Jason Palmer Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Jason Palmer Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Jason... You earned your PhD in Public Administration at Ohio
State about four years ago.
home How did you decide to go in this field?
What was your graduate school experience like at Ohio State?
interviews index Jason Palmer:
I have a life-long interest in understanding
how government works. One of my earliest
subscribe to email updates memories is watching the Iran-Contra Affair
unfold on C-SPAN. I felt like I was in the
hearing room -- it was an awesome feeling.
I studied psychology as an undergraduate,
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because I was also fascinated with learning
more about how we think, feel, interact, and
develop. Also, as a Christian, I believe that
Paul's bio and projects we should do whatever we can to improve
society and leave the world a better place than how we found it. By
the time I got to graduate school, studying public administration and
focusing on social policy just made sense. It allowed me to develop
comments policy my interests in government and organizations and to fulfill a personal
Studying at Ohio State, in what is now the John Glenn School of
Public Affairs, was very rewarding. The relatively large campus offers
an almost infinite amount of resources. In my case, the school offered
a curriculum that spanned studies across the policy continuum
(design, implementation, evaluation) and encouraged specialization by
allowing students to study in other colleges (e.g., Education, Public
Health). My committee chair, Mary Marvel, provided the right balance
of challenge and support such that I feel I grew as a scholar and
student of government. Another professor, Anand Desai, encouraged
me to question my assumptions continuously and thus opened my
mind to solving problems from a variety of perspectives. It was and is
a great place to study public affairs.
In 2002, you won the NASPAA (National Association of Schools of
Public Affairs and Administration) Annual Dissertation Award.
What was your dissertation about?
Actually I co-won the award. Ann Marie Thomson (Ph.D., Indiana
University, Bloomington) also won the award for her dissertation:
Collaboration: Meaning and Measurement.
My dissertation, Performance Incentives, Teachers, and
Students analyzed the extent to which monetary rewards change
behavior of teachers and ultimately affect student test scores. Some
states have been actively engaged in trying to raise student
performance in recent years, and their legislatures have offered to
reward teachers monetarily if they raise student test scores. I wanted
to see if the money made any difference. What I found was that the
money was inducing teachers to do a lot more testing of students in
the weeks and months leading up to the *big test* (to borrow from
Nicholas Lemann). But I also found that the increased testing was
having only a marginal effect on test scores.
How has your Ohio State research experience influenced your
work at GAO?
It definitely provided me with a glimpse of what it takes to carry a
project forward from beginning to end, from conceptualizing and
framing a problem to analyzing it to reporting about it. Our work at
GAO is designed very similarly, with distinct phases that guide the
My graduate school experience also gave me a deeper
appreciation for the challenge in analyzing social policy and creating
solutions to challenging social problems. To paraphrase Peter Rossi,
the expected value of a social program is zero. While this may be true,
it is not especially encouraging. But for someone like myself who
hates to be told he can't do something, such as find ways to solve
challenging problems, it gives a lot of motivation to go above and
Within any project, there are any number of places where things
can go awry. At GAO, the best projects are the ones where the project
leader constantly stays on top of the information and process, keeps
the end-goal in mind, and keenly anticipates and prevents or quickly
solves problems. This is an especially difficult task when exploring
social issues, but it definitely makes the work more rewarding when
opportunities for improvement can be identified.
Do you think the innovations behind the Internet and World Wide
Web have affected GAO's productivity in recent years? If so, how?
Absolutely. We are producing higher-quality information with the
same or fewer resources, and thus are able to meet the ever-
increasing information needs of our client, the Congress, and
prudently manage our own budget. The best and most recent example
comes from the team I am currently working with..
We're conducting two nationwide surveys of school principals.
Years ago, these would have been printed on paper and sent in the
mail and responses would have been keyed in to a computer. Follow-
up would take months. Instead, we have contacted all of the principals
in our sample through email and given them each a unique log-in and
password. With these, they enter a web portal to complete their
survey on-line. When they're done, their responses are automatically
captured and uploaded. So, in this particular case, we can analyze
their data in real-time and, at any given moment, determine our
response rate and need for follow up. More generally, GAO is able to
distribute, retrieve, and analyze information more quickly and more
reliably than we did just a few years ago, enabling us to provide better
information at lower cost.
I understand that your specialization at GAO is the No Child Left
Behind Act (NCLB), which has directly or indirectly affected the lives of
many American students, teachers, schools, and districts in
elementary and secondary education.
Can you briefly describe the law? Do you feel there is conclusive
research (if any) on the positive and/or negative effects of this 5+ year-
The key aspects of the act are the provisions for school
accountability and highly qualified teachers. There are other
provisions, but when most people think about NCLB, they think about
I have focused on the school accountability provisions that require
states to set content and performance standards in reading, math,
and science, to test almost all students in these subjects, and to hold
schools accountable for ensuring that students, at a minimum, reach
proficiency in these subjects by 2014. Schools that don't make
progress toward the goal of having all students proficient by 2014 are
subject to an increasing amount of attention from their districts and
states, including school choice, tutoring, corrective actions such as
curricular reform, and alternative governance.
It is very hard to come up with anything close to conclusive in
education research. This is because so many factors that explain
proficiency or achievement or academic growth -- key quantitatively-
measured outcomes of the educational process -- are poorly
understood. We can talk in groups of variables -- individual, family,
social, institutional (classroom, school, school district, state) -- but we
are still several years from estimating the effects of variables in these
groups at the individual student level with any sort of significant
explanatory power. As it is, we simply know too little and disagree
about too much.
This question might be a bit out of your normal line of work.. but do
you think there is a digital divide among students today?
My hunch is that the disparity (variance) between schools is not as
great as between students/families. So schools may have a significant
role and potential to bridge any divide. Any thoughts?
Let me caveat that my response is based on informal observation
of the use of technology at schools we have visited for other
What I can say is that, over the past few years, I have noticed a
sort of lag effect, where schools with one or two computers several
years ago now have kids coming in with their own laptops, while
schools without computers back then have at least one in most
classrooms now. So, schools generally are moving in pretty much the
same direction, but I don't see any evidence that the gap is closing.
In communities where poverty is high, priorities are still focused on
the basic needs: shelter, food, etc. If technology were infused into
poor communities, it would definitely provide the basis to jump start a
generation, but to grow it from the bottom up is extremely challenging.
It can't stop with just the hardware and software -- there has to be an
infrastructure like continuous training, technical support, and even
things we take for granted, like electricity that it rarely interrupted. You
know better than I how expensive of an endeavor this is, but we've all
benefited from the investments those before us have made.
Leaders in education at every level -- schools, districts, states, and
federal -- are one piece of the solution, but money spent on technology
means other needs have to be foregone. While on the one hand it is a
matter of priorities, its also a matter of resources -- schools can't do it
alone. They need to leverage community resources, families and
foundations, to really make a difference.
With the upcoming reauthorization debate surround NCLB, can you
give us your assessment of the surrounding political environment?
Who are the key players, and what are their perspectives? What is
the timetable? What topics present potential for conflict, and for
There is a lot of bi-partisan interest in NCLB and in making the
reauthorization happen. Policymakers on both sides -- Pres. Bush,
Sen. Enzi, and Rep. McKeon for the Republicans and Sen. Kennedy
and Rep. Miller for the Democrats -- generally agree that the law has
done some good in terms of producing data that practitioners can use
to begin to improve instruction, if not also curriculum. The
accountability systems states have in place provide, at least within a
state, a common language and source of information for parents to
determine where their schools may need to improve.
Some standard disagreements aren't going away, including the
drive for alternatives to traditional public schools on the right and
relatively more funding on the left. But, if past is prologue, the key
players will find a way to compromise on these differences, because
there is so much more they agree on. Whether it happens this year or
not -- when it's due for reauthorization -- remains to be seen.
I understand that GAO provides white papers and reports to make
the political process as informed as possible (and as much as
legislators will allow).
How do you and GAO determine the informational needs of
members and the public?
GAO accomplishes its mission -- serving the Congress and the
American people -- by producing reports with recommendations for
improvement in the way federal agencies operate and, at times, by
suggesting ways that legislation can be better designed to achieve
These reports are the product of a calculus that consists of (1)
adherence to our key values of accountability, integrity, and reliability;
(2) a productive relationship with the Congress, often at arms length in
order to preserve our independence; and (3) an acute awareness of
current and likely future issues that affect the daily lives of the
We have built a structure that is guided by our strategic plan, yet
flexible enough to respond to changing priorities or sudden events.
Within that structure, we understand key challenges faced by the
executive branch and can build upon that history. At the same time,
we have personnel systems in place that allow us to shift resources
on short notice so we can stay on the cutting edge of any sudden
developments, like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It is a constant
balancing act between capitalizing on resources we have developed
over the years, and the need to stay nimble. This need will only
increase as our world and its events continue to increase in
Can you describe the process that moves from a project's start all
the way to publication and/or presentation?
How often do you present your reports and findings?
GAO issues reports and delivers testimony to Congress almost
every day, and many days we have multiple reports come out. The
process for creating a report is elaborate, with many safeguards built
in so as to ensure the quality of the information.
Generally, the work begins with a request from a congressional
committee or at the direction of the Comptroller General to address a
set of objectives. For example, we were recently asked to describe
how states defined the high school graduation rates they used to
comply with NCLB and to identify challenges they faced in calculating
them. We then do some exploratory work and develop a
methodological approach for addressing the objectives. Next, we
implement the approach by collecting and analyzing data from a
number of sources, data systems, law, policy, and administrative
procedures, just to name the primary ones.
Our work also involves site visits to meet with officials or to see
physical evidence. For example, we've had several teams in the Gulf
Coast area to determine the Hurricanes' effects on residents of those
states and localities and what various governments and charities are
doing to help. We then draft and develop our findings and determine
whether there are opportunities for federal agencies to improve their
efforts. If so, we include recommendations.
We send our draft reports to affected agencies for comment and
then ultimately issue the report. Often we are asked to testify before
Congress on our work and it is our hope that, between the report and
testimony, the work we do lead to improvements how our government
If I understand correctly, NCLB has some language addressing
virtual schooling. (Virtual schools considered here to be those online
schools offering partial or entire instruction, curriculum, or
assessment, replacing or supplementing brick-and-mortar schools.)
How does the law treat virtual schools?
The law generally expects that public virtual schools, including
charter virtual schools, will achieve the same standards of traditional
Bryan Hassel of Public Impact wrote one of the first pieces on the
intersection of the law and the virtual schooling movement. Generally
he argues that virtual schools can offer a solution for school districts
who face problems finding seats in schools that students want to
transfer to (after their school has been identified for improvement).
While these schools offer
the convenience of on-line "The law
learning at the click of a generally
mouse, there are concerns expects...
that students don't get enough virtual schools will
face to face interaction. Savvy achieve.. the
parents though are likely to same standards
compensate for this and make of traditional
sure their kids are involved in schools."
other community activities
where they get together with other adults and kids, like field trips,
scouting activities, or group music lessons.
Could you see the law accelerating the growth of the virtual schools
Virtual schools are only going to continue to grow, mostly because
of general growth in the sophistication of web services. Growth will
also occur because school districts can use virtual schools as an
option for students who wish to transfer out of schools identified for
What websites would you recommend to young parents for better
understanding No Child Left Behind, and for accessing their child's
school (public or private), or a school district's information?
The U.S. Department of Education's main page has a lot of parent-
The Department also operates the National Center for Education
Statistics that has demographic information in its district and school
On the performance side, many if not all states also produce report
cards on their schools and school districts. For example, North
Carolina has a web tool to allow users to select a school or district
Some have web based tools that allow users to slice and dice
information in any number of ways. One example is the Illinois
Interactive Report Card where a user can pull up data on test scores,
proficiency rates, and whether the school made adequate yearly
progress, among other data.
These are just examples, many other states have similar tools. The
Great Schools web site allows parents to look up and compare school
information as well and allows users to leave comments about the
Great stuff.. Thanks.
I recently found a family of sites -- Public School Review and
Private School Review -- that are good on school and district
information.. in much the same way as GreatSchools. However there
are some contrasts in the types of data presented, as well as site
Ok we're about to wrap things up here..
Do you have any advice for graduate students when it comes to
getting socialized in the educational research profession?
The best approach is to work closely with your advisor. He or she
knows the community and the issues. Do your homework, but don't
hesitate to ask informed questions. Also, attend at least 2-3
conferences a year and take the initiative to let people know what you
are working on and ask them about their work too. Find people working
on similar ideas and suggest ways you may work together.
Are there any upcoming projects and/or conferences that
particularly excite you
The main thing I am focused on right now is the reauthorization of
NCLB. Hearings are underway and it will be very interesting to see
what issues are discussed and what changes are proposed. The
growing consensus is that the spirit of the law is on target, but they
have to deal with some significant technical and implementation
December 1, 2006
Paul, thanks for posting this interview with Jason. I hope
this leads to some discussion in your on-line forum that
links what Jason is doing with what the Tutor/Mentor
Connection is doing.
It seems that GAO initiates research based on requests
from Congress. Thus, is anyone in Congress requesting
research to show the impact of social and emotional and
mentoring learning supports on kids in high risk school
districts? Is anyone compiling reports on the availability of
learning supports, including mentor rich, computer based,
learning centers, in high needs neighborhoods?
Without an understanding of the impact of such supports
on education, as well as the distribution of such learning
supports, it seems that it will be difficult to build good public
policy that reflects the difference in learning opportunities
between youth in high poverty neighborhoods, and all other
In my blog I provide links to articles that reflect the
issues I've described, including the issue of funding for non-
school and school-based learning supports. Without
continuous funding, such supports cannot be in all the
places they need to be, nor as good as they need to be.
Daniel F. Bassill | April 3, 2007 at 10:56 PM
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