Affiliate Spotlight: Michela Carlana

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Photo: Stefano Guidi |
Featuring research by Michela Carlana.

To read the full profile, please download the PDF.

Michela Carlana is an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. From researching the subtle role of bias and motivation in student outcomes to rapidly launching and evaluating scalable programs to combat learning loss, Michela’s work reflects a commitment to reducing inequality through focusing on education, gender, and migration.

Michela’s work is driven by a long-held conviction in the power of education and its ability to help individuals actualize skills and opportunities for a better future. Yet, “many children are left behind when they are induced into early educational choices that do not allow them to achieve their full potential,” she notes. Holding this idea that “opportunity begets opportunity,” her research focuses on identifying inequities in education and programs that may help close the gaps.

“I go after deep economic issues and think about concrete policy interventions that may help address those challenges,” Michela explains. Recognizing that stereotypes and cultural norms are often a subtle but widespread barrier to equality, Michela's research has explored the impacts of revealing teachers' implicit biases. In her home country of Italy, Michela and co-authors evaluated the impact of informing teachers of their implicit stereotypes towards immigrant students on end-of-year grading, finding that teachers unaware of their biases gave better grades once they were made aware.

To generate evidence on policy-relevant issues, Michela grounds her research in discussions with the populations she hopes to serve.

“A key component of my work is observing and talking with individuals, especially students, teachers, and parents, to shape my research questions,” she describes.

A conversation with a teacher while on a data collection visit inspired Michela to focus on implicit bias as a constraint to opportunity: “One of the teachers told me she recommended the vocational track to a high-performing immigrant student because ‘you never know whether immigrant children can get the necessary family support to do well during high school.’” 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Michela saw governments’ focus on increasing access to technology to address learning losses as insufficient to tackle the deep challenges students were facing, including a sense of isolation that affected not only their learning, but also their psychological well-being. In 2020, she, along with frequent co-author Eliana La Ferrara, pioneered the Tutoring Online Project (TOP), a virtual program aiming to close the education gap for disadvantaged students during the pandemic. 
They were able to leverage extensive past experience in conducting educational interventions in Italian schools to rapidly launch and evaluate this intervention amidst the pandemic. Their results provided crucial insight into a scalable program that could be implemented across countries lagging behind with school reopenings. “There are few interventions in economics of education that have proven as effective as tutoring in helping student achievements,” Michela notes.

Michela’s relentless dedication to studying constraints to equality of opportunities in education is evident in her work. She continues to create and evaluate programs that help close educational gaps.

Michela Carlana has been a J-PAL affiliate since 2020.

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