What They Learned: Elena Marcovici ’21

The political science major explored the forces that affect education reform in her thesis.

There are so many disagreements about how to improve education in the United States that it can feel like the only thing everyone agrees on is that something should change.

“In a perfect world, we pay quality teachers more, fix dilapidated school buildings, provide universal Pre-K and comprehensive wraparound services, and much more, but we can’t do it all,” said Elena Marcovici ’21. “The debate becomes, what do we do with what is available to us, and who gets to decide?”

Marcovici, a political science major with an education minor, examined who holds the power to create and implement change in the U.S. education system in her thesis. She examined reforms to the Common Core State Standards, a set of academic standards instituted in 2010, in the years after its initial implementation. To analyze influences on education reform, she compared between states to see how they revised or maintained Common Core to different degrees.

“I found that the biggest determinants of changes to Common Core were the messaging around Common Core, financial resources and initial investment, and party control of the state government,” she said. “But, at the same time, the actors who ended up with the responsibility of changing the standards themselves were primarily experts, teachers, parents, and school officials. While it’s difficult to extrapolate given the complexity of the case, my research suggests that at least some power can be found with the day-to-day actors who are politically insulated because of the educational governance structure of their states.”

Her findings about the role teachers play in the education-reform process has shaped how Marcovici thinks about teaching, the career she plans to pursue. 

“Though teaching has always been the plan, looking at education through a political science lens has changed how I contextualize my role, especially as I consider ways to contribute to positive change within education” she said. “Traditional public school teachers aren’t isolated in their classrooms from state and national policies, so I’ve learned that being politically engaged is necessary to do the job.”

What did you learn from working on your thesis?
In finishing this project, my biggest takeaway is how important interdisciplinary approaches are to making progress. While education scholars can tackle what is most needed in schools for quality instruction and the well-being of those inside them, political scientists are more equipped to navigate the power dynamics that impede true change. If we hope to avoid cosmetic and disruptive cycles of reform in education policy, we’re going to need to understand what’s happening in front of us with a variety of approaches and perspectives.

How did your thesis advisor help you during the thesis process? 
My thesis advisor was Zachary Oberfield who taught “Education Reform in America,” which I took in my sophomore year and greatly inspired my thesis work. The readings I did for that class and the discussions we had cemented my desire to better understand the macro-level forces affecting what goes on in the classroom. By senior year, a lot of the questions we had struggled with in that class were swirling around in my head. Zach helped me narrow down to what I was truly interested in and encouraged me to run with it. He also helped me re-frame my question and goals, providing much-needed perspective when I got overwhelmed by the data. Especially as a student who was remote for senior year, I felt really lucky to have an advisor who, rather than pushing me to create a specific end product, mostly wanted me to find the project meaningful and fulfilling. Zach was supportive, kind, and flexible in helping me stay motivated in the face of sometimes frustrating and conflicting narratives.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.