An Interview with Dr. Daniel M. Leeds, Research Analyst

Since joining the CNA Education team in 2015, Daniel has contributed a great deal to our work! He is a quantitative research analyst with expertise in quasi-experimental research design, and his research focuses on student responses to education policies such as financial aid, guaranteed college admission, and state accountability labeling.

We talked with Daniel about how he first became interested in education research and what his most important findings have been. We also asked him what he would be if he were not a researcher—his answer might surprise you!

Q: What made you want to become a researcher?

A: There were three separate moments in which it dawned on me, all in different ways. The first was in high school when I was assigned to debate that the NCAA’s Proposition 48 (which requires that freshman college athletes meet a certain minimum SAT score to be eligible to play) was unfair. It opened my eyes to some of the world outside my suburban middle-class bubble and showed me the importance of challenging my assumptions. After my freshman year of college, I helped my father with data collection and some basic analysis for a study on whether European hockey players faced salary discrimination. That was the first moment that I realized that economic research could be the career for me. Finally, reading a paper in graduate school by Jacob Vigdor and Charles Clotfelter on how different SAT score evaluation policies (that is, whether students submit their average SAT score, highest SAT score, or some other score) would affect both retesting and the validity of submitted SAT scores made me realize that education research was where my passion was.

Q: Through your work, what is the most interesting/unexpected/important finding you have discovered?

A: I think that interesting and unexpected are often synonyms—being an economist means always being on the lookout for unanticipated consequences of policy decisions, particularly as they affect people’s behavior. My most recent "wow" moment was discovering initial evidence that a program that encouraged students to take college prep–level math courses may have held some students back from taking higher-level math courses. While those results aren’t yet final, they could have major implications for how states or districts develop certain programs.

Q: What is your favorite/least favorite part of research?

A: My favorite parts are doing data work (cleaning the data and coding/debugging my analysis) and assembling data visualizations. The former often feels like a series of puzzles I have to solve, and I love the challenge of it. The latter is how I can really make my results speak for themselves, even when the analysis methods are heavily technical. My least favorite part is waiting for code to run—when I’m working with large data sets, even simple commands can take a while, and a full set of highly detailed code can take a full day to run.

Q: If you were not a researcher, what would you do for a living?

A: Assuming that research faculty at a college or university is essentially the same thing, I’ve joked (I think) that I wouldn’t mind giving everything up and working as a zookeeper, though that’s more out of an affinity for animals than because I have any idea what the job would entail. I’d also be quite happy learning how to be a brewmaster (though I’d want someone else to handle the front end and the finances of a brewery). But for now, I think I’m exactly where I need to be.

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