Batten Faculty Spotlight: Professor Daniel Player

As a current student in Professor Dan Player’s undergraduate research methods and data analysis class, I wanted to get to know more about one of Batten’s most widely popular professors, a professor so popular that he starred in the lead role at the end of last year’s class video. He is enthusiastic and genuine about his ability to connect with students, such that he has become a very iconic necessity in defining what Batten is all about. This is reflected through not only his approach to teaching and learning, but also through accolades: in 2018, Professor Player received an All-University Teaching Award, and in 2017, he received the Batten Teaching Award.

Professor Daniel Player first got his start at UVA in 2010 as an Academic and Research Director at the Curry School of Education (now known as the School of Education and Human Development). In 2013, he became a Research Assistant Professor before joining the Batten School in 2015 as an Assistant Professor of Public Policy. Prior to his start at UVA, he received a B.S. in Economics from Brigham Young University and went on to receive his Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Washington. Professor Player’s work has centered around the ability to connect education with policy in finding opportunities for substantive change at these intersections. To learn more about the work Professor Player is involved in, I interviewed him in hopes to highlight his journey  connecting his passion for education and policy interests.

Why did you come to Batten?

Professor Player was drawn to UVA because of the policy school. Ever since he started at the Ed School, he wanted to be more involved in the Batten School. When a research position opened up in Batten, he saw the opportunity to continue his work at the intersection of education and public policy. Professor Player stated that he loved the mission behind Batten, of cultivating the next generation of leaders in public policy. He appreciates the integrated approach the Batten School offers in fostering tangible skill sets and centering students at the forefront of learning. The position Professor Player holds in Batten is what he calls “his dream job.

What has been your research experience in your line of work?

Professor Player’s work centers around quantitative research that mostly focuses on causal effects. He learned a lot during his time as a Senior Researcher at the Mathematica Policy Research through conducting large scale evaluations pertaining to education. He has expanded the scope of his research in education to include Pre-K-12 schooling. His first position at the Ed School was research in determining the potential causes of schools to transition from relatively low performing to high performing. He asked, “What moves the causal needle?” and “What helps schools turn around?”

While he still works toward finding cause and effect within education policy, he now focuses less on conducting experiments due to the intensive nature and resource capacity of experimental work. Professor Player recognizes that research sometimes leads to success and sometimes to failure. Nonetheless, he remains passionate and has shifted to using other techniques in teasing out causal effects in education policy.

What direction do you see the next steps of your work headed?

“Currently, I’m doing a project looking at school working conditions. How do we make schools a better place to work? What is the situation? What’s out there? Can we formulate a hypothesis that actually makes a difference? It is not as much causal work right now. We are working with state partners and initiating change at the state level.”

“The general literature is revealing that teachers may not be as responsive to salaries that we might think. Teachers’ salaries should be improved, but there are so many other tangible factors that can sway teacher retention rates. That’s part of why I like education research so much – we have all, in some way or another, experienced education or been touched by education. I enjoy seeing the commonalities in people’s educational experience, but it’s funny to think about how we might share commonalities with others that are actually very different experiences.”

What interested you in education policy?

“I think part of it [my interest] was that my dad was a school teacher, and many of my aunts and uncles were school teachers. It was something that I thought a lot about. I kind of casually observed that this [education] was a really interesting area. Education is a place that can potentially increase equity, but also has the potential to exacerbate inequities. I was puzzled over the questions of: How do we make education, so that it is living up to the ideal that we have of giving everyone opportunities? That’s what motivated me. I always liked the idea of school as a means of positively impacting our society. That’s what my dad did, and I really wanted to believe that he was making a difference.”

Do you have thoughts on the trajectory of the Batten School? You have been here long enough to witness change. Have you seen growth, and in what areas?

“First, the undergraduate major has grown a lot since the time that I have been here, and the minor is new. Both at the undergraduate and graduate level, we have done a better job at diversifying the student body: different backgrounds, different experiences, different interests... Fortunately, I have seen Batten not change in ways also. More of what I have seen is the DNA of Batten: a focus on leadership, a focus on students.” 

He stated that he thinks Batten to be unique in its student driven focus: “Making sure that this is a good experience for students. They come in, and they have the best experience they can have. Not to say we have reached that, but that is what we are constantly talking about and constantly trying to improve in that area. That is the constant that hasn’t changed, making it the best possible student experience.”

Favorite Batten memory or experience?

“I love teaching at Batten because I have had the chance to meet so many students, who I can see are going to go on to do amazing things - both at the graduate and undergraduate level. It really is a privilege to get to know these people. I’m just so excited to see where they'll end up in 5 to 10 years. And it’s not always policy. These are passionate students who are going to go off and do cool things. There are lots of students I know I am going to remember my whole life; because they just touched my life.”

Professor Player referenced a fond memory of his first or second year at the Batten school, a program known as fireside chats, that were a longstanding tradition before COVID-19:

“It was a chance to informally talk about education policy; the students were so inquisitive and well-informed and open-minded. I walked out of that meeting in the evening, and I had the realization that this really is a dream job, how could you not love this? …The chance to chat with students informally, who really genuinely wanted to know more and were genuinely interested in education policy.”

In discussing the pandemic, Professor Player reflects on how in-person learning is incredibly invaluable:

“That’s one of the things I learned during COVID, that there is just something about in-person learning that is tough to replicate in any other circumstance. I think part of it is that we learn a lot about others through body language and nonverbal cues, and I didn’t realize how much I would miss that, and I am glad to be back.”

Do you have a faculty best friend?

“Well, I have lots of faculty best friends. Since I started at the education school, I’m really close with Professors Jim Wyckoff and Daphna Bassok, because they’re both joined between the two schools. They feel like family to me, but we also get along really well.”

“You know, everyone is my best friend. Professor Pennock started at the same time as I did, so we’re close. Professor Ben Converse and Professor Gelsdorf are other good friends of mine. We really like working together. Hopefully the students feel that... not all schools get along as well as we do. The faculty really respect each other, and even though we all do different things, we can respect what each other does.”

How do you stay so involved in the Batten school while having a family at home?

“My family feels like part of the Batten School too; it’s kind of the Batten embrace that extends beyond just working here. My family loves getting to know my students. I keep wondering if my kids will reach a point where they get too old that they don’t think it’s as cool anymore to meet my students. But my daughter still asks about it.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Professor Player and his published work, you can find more information here on the Batten Faculty Directory.


Blog post compiled by Olivia Nguyen-Dillon, 4th year Batten B.A.