Alex Eble is a development economist at Teacher’s College, Columbia University’s graduate school of education. Alex studies education and policy affecting traditionally underserved populations in the US, China, Gambia, and Guinea Bissau. He also looks at how negative stereotypes shape children’s development. Annie Brookman-Byrne talks with Alex about how economic research can be used to help the most vulnerable children.
Annie Brookman-Byrne: What are the main focus areas of your research?
Alex Eble: Hundreds of millions of children live in traditionally underserved areas – many in remote, rural areas of low-income countries. I spend about half of my time focusing on education in these very hard-to-serve areas. Finding effective ways to teach children living in these regions could help to transform their lives, and those of generations to come.
The rest of my time is devoted to studying how children learn about themselves and the world in the face of negative influencing factors – such as gender and racial stereotypes – and how these things shape their development. More than 50% of children worldwide face some kind of negative stereotype, be it by gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or some other identifier. These stereotypes can shape and constrain children’s trajectories, and removing these constraints has huge potential to improve human livelihood.
“More than 50% of children worldwide face some kind of negative stereotype.”
My ultimate aim is to understand the ways in which children can thrive as they grow up, despite difficult circumstances. This knowledge can then be used to help children learn and overcome many of the challenges imposed by historical insult – such as legacies of exclusion from crucial public services, or generations of extreme income poverty – and current societal structures. An important part of my work involves helping policymakers and practitioners identify the policies and paths that hold the most promise for allowing all children to grow and flourish, particularly the most vulnerable among them.
ABB: How does economics help you address these issues?
AE: I was initially drawn to the study of economics and these areas of focus because of the important role they play in improving human welfare. The field of economics has become more ambitious and interdisciplinary over time: The scale and scope of studies have grown so that researchers communicate much more with policymakers and practitioners than in the past. Economists now collaborate regularly with psychologists, physicians, child development experts, and others to advance knowledge in new ways, and this is an extremely positive development. It means that our research findings can now inform policy quickly, and our research projects are often developed in response to what policymakers or practitioners need.
Despite these positive advances, the big question is always “What is the best way?” The key challenge for economics – and policy – is to choose the most effective way to use limited resources, given limited information. These problems are far more complex and messy than I anticipated when I got into this field. In education and child-focused policy, we are constantly on the lookout for ways to do things better, and for evidence to help us choose what is best. Whether the news is good or bad, we are constantly learning new things about what works and what doesn’t for improving children’s outcomes.
“We are constantly learning new things about what works and what doesn’t for improving children’s outcomes.”
ABB: What are your hopes for the future of this work?
Most of all, I hope that the dialogue between research and policy will continue and accelerate in the future. We are getting better every year at identifying and implementing policies that do great good. An excellent example is the consensus between researchers and policymakers that structured pedagogy in the early grades has great potential to increase child learning in many developing country settings. I think the best policies are yet to come.
Working in this field has changed the way I approach problems, and I have learned a lot from fieldwork and collaborating with lots of smart people. Research in my area trains you to be an entrepreneur. This training includes the abstract, such as coming up with new ideas to “take to market.” It also involves the practical, such as finding the best vendor to source materials like textbooks or tablets for a research project. I’m excited to apply these new approaches and lessons learned to a bunch of emerging ideas I have surrounding child development. The life cycle for a research project in the economics of education is often many years, and I am excited to plant and nurture a crop of saplings that I hope will grow into much bigger plans.
Alex Eble is an Associate Professor of Economics and Education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University’s graduate school of education. He is also a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Faculty Affiliate of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and Research Fellow of the IZA Institute for Labor Economics. He is a development economist with active research projects in the US, China, Gambia, and Guinea Bissau. Originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, he lived and worked in China, India, and the UK before completing his PhD in Economics at Brown University. Alex is a 2023-2025 Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow.
This interview has been edited for clarity.