Larry Hedges Yidan Prize

The Threshold

How an unlocked door changed Larry Hedges’s life

By Julie Deardorff

Eleven-year-old Larry Hedges was waiting for his mother to finish her shift as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria when he wandered through the open door of a nearby chemistry lab.

College wasn’t something for poor families like theirs, Hedges’s mom had told him. But after repeat visits to the lab—and conversations with a friendly graduate student—Hedges began to envision a future he never thought possible.

A first-generation college graduate whose father never finished high school, today Hedges is Northwestern’s Board of Trustees Professor of Statistics and Education and Social Policy, Psychology, and Medical Social Science and an Institute for Policy Research faculty fellow— and one of the world’s most influential applied statisticians. He is working to give others the same educational opportunities he received.

His life’s work was celebrated at a December ceremony in Hong Kong, where Hedges was awarded the $3.9 million Yidan Prize for Education Research—the largest prize of its kind—for pioneering the use of meta-analysis. He is using the prize to help launch the Center on Statistics for Evidence-Based Policy and Practice at Northwestern, which will develop new methods for generating and synthesizing evidence across trial studies and translating it into education policy and practice.

Hedges’s commitment to evidence-based education policy as a tool for social good stems from a central question guiding his career: what if he used his talents in math to help solve gritty, everyday societal problems rather than those conjured up in academia?

“I’m passionate about education precisely because it was lifechanging for me,” says Hedges, “I want everybody else to have that chance.” A bright, curious student, Hedges won a prestigious Regents Scholarship to the University of California, San Diego, where he studied math and physics. As an undergraduate, he tutored and mentored underrepresented students, staying on for three years after graduating in 1973 to build programs that made college more accessible.

Hedges understood that education was a powerful way to address inequalities on a large scale. While earning his doctorate in statistics, he envisioned new ways of applying advanced math to real-world issues such as school funding, class size, and the lifelong effects of good teachers. Disarray in the field of education research in the 1970s spurred Hedges to come up with rigorous methods for synthesizing research findings across studies—a subfield of statistics called meta-analysis. His work eventually resulted in most of the meta-analytic methods now in widespread use, informing evidence-based education policy across the United States and throughout the world.

The author of 10 books, he was nominated by President Barack Obama to the National Board for Education Sciences, which he now chairs. His latest and perhaps most daunting challenge involves figuring out how to organize the education system so that all children excel.

“You can teach any child almost anything that the best students are able to do,” says Hedges. “We know it’s possible to achieve excellence for all. We just don’t know how to make it happen yet.”