Saying Goodbye to a Flying Dutchman

(Guest post by Patrick J. Wolf)

Prolific Dutch education sociologist Jaap Dronkers died of a stroke on Wednesday at the age of 70.  Jaap (pronounced “yahp”) was the `James Coleman’ of European education research and a supporter of parental school choice for the simple reason that his exhaustive research demonstrated that it benefits families and the broader society.  More importantly, Jaap was a considerate colleague and a dear friend.  He will be greatly missed.

Among Jaap’s many accomplishments was his pioneering of the use of `league tables’ to measure school performance in the countries of Europe.  He then conducted a series of sophisticated school- and student-level analyses of demographic and achievement data to determine which types of schools were delivering value-added to students in terms of both test-score gains and civic outcomes.  Jaap’s conclusions, published in important peer-reviewed journal articles such as here and here, were that elite private schools produce better student outcomes because they surround students with advantaged peers.  Religious private schools participating in voucher-type programs, on the other hand, deliver positive value-added to students, net of peer effects, in terms of both achievement and civic outcomes.

I first met Jaap at a conference in London that I co-organized with Princeton political theorist Stephen Macedo in 2003.  The conference birthed a co-edited book by the Brookings Institution called Educating Citizens: International Perspectives on School Choice and Civic Values.  Steve and I had brought an A-list of scholars from the U.S., including Dave Campbell, Rick Garnett, Charlie Glenn, William Galston, Bruno Manno, and John Witte. At the opening reception, Charlie, who is better networked among international education scholars than any American I know, pulled Steve and me aside and said, “This is a very strong group of European scholars.”  Even so, Jaap Dronkers stood out from the rest.  He was the only participant in the project who we permitted to author multiple chapters in our book – one about how the Dutch education system manages school choice to promote civic values and another about how European religious schools tend to have a positive impact on student cognitive outcomes while equaling government-run public schools in generating civic outcomes.  Jaap concluded that second chapter with the statement, in his typical clear but scholarly tone, “Not enough is known about the effects of school choice in Europe, but what is known is generally comforting.” (p. 308)

In 2009 Jaap turned the tables and invited me to attend a conference in Geneva on school choice and educational equity. He then recruited my conference paper on what the DC Choice achievement effects suggest for social justice for review and ultimate publication in the special issue of Educational Research and Evaluation that he co-edited in the wake of the event.  Jaap was a skillful and demanding editor, even while operating in his fourth language of English (his primary languages were Dutch, German, and French).  At this time he was Professor of Social Stratification and Inequality at the highly prestigious European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

In 2014 Jaap traveled to Florida with his wife, Tonny, to deliver a keynote address at the Second International School Choice & Reform Academic Conference.  Far from simply beaming in, speaking, and beaming out, as keynoters so often do, Jaap hung around to attend all of the panels, asking piercing questions and breaking bread with new American friends he had made.  He returned for the third edition of the conference to present fascinating work that subsequently was published on Islamic schools in the Netherlands.

Jaap Dronkers was a five-tool social scientist.  He had a firm grasp of theory, refined empirical analysis skills, strong writing ability in four languages, solid speaking skills, and a delightful sense of humor.  I’ll always remember how Jaap introduced me to his European research colleagues.  “Patrick,” Jaap would say, “is from the U.S. where he can actually run experiments!”  One of my junior colleagues, Brian Kisida, upon meeting Jaap at an international conference in Belgium, simply said, “That is one cool dude.”  Indeed he was.

Rest in peace, Jaap Dronkers, European education researcher extraordinaire, supporter of parental school choice, citizen of the world and friend to many.  We know so much more about how to improve the education of children because of you.

2 Responses to Saying Goodbye to a Flying Dutchman

  1. Paul DiPerna says:

    I still remember meeting Jaap at that London conference in ’03, and thinking to myself: Wow, this guy is smart, engaging, and quite the character. Did not know or realize at the time what outsized impact he had on the sociology of education field, particularly in the European context. Patrick- this is a nice, excellent tribute.

  2. Bkisida says:

    Yeah, he was one cool dude. I always felt like his name was onomatopoeic, if you know what I mean. For example, Hans Gruber sounds like an international terrorist. Jean-Claude Van Damme sounds like a bad-ass martial arts hero. Jaap Dronkers sounds like a prolific European education scholar.

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