Kirabo Jackson

Kirabo Jackson’s Quest to Reframe the Returns on School Spending

When Kirabo “Bo” Jackson first heard the axiom that school spending doesn’t matter, he was a young PhD student in economics at Harvard. It was the early 2000s, and the conventional wisdom was that money played a minor role in a student’s success.

Jackson wasn’t so sure. Over the next decade, as he applied new research methods to dig deeper and question long-held assumptions, he began to show that money can matter, reigniting a national debate on school finance.

“School spending really can affect a child’s future,” says Jackson, the Abraham Harris Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at SESP. “It’s no panacea, but investing in children early and often pays off during adulthood, especially for kids from low-income families.”

A labor economist, Jackson has long been interested in how people are affected by systems. In addition to public school funding, his work largely explores how college prep programs, ability tracking, single-sex education, and other practices can benefit or hurt students long after they’ve left school.

Some of his most original and influential new research tackles the question of what makes someone a good teacher and casts doubt on whether test scores are the best way—or only way—to assess how well students do in school.

“When people look back on their most important teachers, the social aspects of their education—learning to take risks, set goals, or simply believe in themselves—are often what they recall,” Jackson says. “I want to know what skills students need to become productive adults and which teachers can build these traits.”

Roots around the globe

As for his own most important teachers, Jackson could say that one of them was his upbringing on three continents. Before he earned two Ivy League graduate degrees and joined the Northwestern faculty, his education had been part Caribbean, part West African, part East African, and part British.

The youngest of June and Clement Jackson’s three children, Jackson was born in 1980 in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. When he was two years old, the family moved to Jamaica, where his mother taught mathematics at the University of Technology, and his father, an economist, worked as director of the Planning Institute of Jamaica. In 1989 the Jacksons moved to Sierra Leone, where Clement began working for the United Nations. Then, after civil war broke out in Sierra Leone, the family relocated again, this time to Tanzania, in 1992. Jackson later attended boarding school in England and returned to the US for college.

As an undergraduate at Yale University, Jackson nearly double-majored in music and economics and even flirted with film scoring as a possible career; ultimately he earned a bachelor’s degree in ethics, politics, and economics. His next stop was Harvard, where he completed his doctorate in economics in 2007. 

“Getting an education is one of the few things people can do to really improve their lives,” Jackson says. “I’ve always seen it as a vehicle through which economies and societies develop. It’s a mechanism for social justice.” 

When Jackson joined the SESP faculty in 2010, he found the multidisciplinary environment of the school and the Institute for Policy Research electrifying. Exposure to the ideas and research methods of statisticians, sociologists, psychologists, historians, and others from different fields changed the types of questions he asked and “definitely deepened my thinking,” he says. “I wanted to learn a whole new tool kit and bring those insights into economics.” 

Now 41, Jackson just became one of the youngest members of the exclusive National Academy of Education. His growing collection of accolades includes the 2020 David N. Kershaw Award and Prize, among the most prestigious and largest awards recognizing contributions to public policy and social science. He is also a National Bureau of Economic Research–affiliated scholar and is a coeditor of American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. 

Renowned Harvard economist Raj Chetty calls Jackson “an outstanding scholar, committed mentor, and visionary leader” whose work “has greatly impacted education science and practice and will surely continue to define these fields moving forward.” 

Kirabo Jackson

What really makes a good teacher? 

Borrowing from psychology and sociology and devising and applying innovative tools that can measure hard-to-quantify traits like motivation, Jackson is helping to uncover what really makes a good teacher. 

The ability to boost standardized test scores is just part of the picture, Jackson says. The power to motivate and engage students also matters—but how can that be measured? 

To find answers, Jackson turned to a database that tracked the academic performance of 464,502 North Carolina ninth-graders from 2005 to 2011. Using data on attendance, suspensions, and grade point average, he devised a way to measure students’ noncognitive abilities, or the social-emotional traits known as soft skills. The resulting study, published in the Journal of Political Economy, came to the attention of Paul Tough, bestselling author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. 

“Jackson’s new index measured, in a fairly crude way, how engaged students were in school—whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved, and how hard they worked in their classes,” Tough says. 

What is more, Tough continues, Jackson’s “noncognitive proxy was, remarkably, a better predictor than students’ test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests.” 

In other words, the long-term benefits of improving students’ social-emotional development tend to outweigh those linked to improving their test scores. Yet teachers who excel at raising test scores are often rewarded, while teachers who inspire students often aren’t recognized. 

“Jackson’s findings are at odds with how many districts evaluate teachers,” Tough says. “But when I talk to teachers themselves about Jackson’s study, they tell me that his discovery makes perfect sense to them. They know there are things going on in their classrooms that standardized test scores can’t capture.” 

Jackson also used surveys of ninth-graders in Chicago Public Schools to assess which schools best supported social-emotional development. The paper, coauthored by human development and social policy doctoral student Sebastián Kiguel and published in American Economic Review: Insights, found that some schools are better than others at helping students develop healthy social lives, community connections, and the skills and habits that promote hard work and grit. 

“Students who attend schools that emphasize social-emotional learning are more likely to attend college and have a reduced chance of entering the criminal justice system,” Jackson says. “Our work shows that these surveys can be used alongside test scores to give us a more complete picture of how schools prepare students for the future.” 

Kirabo Jackson talking with students

School funding matters 

The idea that money is not directly connected to to student achievement took root when it appeared in an influential government publication from 1966 known as the Coleman report. The assertion endured for decades. 

But as Jackson points out, much about the Coleman report has been called into question, including the adequacy of the research that informed it. 

“Spending decisions have not been grounded in enough evidence,” Jackson says. “It’s not that people in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s were wrong or ignorant; it’s that they didn’t have the methodology or the computing power to do the type of research we can do now.” 

When he set out to address the school funding question, Jackson went beyond examining standardized test results and instead studied school spending’s impact on students’ life trajectories. 

In one study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Jackson and his coauthors—Claudia Persico (PhD16) of American University and Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley— showed that court-ordered increases in US school funding in the 1970s were associated with lower poverty rates in the future. 

Their models suggested that a 10 percent funding increase across all 12 years of schooling can raise students’ graduation rates and boost their income as adults, particularly for low-income students. 

“Overall, every additional dollar spent on schools generates a $2 return on investment in the form of higher earnings down the road,” Jackson says. “This means we should spend more now to benefit students and society for years to come.” 

In a separate study, “Do Spending Cuts Matter? Evidence from the Great Recession,” published in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy last May, Jackson and his coauthors showed that, on average, a $1,000 reduction in per-pupil spending reduced average test scores in math and reading and the rate of students going to college. 

Testing his own ideas 

Jackson’s breakthroughs often come from approaching problems from unexpected angles and beta testing ideas on platforms like Twitter. 

Another source of honest feedback: his wife, Shayna Silverstein, an ethnomusicologist and assistant professor of performance studies at Northwestern. They met while she was finishing her dissertation at the University of Chicago. 

“She’ll ask me why something I’m working on is interesting,” Jackson says. “It forces me to think about whether what I’m saying makes sense to a broader audience.” 

The couple have two young children and share a love of music, Jamaican curried goat, and martial arts. “I also appreciate his love for karaoke,” Silverstein says. “He takes decompression very seriously.”