Back in 2004, when Deven Carlson was applying to graduate schools, he was skeptical about Ph.D. programs.
The 2007 La Follette School alum knew he wanted to be involved in public policy debates, but he wasn’t quite sure about how he wanted to go about that. “My fear about Ph.D. programs was that I would not be able to be engaged in public policy in an applied manner—I was afraid that I would be isolated in the proverbial ‘ivory tower,’” he says. “When I came to La Follette in the fall of 2005, I quickly learned that did not have to be the case. Many of the faculty are involved in policy debates, and their work has the potential to shape policy decisions.”
Now, Carlson is teaching public policy as a tenure-track assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. After completing his Master of Public Affairs degree, he earned a doctorate in political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
He says the La Follette School’s quantitative skills courses formed the foundation for the additional skills he gained through Ph.D. training. “The training that La Follette School students receive and skills they acquire set them up to be successful in a wide range of careers—government, academia, and the private sector,” Carlson says. “The faculty, staff and alumni have great networks that can help students move right into great jobs.”
Carlson’s wife, Nina Carlson, also graduated from the La Follette School with a Master of Public Affairs degree. While Deven worked on his Ph.D., Nina worked as a senior policy advisor and grants coordinator in the Wisconsin governor’s office, then as the senior policy analyst and federal liaison for the Wisconsin State Energy Office. She now is deputy director at the University of Oklahoma's Center for Risk and Crisis Management and its sister center, the Center for Energy, Security and Society.
“Nina and I are both huge proponents of La Follette,” Carlson says. “We remember our time there fondly and apply the knowledge and skills we learned there in our jobs every day.”
Carlson’s 2012 dissertation examined how individuals’ educational experiences shaped their understanding and participation in politics. “I found that K-12 programs and policies have only limited impacts on students’ civic knowledge,” Carlson says. However, I also found that earning a two-year degree significantly increases the likelihood of participating in the political process, compared to individuals who earned a similar number of credits but fell short of earning a degree. The effect of earning a bachelor degree is even larger.”
The process of getting a doctorate enabled Carlson to continue research projects with La Follette School professors Robert Haveman, Barbara Wolfe and John Witte. With Haveman and Wolfe, Carlson has examined how federal housing subsidies known as Section 8 vouchers affect where people live, their work, their earnings and the quality of the schools their children attend. The Institute for Research on Poverty has published their findings as discussion papers.
One project that utilizes his La Follette training involves examining the characteristics and outcomes of students who leave the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and return to Milwaukee Public Schools. It grew out of the evaluation of the MPCP that John Witte led.
“This project required data management and analytic skills that I began to develop at La Follette,” Carlson says. “My coauthors and I found that students who left the MPCP and returned to MPS had substantially lower test scores than the average MPCP student. We found that once they returned to MPS their test scores increased significantly.” This study was published in a high-quality education policy journal — Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.
Overall, Carlson’s research explores the operations of public policies and analyzes their effects on political, social, and economic outcomes of interest. Specific projects include the prospects for integrating the Common Core State Standards with existing accountability systems; operations and effects of inter-district open enrollment programs; bilingual-bicultural education policies; and the effects of school closures on students’ educational outcomes.
Several of the projects stem from work he started as a project assistant with Haveman, Wolfe and Witte. With Haveman and Wolfe, he estimated the effect of Section 8 housing voucher receipt on several economic and social outcomes. “This project has continued and evolved, and I am still working on it today,” says Carlson, who has been selected for the Emerging Education Policy Scholar program of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and American Enterprise Institute. Carlson, Wolfe and Haveman are also looking at the postsecondary outcomes of low-income Wisconsin students to examine how families, schools, and neighborhoods shape those outcomes.
With Witte, Carlson examined charter schools, a line of research interest on school choice policies that continues to this day. “John and I published an article on charter schools,” Carlson says, “and John and I are the external evaluators for a charter school-related grant that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction received from the U.S. Department of Education. That grant is designed to increase the number and quality of charter schools in Wisconsin, and subsequently the outcomes of students attending those charter schools. In addition, that original charter school project led to my involvement with the evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and that continues to be a major part of my research agenda.”
In a second Wisconsin project, Carlson is examining how programs and policies shape the outcomes of English language learner students in Wisconsin. “I and Jared Knowles (a Ph.D. student in political science department who works at DPI) have examined how bilingual education programs affect students’ English proficiency, as well as their reading and math outcomes. We have also analyzed how the process of reclassifying English language learners as fully proficient in English affects their achievement and attainment levels.”
In the classroom, Carlson teaches the undergraduate courses Making Public Policy, and Current Issues in Budget and Tax Policy. For the Master of Public Affairs program, he has taught policy analysis and the capstone course. “The style, structure and general high-quality nature of the classes I took at La Follette — and I will single out Dave Weimer here—have heavily influenced my approaches to teaching the same classes now.”
“The course I teach in policy analysis is almost identical to the course that Dave Weimer teaches for La Follette — I even use his book,” Carlson adds. “Capstone is a little different in that the students don’t necessarily work for a client (as they do in the La Follette School Workshop in Public Affairs), but they do produce some type of an original research project.”
Carlson is excited to be serving the public by producing research and students with the potential to influence public debate about public policy. “Public service matters because having skilled and hard-working individuals in government and politics enhances our society,” he says. “I also think that the political environment is improved by having reasoned and well-informed debates over current policy issues. Doing so requires an educated public.”
Carlson adds that his ability and commitment to engage in public policy and apply his research findings outside the ivory tower is due in large part to his La Follette School training.
“La Follette School faculty provided a roadmap for what I wanted to do, and their advice and assistance help me get there,” Nina Carlson says. “I would not be where I am without the help of John Witte, Bob Haveman and Bobbi Wolfe. They taught me how to conceptualize a research question and execute a high quality research project. They are all also a lot of fun to play golf with.”