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Eric Taylor Joins HGSE Faculty

Eric TaylorEric Taylor has joined the Harvard Graduate School of Education as an assistant professor, Dean James Ryan announced. For Taylor, this is something of a homecoming, since he worked as a researcher at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard from 2008 to 2010, before leaving for Stanford University to pursue his Ph.D. in the economics of education.

As a researcher, Taylor has been affiliated with Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, studying labor and personnel economics in the education sector and applied econometric methods. His most recent paper, “New Technology and Teacher Productivity,” looks at how new instructional computer technology affects classroom teachers’ productivity and job decisions. Taylor’s previous work has been published in the American Economic Review, Journal of Human Resources, and Journal of Public Economics. His research on teacher evaluation has been featured in Slate, Time, The Washington Post, and Education Week.

In 2013, Taylor was recognized for Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and in 2006, he received the Chancellor’s Service Award at the University of California–Los Angeles, where he received a master’s degree in public policy.

What excites you about rejoining the HGSE community?
HGSE is a great community of scholars — and a great community period. Last December, during my job talk at HGSE, I presented my research on how computers are changing the work of classroom teachers. Those 90 minutes were the most productive and energizing conversation I have had about that paper. The faculty and students asked incisive questions, offered precise suggestions, and were just as helpful on the big-picture, substantive issues as they were on the small econometric details. They didn’t pull punches, but they were friendly throughout. Some were old friends, but most were new. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be contributing to and benefiting from that community.

Tell us about that project, which looked at how new instructional technology affects teachers’ productivity.
The big question behind that paper is this: How are computers changing the work of classroom teachers? What effect do new computer tools and strategies have on teachers’ role in the classroom, teachers’ decisions, and ultimately teachers’ job performance? Most research on educational technology ignores teachers — it ignores the differences between teachers in whether and how they use technology. But the lesson of history, back to textbooks more than a century ago and beyond, is that classroom teachers shape the effects of each new classroom technology.

I study a specific kind of new technology — computer aided instruction (CAI) — which is software designed to provide one-on-one tutoring to students, with the computer acting in the role of the teacher. It turns out that CAI benefits student learning in some classrooms but hurts learning in other classrooms. What differentiates the classrooms is who the teacher is — in other words, who the computer tutor is replacing for some of the school day. In the paper, I measure teacher performance by estimating each teacher’s contribution to her student’s math test score growth. Using CAI improves student learning in the classrooms of otherwise low-performing teachers, but reduces learning for students assigned to otherwise high-performing teachers.

Getting back to the big picture, the evidence in the paper demonstrates the critical importance, I think, of understanding teachers when studying, creating, or choosing educational technology.

Talk about some of your other research questions and what you're working on now. 
Another big question that’s been on my mind for years is: Can teacher evaluation improve teaching? Can the process of evaluation or the information created by evaluations change the performance of the teachers being evaluated? I first started thinking about these questions when I worked at CEPR, and we were collaborating with the Cincinnati Public Schools. We found that Cincinnati’s evaluation process improved veteran teachers’ teaching in lasting ways, partly, we think, because of the detailed, individualized feedback from peer observers that are central to the Cincinnati process. Currently I am involved in two field experiments related to this question: one in England to measure the effects of peer evaluation generally, and one in Tennessee focused on learning from peers in the context of evaluation. In the Tennessee project I am working with two HGSE alums, John Tyler and John Papay.

Evaluation is a particular interest, but I am broadly interested in the economics of teachers and teaching. My coauthors and I are currently studying teacher hiring in the Washington DC Public Schools and how the performance of college professors changes when they teach online instead of in a conventional classroom.

You've thought a lot about teacher evaluation. Talk about your own teaching — what is important to you, and how do you measure your success?
My sister is just finishing her first year teaching. She teaches third grade. And we talk about this question: Do I have any advice for teachers, especially practical advice, from my researcher perspective? To be sure, teaching involves more tasks, skills, and decisions than any one researcher thinks about. But my advice to my sister is the same as my advice to myself: ask more-experienced teachers to watch you teach and evaluate your teaching, go watch them teach, ask them for suggestions. That kind of assessment and feedback is one performance measure that is important to me in my teaching.

One advantage I have had at Stanford, and I expect at Harvard, is that there are often experienced teachers among my students. They watch me teach and, thankfully, many are willing to offer their evaluations and feedback.