Q&A with Ray Kluender, National Bureau of Economic Research

MAY 2013

Ray Kluender worked at VARC for two years while an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he triple-majored in economics, political science, and mathematics. Ray is now a research assistant at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and will be entering MIT’s Ph.D. program in economics in the fall of 2013. He recently discussed his experience at VARC and its impact on his work since leaving.

Q: How did you come to work at VARC as an undergraduate?

Ray Kluender: After I declared my first major in political science during my sophomore year at UW-Madison, my advisor recommended I look into working for VARC. I didn’t have a lot of marketable skills at the time, and as I read more about what VARC was working on, I became excited about the idea of getting more research experience working with value-added models, both as an intellectual exercise and because I was interested in learning how they can work as a policy tool.

Q: What work did you do at VARC?

RK: VARC tripled in size during my time there; this gave me some great opportunities to get involved in many different projects. I initially worked on auditing data quality. I interviewed teachers in Chicago and Milwaukee about the accuracy of their class rosters. In order to have a value-added model you trust, you need high-quality data. Trying to accurately link teachers with the students they have taught is a less trivial task than you would imagine. Often, I’d find special education students or kids with special reading needs who had been swapped out of the class, for example. This work led to developing proprietary software for VARC that brought teacher feedback into the data collection process to improve quality. I also worked with Sarah Archibald (currently education policy advisor for Wisconsin state senator Luther Olson) on a brief looking at the sustainability of Teacher Incentive Fund grants. When VARC started its project with Los Angeles Unified School District, I got the chance to do some data programming. [VARC Associate Director for Technical Projects] Andrew [Rice] gave me the opportunity a few weeks before the project really got off the ground. We got eight gigabytes of data and he asked me to teach myself to program and to prepare the datasets for analysis. I got to do a lot of the legwork on the data and my programming abilities improved very rapidly.

Q: You did your senior thesis in conjunction with your work at VARC. What was it on and how did VARC assist you?

RK: For my senior thesis, I studied value-added models in the relatively new context of evaluating high school teacher performance. Specifically, I worked to formalize criteria for model specification and investigated some potential biases unique to the high school level. I got help from so many people at VARC, from Andrew to (data programmer) Gabe Rosen to (director) Rob Meyer.

Q: You graduated in May 2012 and headed off to Cambridge, Mass. What are you doing there?

RK: I’ve been working at the National Bureau of Economic Research, which is a consortium of academic research economists from universities around the world. My goals were to develop my policy skills and to work with leading economists. I’ve been working with (MIT professor) Amy Finkelstein, a health economist who recently won the John Bates Clark Medal. I’m helping Amy look at how the government does risk adjustment for health insurance - we’re working on problems of optimal insurance contract design. Working with Amy and auditing a course from Raj Chetty, who also just won the Clark Medal, has been the best part about being in Cambridge. Some of the best public finance research in the world is going on here.

Q: Do you have an idea of what you want to do for a career? Do you hope to stay in the education field?

RK: I know I eventually would like to work on public finance, but my focus now is on developing my research skills and knowledge of economic theory. I would love to someday have policy influence through the Council of Economic Advisors or the National Economic Council - in other words, working on big public interest questions that influence governmental policy, though I’m sure I’ll more narrowly focus my interests during my time in graduate school.

Q: You’ll be starting MIT’s economics Ph.D. program in the fall. How did your experience at VARC inform your decision to undertake graduate studies in economics?

RK: VARC was a fantastic experience for my intellectual growth. I give a lot of credit to the people at VARC, both in the way they managed me and way they gave me opportunities, helping me work my way up to handle more complicated tasks. Andrew Rice, in particular, was a really fabulous mentor for me. After I told him I wanted to go to graduate school in economics, he gave me the scoop on what that actually entailed. At VARC, I learned a lot of data skills and a lot about research design. I also learned so much from watching Rob [Meyer] apply his economic models to real-world situations and secure buy-in from diverse stakeholders.