Thoughts on Theses: Jamie Gracie
Issue   |   Wed, 03/22/2017 - 01:03

Jamie Gracie is an economics and Spanish double major. Her thesis examines the long-term effects of bilingual elementary programs on students and their achievements. Her thesis advisors are Assistant Professors of Economics Caroline Theoharides and Katharine Sims.

Q: What is your thesis about?
A: It’s sort of like [the] economics of education … It’s looking at bilingual elementary school programs for non-native English speakers, so either a bilingual class or an English as a second language [class] ... It’s looking at the difference of the effects of those two programs on long run student achievements … So, if you’re in a district that has bilingual classes, do you graduate from high school more or less often? Or are your high school standardized test scores better or worse?

Q: What have you found out so far?
A: I haven’t really found conclusive evidence that bilingual programs are helpful or harmful … In the first set of results I did, it seemed like there were negative spillover effects of bilingual programs … African-American students had lower test scores in districts with bilingual classes, even though they are likely not in the classes themselves … But I also found positive effects for white students, which is kind of depressing that if you have this policy intervention it would help white students and hurt African-American students … but I don’t know — every time I run [the results] it’s a little different, so I wouldn’t say that I know for sure what is happening.

Q: How have you been gathering data? Have you been visiting different places, or is it online research?
A: It’s like an empirical project. So I have test score data from [Texas]. … I have data on whether or not different school districts have bilingual programs or ESL programs [as well as] the number of English learners in those districts, and then I can match that to test scores when those students would be in eleventh grade or their graduation rates. … The way it works in Texas is, if you have 20 or more English learners that speak the same language — it’s almost always Spanish — in the same grade level, then the district has to provide bilingual education … [my research is] sort of looking at that cut-off.

Q: Why did you decide to write on this particular topic? What about it interests you?
A: I wanted to do an econ thesis sort of related to Spanish, and I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to do something in a Spanish-speaking country. My freshman year, I wrote a final paper for my Spanish class about bilingual education in the U.S., so it’s something I have sort of thought about before … I read a paper that … used the same setting, but to look at short-term test scores [instead] … but I was sort of interested in the long run … [Amherst] hasn’t yet had a lot of econ education classes, so I thought if I did a thesis, I could kind of learn about it on my own.

Q: How has the thesis writing process been for you so far? When did you start, and where in the process are you now?
A: The first semester was sort of just me gathering the data and figuring out how I was going to do all of [it] … what the regression model was going to be … which I didn’t actually do until interterm, but that was what I was supposed to be doing in the first semester. This semester, I’ve sort of been doing the actual analysis and writing it, and now I have a draft, so once I get it back from my adviser, I’ll probably have to … rewrite a lot of it … but I think I have three more weeks or something, so I [have] a little bit of time.

Q: What has been your favorite part of writing your thesis?
A: I think it’s been cool to be guiding the research. [I’ve] worked for Professor Theoharides as a research assistant for the last couple of years, which is also super fun, and that was sort of me learning how to do [research]. And now, I feel like I can come up with my own ideas, like, “Oh, I’m going to test this, or I’ll try doing this.” It’s been kind of fun to test different things … I still don’t know what the mechanisms are that drive the results, so I’m trying to figure that out and having to think about it … Being in control of it has been kind of fun … In the process, I’ve gotten to think about the questions that are interesting to me and that has been fun.

Q: What has been the most difficult or surprising part of writing a thesis?
A: I thought I would just do this and the results would be super obvious, and I’ll be like, “Yes, this is a very clear effect of these programs,” but actually when I do it … every time I tweak a little thing, the results change by a lot … I think that [the results have] been less clear than I thought or hoped they might’ve been.

Q: What advice would you give to the current juniors about writing a thesis?
A: I think that if you’re going to do an empirical thesis, just getting your data and having good data early is super important. I actually got the most important part of mine in the summer, which was super helpful … but even though I had it in August, it still took me the whole first semester to figure out how to use it, so I feel like if I had gotten it in October, I would have been screwed. Definitely the earlier you get good data, the better.