Causal Inference in Education Policy Research​

Predoctoral Training Program at the University of Michigan​

We train doctoral students to become experts in causal inference in education policy. Our goal is for every fellow to have a deep expertise in her specialized set of methods, as well as sufficient understanding of the foundational methods of causal inference so that she can work productively in partnership with others who complement her expertise.

Susan Dynarski, program director

Program Overview

The University of Michigan School of Education, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and Department of Economics, and Sociology Department offer a doctoral training program to students interested in using causal methods to evaluate educational policies and practices spanning early childhood to the labor market. The program builds on the University of Michigan's strengths in education policy and assessment in the social sciences and contributes to the University's emphasis on interdisciplinary research and educational programs that make critical contributions to society.

Fellows participating in the program will study a set of required courses that provide formal training in quantitative methods and contextual knowledge about education policy and practice. They will participate in research apprenticeships that apply these concepts to a research project under the supervision of core faculty. Fellows will regularly participate in the Causal Inference in Education Research seminar, a research workshop at which doctoral students and faculty present their own research and constructively critique the research of their peers. In the research colloquium, fellows will be introduced to eminent scholars who use the methods taught in the training program to develop the fellows' substantive knowledge and professional network. Finally, fellows will receive training and coaching in professional skills, including developing and sustaining partnerships with practitioners; writing and presentation skills for both academic and practitioner audiences; grant-writing and grants administration.

The program is supported financially by a $4.0 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (grant R305B150012) as well as $1.5 million by the University of Michigan's Rackham Graduate School, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, School of Education, Department of Economics, and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. In summer 2020, this grant was renewed by the Institute of Education Sciences (grant R305B150011), providing an additional $4.6 million to cover training costs of 20 nrew fellows over the next 5 years.


Required coursework will provide formal training in quantitative methods and contextual knowledge about education policy, institutions and practice. Many courses will satisfy both degree and training program requirements. The sequence of required courses includes:

Five courses in Quantitative Methods

The Quantitative Methods requirement provides fellows with the formal technical training they need to critically consume and thoughtfully produce quantitative research about education policy. The program requires a total of five quantitative courses, as follows:

  • Two (2) foundational courses in statistics, covering topics up to multiple regression analysis.
  • Three (3) additional courses in advanced quantitative methods.

Two courses in Causal Inference in Education Policy Research

​The year-long sequence of courses in Causal Inference in Education Policy introduces students to education research that employs causal methods, and provides institutional, historical and theoretical context for the questions addressed in this research. Courses will focus, not just on identifying average causal effects, but also on determining the mechanisms by which effects were obtained, measuring intervention fidelity, and detecting heterogeneity in treatment effects. Fellows will take the year-long sequence in the first year of their fellowship.

Education 712 / Public Policy 712 Causal Inference in Education Policy Research I: ​Preschool, ​Elementary and Secondary​
[Winter 2021 syllabus (Adobe PDF)]
Education 714 / Public Policy 713 Causal Inference in Education Policy Research II: Postsecondary​
[Winter 2020 syllabus (Adobe PDF)]

The sequence ​exposes students to the fundamentals of applying causal methods to education research, covering several techniques:

  • randomized controlled trials
  • regression discontinuity design
  • instrumental variables
  • fixed effects
  • differences-in-differences
  • matching

One course in Education Policy, Institutions or Practice

Fellows will take one additional course that strengthens their knowledge of education policy, institutions or practice. There will not be a list of approved courses. The only proscription is that the course should not focus on quantitative methods, since its intent is to deepen fellows' knowledge of the context in which education policy is made and operates.


Research apprenticeship enable fellows to learn all phases of the research process, gain hands-on experience working with student-level, longitudinal, administrative datasets, develop expertise in coding and statistical analysis, and cultivate their professional skills. Fellows spend at least one year on a project that is conducted in partnership with an education practitioner or policymaker.

