Post Date: Novemeber 28, 2005

The following story, “Student Spotlight: The Write Stuff,” comes from the November issue of Harvard Law Today.

While most undergraduates spend college learning from teachers, Martin Kurzweil ’07 spent much of his time in college practicing how to be one. During his undergraduate years at Harvard, Kurzweil spent up to four days a week tutoring students at area middle schools. While he still talks about making the proverbial difference in adolescents’ lives, the experience of working in urban public schools clued him in to more pervasive social and political problems. “I really enjoyed being in the schools, connecting with kids,” Kurzweil explained. “At the same time, it was really a frustrating experience because it opened my eyes to some of the more systemic problems that make it really difficult for motivated college students to accomplish much. It makes it difficult for great teachers to accomplish much!”

In the summer of 2002, Kurzweil got a break that allowed him to explore the problems of education not just from the classroom side but from a policy perspective as well. Caroline Hoxby—Kurzweil’s professor in an education class—helped him land a summer research position at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with William Bowen, the foundation’s president and former president of Princeton University.

That summer, Bowen was in the thick of compiling an analysis of intercollegiate athletics. Kurzweil assisted Bowen in his research, which resulted in the book “Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values.” Their partnership went so smoothly that not only was Kurzweil invited to continue working with Bowen, but he was given more responsibilities in a new study.

Then 22 years old, Kurzweil helped conduct a study about inequalities in higher education related to socioeconomic status. He had distinguished partners in the venture: Bowen and Eugene Tobin, former president of Hamilton College. In their book, “Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education” (University of Virginia Press), the trio concludes that the time has come to “put a thumb on the scale” in favor of students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds who show academic promise.

“You can’t look at higher education as just what’s going on in colleges,” Kurzweil said. “If primary and secondary systems aren’t producing a pool of students with enough diversity, there’s a problem for higher education. In order to examine the issues higher education is facing, we have to look at what happens before.”

In the first study of its kind, Bowen, Tobin and Kurzweil examined a comprehensive range of factors about the admissions process by gathering data from 19 colleges and universities. They spent the following year analyzing that data, as well as figures from the College Board and Educational Testing Service and translated roughly 600 variables from 200,000 college applications into a thesis that argues in support of affirmative action. In one of its key findings, the book asserts that students admitted as “legacies” or because of sports recruiting do not perform as well as poor students who’ve demonstrated their ambition.

“There’s a wide segment of society that doesn’t have access to higher education, that’s not being educated well,” Kurzweil said. “To really enhance the pool of educated citizens to compete in this global economy, you need to expand the reach of higher education. That’s the equity side. Then on the excellence side, you have to broaden the reach to get the more competitive pool of workers.”

Kurzweil drafted four of the 10 chapters, but every word of the 428-page book was looked over by all three authors several times.

“Working with these two pre-eminent people—it was very daunting,” he said. “Every time we’d sit down to talk about another aspect of the book, it was awe-inspiring to hear the two of them. I mean, Bill [Bowen] had the overarching vision of everything, and to hear him fit things together was just a revelation.”

While Kurzweil’s interest in education may have been sparked during his undergraduate years, at HLS he is continuing to pursue his interests in social policy, particularly education policy, and legal theory.

Uncovering facts that rip the rug out from under common understandings has had a major impact on Kurzweil’s approach to his law school studies.

“I always ask myself about the practical implications of things,” he said. “The method of the research really affected me. I’m really trying to get out of the abstract and anecdote range and to ground things in empirically verifiable research and fact. I find myself always asking: What are the actual numbers on this? It makes sense that this legal rule would have such and such effect, but what’s actually happened? Do the numbers back that up?”

By Liza Weisstuch