitations and the role of program design in these effects. 

Most people don’t associate MIT with education research. What makes the study of economics a perfect fit for educational research? 

I have been fortunate to learn from the wonderful professors in the Economics Department at MIT, and fundamental concepts from economics courses are of critical importance in understanding education issues. For example, the basic principles of how consumers choose products and respond to incentives extend naturally to analyses of schooling decisions; within work on gifted and talented programs, this means that the effects of expanding programs to different geographic areas depend on reliably estimating the types of students who would apply to the programs. Issues of externalities – the unintended consequences of one person’s actions on others – are crucial for understanding the effects of policies like G&T programs, where effects may result from the peers who are in a student’s classroom.

In addition, the field of economics emphasizes the use of data and econometric analyses to identify causal effects. This provides a set of tools to address questions of how a particular policy intervention affects outcomes. The firsthand experiences from policy makers and teachers are crucial in identifying which education interventions could work and why, and economists can provide input into the decision-making process by estimating the sets of these outcomes that can be measured. MIT is a particularly exciting place to do this research, as my professors in the Economics Department and at Blueprint Labs have won a Nobel Prize for their work on estimating causal effects and have been involved with designing and studying school choice systems for major school districts. Their expertise, along with the tremendous research support from Blueprint Labs, is invaluable in generating policy-relevant analyses. 

Do you find that there are any overlapping competencies between your musical studies and your economics studies?   

At MIT, I have played piano as a part of the Chamber Music Society for several semesters, performing in groups with other instrumentalists. Both my musical studies at MIT and my economics research have involved collaborating with and listening closely to other people on a team to create a final product that represents a shared vision. Particularly when pursuing economic research on interdisciplinary topics such as education, I have found that the best research incorporates insights from scholars in other fields and the input of policy makers who can tell where evidence can best inform policy. MIT’s Music Department has also trained me in the ability to divide a large task – such as preparing for a performance of a long chamber music work – into the necessary steps so that it can be completed within a semester or a year. For me, musical studies at MIT have not distracted from my economics research but have been a necessary complement to my coursework in developing my problem solving and teamwork skills.

What is your favorite thing about being a part of MIT?

My favorite thing about MIT is that I am constantly learning from the interests and technical skills of other students. It is always exciting and inspiring to hear about the global issues that motivate others in their research, and all of my classmates develop creative ways to rigorously address these issues. It is maybe because of this focus on global issues that I have found an amazing amount of engagement across departments among those who want to work together on common problems.