Kristof de Witte Kristof de Witte Sacha Ruland

Using research to keep kids in school - Kristof de Witte

Written by  Femke Kools Friday, 24 August 2012 11:05

Could you describe your research?
I study the effectivity of Dutch policy in the area of school dropouts. In 2000, the European Council decided to halve the number of pupils without a starting qualification by 2010, which has really drawn attention to the issue. As a result, the EU member states have developed various programmes to reduce high school dropouts. Including the Netherlands – the number of dropouts here dropped from 15.4% in 2000 to 10.1% in 2010.

My research looks at how we did this, what went well, and what we could do better. To this end I examine the central policy initiatives of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, as well as local policy initiatives taken by schools or municipal councils.

Could you give a few examples?
One example is tightening up school policies on absenteeism. Does this work? Or the introduction of the qualification requirement, which means young people have to stay in some form of education until they either turn 18 or meet the qualification requirement. There’s also a ‘naming and shaming’ project which compares the performance of all Dutch regions against one another. We correct this database for pupil characteristics, or socioeconomic background, in order to get a more nuanced picture. And the conclusions usually are nuanced: there is often an effect, but there are also side effects.

How do you do this?
We work with quantitative data. Specifically, we use what’s known as an education number – a unique number that allows us to follow individual Dutch high school pupils. We also have information on their attendance rates, some data on their parents, where they live and so on. The results are presented to various government bodies, and this in turn provides us with input for follow-up studies. In that respect it’s also useful that I teach high school teachers in our Master in Evidence Based Innovation in Teaching (MEBIT) – this gives us good feedback from practice as well.

What is the societal relevance of your research?
A starting qualification is generally seen as the minimum education level needed to have a chance of long-term employment. School dropouts don’t have this. The literature also indicates that they have a harder time than others later: they often have worse health, their kids are more poorly educated, they’re more likely to be delinquents and live below the poverty line. So both in the Netherlands and across Europe a great deal of societal attention is being paid to dropouts. For instance, in the new European 2020 goals, school dropouts are effectively the linchpin of the policy. That our research is of social significance is also evident from the fact that it’s funded through the Nicis Institute, the knowledge institute of, for and by Dutch cities.

How multidisciplinary is your research?
I’m first and foremost an economist, so I approach educational issues from an economic perspective. But because TIER is an inter-university institute of the University of Amsterdam, the University of Groningen and UM, this automatically gives rise to other angles. Bringing together researchers from three universities with different and complementary backgrounds is particularly enriching and inspiring. And even here within TIER-UM, I’m always crossing paths with psychologists and educationalists, which also gives my work an extra dimension.

The Dies theme is ‘Inspired by quality’. Who or what inspires you?
Wow, that’s a good question. But if I think about it, I’d have to say my field of interest. I’m interested in all sorts of things which, in turn, serve to inspire me. Before I started this job, I didn’t know much about school dropouts. My PhD was on the efficiency of facilities in the drinking water sector. Another very interesting topic! So yes, I’m interested in many things.

Why did you choose to do this research, at this university in particular?
After my PhD at the KU Leuven I started work at TIER in 2009, as only the second person working here. That’s also a nice thing, that it’s still so young. The club is growing fast, and like UM, it’s extremely ambitious and there are all sorts of opportunities to do new things. I’m gradually starting to do more and more teaching alongside my research. I think that’s a fun and mutually reinforcing combination.

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