MU professor Michael Podgursky tapped for institute on education reform

Monday, May 31, 2010 | 3:02 p.m. CDT; updated 10:50 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Michael Podgursky, an economics professor at MU, was recently appointed to the George W. Bush Institution. The institution is a research facility that focuses on public policy problems. "I originally got into economics because of the Vietnam War and wanted to focus on international economic relations as an angle," he said. Podgursky was chosen along with two other professors to do research on education policy.

COLUMBIA — MU economics professor Michael Podgursky was appointed to the George W. Bush Institute on Wednesday as one of three scholars to work on research for education reform.

“I’m honored to be asked,” Podgursky said. “I think that it’s a very exciting opportunity.”


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Podgursky, a 1974 graduate of MU, developed an interest in trade and international relations while growing up during the Vietnam War. The debate between capitalism and communism caught his eye, so he decided to major in economics.

He turned his attention to research on teacher labor markets while in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has since earned national acclaim by publishing many scholarly articles and co-authoring a book, “Teacher Pay and Teacher Quality.”

Podgursky teaches two economics courses at MU. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I learn along with my students every day I’m in class,” he said.

Podgursky seizes every opportunity to continue his education. He reads history books and listens to commentaries on his MP3 player. He said his love for learning drives his research. 

About eight months ago, James Guthrie, senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the institute, contacted Podgursky about the prospect of joining the group. But first, he had to get approved by former President George W. Bush, whom he met in late May.

“In a sense, we all got interviewed by President Bush,” Podgursky said. Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas and Matthew Springer of Vanderbilt University also were chosen.

The institute currently focuses on economic growth, education policy, global health and human freedom. The education scholars will work on strategies for improving the leadership of school principals and administrators. Podgursky believes training is key.

“We’re going to try to identify programs and develop programs that look something like a hybrid between an MBA program and a traditional ed-admin program,” he said.

Specifically, Podgursky is interested in teaching school administrators how to use cost-benefit analysis and make data-driven decisions.

Podgursky cited data on student performance, provided by state tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as an example. 

“The idea is to begin to use this data and begin to use resources toward things that are more effective and move resources away from those things that are less effective,” he said.

Chris Belcher, superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, said Podgursky’s research on school economics and resources should have been used to help shape No Child Left Behind, which he believes is based on a flawed premise that broad testing is a good way to measure student achievement.

Podgursky also is interested in teacher salaries. He advocates moving away from a teacher salary schedule and toward more market-based salary strategies such as merit pay for individual teachers or performance pay for those who teach in schools that improve performance over time.

“Missouri is not at the cutting edge of pay reforms for teachers,” Podgursky said, adding that some Missouri school administrators are beginning to think harder about such issues.

The Missouri National Education Association opposes both merit and performance pay when tied to test scores. Otto Fajen, the group’s legislative director, agrees with Podgursky on data-driven training for school administrators, but he disagrees about higher pay being a good motivator for teachers.

Fajen said that research shows that improving the workplace is far more effective than salaries are at motivating teachers.

“We are quite fortunate that people who are teachers are intrinsically motivated,” Fajen said. “Would we want teachers to be thinking about money in the classroom?”

Fajen said Missouri’s salary schedule, which originally was created to ensure equal pay among male and female teachers, remains “a viable pay structure.”

Fajen said another problem with merit or performance pay standards is that measuring performance is difficult, if not impossible.

“When you tie test scores and pay together, it will take a lot of time, money and effort," he said. He added that he believes it also makes many people unhappy.

Podgursky acknowledged disagreement but said merit and performance pay are gaining traction.

“It’s an idea that’s not going away,” he said. “But there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of learning how to use this data appropriately.” 

Podgursky hopes his experience with the George W. Bush Institute will trickle down to help Columbia Public Schools. Fellows with the institute will have several conferences over the next 18 months that will focus on such issues as teacher training and salaries.

Podgursky said the chance to work with scholars and education administrators across the country should make him an even better professor. “Suddenly, I’ll have access to resources I would not have otherwise had access to,” he said.

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