An economist delves into charter schools
PhD student Elizabeth Setren brings data to bear on questions about local education policy.
“There are some big unanswered questions in the policy debate of whether charter schools should be allowed to expand,” Elizabeth Setren says; key among these are questions pertaining to how well the schools serve special education students and English language learners, and what happened when charter schools expanded in 2010.
Photo: Bryce Vickmark
Elizabeth Setren was a sophomore at Brandeis University trying to figure out how to combine her dual loves of math and public policy when she stumbled across the perfect answer: economics. Now, as a PhD student in economics at MIT, Setren has spent the past four years researching the charter school system in Boston in an attempt to figure out what exactly is going on, and what policymakers need to know.
As she strives to “infuse facts into what’s a very emotional and ideological debate” on the expansion of charter schools in the Boston area, Setren is also working closely with school leaders, and she meets with decision-makers in the policy sphere to ensure that they have as much information as possible. In fact, she regularly presents her work to various agencies such as the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and herresearch is featured on Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s website.
Discovering a love of economics
Setren’s interest in education started early: There are many teachers in her extended family, and she attended public school in Baltimore County, Maryland, where she was thrust into an academic environment characterized by some of the very same issues she now studies.
“We had students from many different countries, speaking many different languages,” she says, “and it really stood out to me that my schools were very diverse, but they were also very segregated. It seemed like where you went to elementary school and where you went to middle school was very determinant of how advanced your coursework was. So that inequality in our education system was very apparent to me from the beginning.”
Setren was drawn to research as a high school student and dabbled in various math and science-related fields — she interned with NASA and worked in an environmental biology lab where she collected specimens in the Chesapeake Bay. However, it was as an undergraduate at Brandeis University that she uncovered her true research passion: economics.
“When I took my first econ course, it just kind of clicked,” she says. “It was a great way to combine my love of math and problem-solving with my interest in making progress and better understanding social and public policy issues.”
From that point forward, Setren dove into economics research with summer internships, a senior thesis, and a two-year stint at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Along the way, she became increasingly certain that graduate school was the right move for her, which is how she landed at MIT.
Addressing unanswered questions in education
Once at MIT, Setren decided to study education, and the Boston charter schools in her own backyard seemed like a convenient yet important place to start. In 2010, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to increase the number of charter seats and schools in Boston, and there is currently an effort to increase these numbers once again. Still, charter schools remain An economist delves into charter schools | MIT News: