John Papay


John Papay

Assistant Professor of Education

Mike Cohea/Brown University
The line between barely passing and barely failing a standardized test is fairly thin, but John Papay had found that it makes a significant difference in educational outcomes. Still, the most significant factor in educational success is the quality of teachers.

A former high school history teacher, John Papay says his front-of-the-class experiences a decade ago helped shape his interest in studying teachers, their work, and the policies that affect them. Using an economic perspective, Papay evaluates K-12 educational practices, including teacher evaluation programs, compensation, and professional growth. He’s interested in exploring how those policies, in turn, affect students.

“There’s a lot of research out there showing that the most important thing going on in a school is not the books or the curriculum, it’s the teacher standing in front of the classroom,” he said. “So, trying to find ways to improve teacher quality is something that motivates me.”

A graduate of Haverford College, Papay taught high school history in Pennsylvania and worked as a health care policy research analyst in Washington, D.C., before beginning studies at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. He received an Ed.D. in quantitative policy analysis of education in 2011. Papay is the co-author of Redesigning Teacher Pay: A System for the Next Generation of Educators (Economic Policy Institute, 2009) and several articles in publications including the Journal of Econometrics, American Educational Research Journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, and Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Papay’s recent work includes exploring teacher hiring practices, teacher evaluation policies (specifically, peer review programs), and teacher career growth. He’s also investigating how specific working conditions may contribute to teachers’ improvement throughout their careers or their longevity in a particular school.

Additionally, Papay has studied standardized testing, looking both at how these tests are used to evaluate teachers and the “unintended consequences” of state tests for students. For example, he has compared the educational outcomes of students who score just on either side of the proficiency cutoffs on these tests. His findings indicate that low-income students who barely fail a state-mandated high school exit examination, as opposed to barely passing the test, are eight percentage points less likely to graduate from high school on time.

In a separate study, he looked at how the other performance labels that students earn on these tests (e.g., needs improvement, proficient, or advanced) can affect their decisions to enroll in postsecondary education. Papay found that earning a more positive label summarizing their test performance increases their probability of going to college. “These results show that the labels themselves mean a lot — students, parents, or teachers seem to be responding to them,” he said.

At Brown, Papay says he is looking forward to starting his career in such a supportive environment, where a high value is placed on teaching and interdisciplinary work. “I primarily look at education policy through an economic lens, but I’ve also worked with sociologists, political scientists, and others. Everyone brings different things to the table, and Brown seems like a rich and exciting place to do that.”

Papay will begin teaching in January 2012.