Examples of projects to which fellows may contribute:

  • What is the effect of Boston’s universal pre-kindergarten program on children’s academic and schooling outcomes? How do these effects vary across schools? What are the malleable factors that promote sustained pre-kindergarten impacts?
  • What is the effect of Michigan’s policy to retain third-graders who do not meet reading proficiency standards?
  • Does career and technical education improve a student’s likelihood of graduating from high school, enrolling in postsecondary education, and their labor market outcomes?
  • How does serving as a mentor for preservice teachers affect the performance of Tennessee’s teachers?
  • At what critical points do Michigan’s college students fall off the track to degree completion? What academic and financial stand in the way? How does this vary by higher education institution, student demographics, and socioeconomic status?

Select Research Projects

Early Education

K-12 Education

Postsecondary Education and the Labor Market

Other Topics in Education Research

  • Education’s Role in the Intergenerational Mobility of Economic Status – Bound
  • Early Adverse Events, Juvenile Justice, and Education Outcomes – Jacob

Research Colloquium

​The program ​brings both early-career and established researchers to UM to present their work and interact with Fellows. A complete listing of past visiting scholars is available on our CIERS site under Seminar Schedule.

The program also coordinates a mini-series in which visiting scholars train Fellows in rigorous methods to address questions central to education policy.

Faculty and Staff

The program is led by Susan Dynarski, professor of education, public policy and economics and university Professor of Diversity and Social Transformation, and Christina Weiland, associate professor of education. The program is housed at the Education Policy Initiative within the Ford School of Public Policy. Dynarski and Weiland are joined by faculty at the Ford School, School of Education and Department of Economics, with expertise in domains ranging from early childhood to the labor market. Core faculty will teach core courses, participate in the fellow selection process, mentor and advise fellows, manage the fellows' research apprenticeships, and work closely with fellows to ensure their success.

Core Faculty

Susan Dynarski, Professor of Education and Public Policy and Economics
Christina Weiland, Associate Professor of Education
John Bound, George E. Johnson Collegiate Professor of Economics
Steve DesJardins, Professor of Education and Public Policy
Brian Jacob, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy, Professor of Economics and Professor of Education
Fabian T. Pfeffer, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan
Awilda Rodriguez, Associate Professor for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education
Matthew Ronfeldt, Associate Professor of Education
Kevin Stange, Associate Professor of Public Policy


Nicole Wagner Lam, Associate Director
asmina Camo-Biogradlija, Project Manager


The training program will include 3-year and 4-year fellowships. Fellows supported financially by the program will receive an annual stipend of $34,000, full tuition support, fringe benefits and a small research allowance to attend academic conferences in each year of their fellowship.

Students who successfully complete the program will be in position to pursue many careers, including within academia, research organizations and leadership positions within state and federal education agencies.


The program admitted its first cohort in Fall 2016. Applications will be solicited from doctoral students across the social sciences at UM. The program seeks to build a diverse pool of potential fellows, including highly qualified students from educationally-disadvantaged backgrounds, underrepresented cultural and ethnic groups as well as students with disabilities.


Students must be enrolled full-time in a UM doctoral program in the social sciences. Fellows must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States to receive funding through the training program. Fellows must conduct independent research as well as dissertation research related to education. Renewal of funding in subsequent years is conditional on meeting annual training program requirements.

Selection Criteria

Admissions decisions will be based on the candidates' demonstrated interest in the content of the training program, academic performance, and faculty recommendations. Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to attend CIERS to demonstrate and test their interest in the training program. Candidates must show strong performance in quantitative analysis (e.g., grades in previous coursework, GRE scores) in order to gain admission to the training program. A fellowship committee will review applications and select the fellows.

Offers of fellowships will typically be made in the spring of candidates' first or second year of doctoral studies. Students will enter the training program in their second or third year of doctoral studies.


For more information, please email Please contact us with questions about your interest in the program, fit with your current studies, and other opportunities to get involved.

Current Fellows

Graduated Fellows

We strongly encourage all students who are interested in the program to attend the weekly Causal Inference in Education Research seminar to better understand the types of research and discussions in which our students and faculty engage.