The URBAN EDUCATION LAB (UEL) was created in 2011 as part of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, with the goal of generating knowledge to help improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged children growing up in some of the most distressed urban neighborhoods in America and overseas.
While everyone recognizes that improving schooling outcomes for disadvantaged urban children is one of our nation’s most pressing social policy problems, the solution to this problem is far from clear. The average four-year high school graduation rate in the nation’s 50 largest urban school districts is just 50 percent. Even in the most effective of these districts (Mesa Unified), nearly one-quarter of all 9th graders will drop out by 12th grade.
A large body of descriptive empirical research dating back fifty years to the landmark “Coleman Report” of 1966 – named after the distinguished University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman – has helped the academic and policy communities better understand the nature of school failure in the U.S. We now know, for example, that inequality in educational outcomes opens up very early in children’s lives, and that schooling outcomes seem to be strongly related to children’s out-of-school environments in addition to the quality of the schools that they attend. Given that per-pupil spending rates in the U.S. have increased substantially over time, even during periods when key indicators such as the black-white gap in test scores or graduation rates have held steady or even widened, simply throwing more money at the problem seems unlikely to be a sufficient solution.
What is needed is more and better evidence about the most effective – and cost effective - ways to improve the schooling outcomes and long-term life chances of disadvantaged children. Deriving evidence about the causal effects of educational interventions on learning outcomes is complicated by the fact that much educational spending in the U.S. is compensatory, directed towards particularly disadvantaged or vulnerable populations. In this case the inability to fully control for student, family or community background factors in standard statistical studies have the potential to understate the effectiveness of educational interventions, although in other cases bias in the other direction is also possible.
Randomized clinical trials of the sort common in medicine – that is, experiments – are widely recognized to be among the best ways to provide causal evidence about what works, for whom, and why. But experimental studies of major education policy interventions for urban children remain far too rare. The UEL was established to bring together leading education-policy researchers across the country to improve educational outcomes in urban areas by:
- RIGOROUS POLICY RESEARCH – The UEL emphasizes the use of the most scientifically rigorous methods to derive inferences about policy impacts, including randomized controlled trials and their close substitutes (such as regression discontinuity designs)
- INTER-DISCIPLINARY EVALUATIONS – The UEL draws from a wide range of scientific disciplines to develop partnerships between practitioners and researchers from various fields. We believe no single social science discipline alone has the breadth of perspectives and tools necessary to solve the urban education problem.
- COST-EFFECTIVE DECISION MAKING – The UEL emphasizes the use of benefit-cost and cost-effectiveness analyses as part of its experiments, to enable policymakers to learn more about how to achieve the greatest social good for a given level of (increasingly scarce) schooling resources.
- KNOWLEDGE SHARING – The UEL believes that the dissemination of the findings of its studies in an accessible and useful way, to policymakers as well as the broader research community, is necessary to inform policy decisions and further our scientific understanding of urban education.