Q&A with Joshua Angrist, Ford Professor of Economics at MIT

Steve Nelson
josh angrist

Joshua Angrist is the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT and a Research Associate in the NBER's programs on Children, Education, and Labor Studies, and founder of MIT's School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII). A dual U.S. and Israeli citizen, he taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before coming to MIT. Angrist received his B.A. from Oberlin College in 1982 and also spent time as an undergraduate studying at the London School of Economics and as a Masters student at Hebrew University. He completed his Ph.D. in Economics at Princeton in 1989.

Angrist's research interests include the effects of school inputs and school organization on student achievement; the impact of education and social programs on the labor market; the effects of immigration, labor market regulation and institutions; and econometric methods for program and policy evaluation.

What initially brought you to studying learning effectiveness?

Labor economists like me study the determinants of individual earnings and employment.  Human capital, that is, education and workforce-related skill, is the single most important systematic determinant of economic well-being. Each year of additional schooling appears to raise earnings by about 10%, an intriguing fact.  Does that mean we can boost earnings by increasing learning?  What about school quality?  Some sorts of schooling appear to be worth more than others.  Graduates of segregated negro systems in the Jim Crow south, for example, benefited little from their schooling.  We address these questions with data and sophisticated econometric methods.  Today, we also look at institutional factors, comparing alternative schooling models like traditional public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, and private schools. We ask which produces the largest gains for its students and explore strategies to produce more learning and earnings power for each student.    

What has been the biggest change in education research since you began researching effectiveness?

We have more and better data.  It’s become easier, for example, to study entire districts.  Also, many districts have centralized school assignment using economic ideas and theories to match students to schools.  Boston is a pioneer in this regard.  A big part of our agenda involves practical matters with real-world consequences for millions of children, like how school assignment systems should be designed and how best to use the massive amounts of data these systems generate to learn about school effectiveness.

What is your favorite thing about working at MIT?

The opportunity to work with the many talented people here, both colleagues and students.