The education that Shaver received at Harris prepared him to make data-informed decisions based on science, not gut-feelings—a skill that touches many lives in his day-to-day work.
Michael Shaver, MPP '96

Clarity can come from getting in over one’s head. Such was the case when Michael Shaver, MPP ’96, was a guest on talk radio debating the role of religion in public education.

“I got my head handed to me,” he says.

Shaver was discussing the effectiveness of sex education with a well-prepared public policy expert from a national conservative Christian organization. His opponent had a PhD in public policy and understood the building blocks of good research and data.

“The director of policy turned to me and said, ‘Mike, I appreciate the data you're citing, but are you aware that's a meta-analysis? Then he started talking about sample sizes, coefficients, and the difference between correlation and causation,” Shaver recounts. “I didn’t even know what a meta-analysis was.”

In that moment, Shaver realized that successfully debating public policy and being a good advocate is about more than just being familiar with the academic research. He saw how essential it was to understand how sound research studies and evaluations are designed and what makes a viable study.

In the radio studio, right then and there, Shaver made the decision to pursue a graduate degree in public policy—one that was focused on the quantitative aspects of policy analysis.

After looking at multiple high-ranking programs, Shaver was confirmed in his belief that the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy had the most quantitative approach. He says it was clear he would “learn econometrics, do advanced stats and data analysis, and basically, build out the core toolbox needed” to never find himself in a radio show hot seat unprepared again.

He adds, “I also chose Harris because I wanted to be challenged and stretched, particularly in message and idea framing. Going to a school that is known as the birthplace of sociology and is world-renowned for economics was the perfect place to learn how to think and frame arguments better.”

Today, Shaver is the president and CEO of Children’s Home Society of Florida, the oldest and largest statewide organization devoted to helping abused and neglected children. The organization opened in 1902 with its roots in adoption services and now partners with universities, community schools, and health and social service providers to deliver adoption support, foster care, case management, family counseling, early childhood education, and children’s advocacy.

Shaver has a heavy job. He oversees a team of 1,900 whose decisions directly affect the fates of 9,000 vulnerable children at any given time. They are entrusted with the immense responsibility of making life-changing choices based on limited information, but rooted in child welfare best practices and research. Shaver’s says he learned at the Harris School how to make the strongest decisions in the midst of “ambiguity.”

“The big problems are not black and white, or cut and dried. People in my line of work who advocate for kids and families have to have a comfort level with ambiguity and be able to use the tools in our toolkit—the toolkit I received at Harris— to get beyond the ambiguity to a kind of precision that can ground our recommendations,” he explains.

Shaver’s recommendations have an outsized impact on the lives of the children who walk through the doors of the Children’s Home Society of Florida. Shaver says, that unlike schools, where kids spend a chunk of the day outside of the home, but then return to it, child welfare services are a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week job that encompasses children’s physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. The stakes are high.

He explains, “If children have developmental delays, need high-quality early childhood services, require psychotropic medication, or need physical and mental health services, it’s the child welfare system that must be and provide all those things. The risk associated with missing something or making the wrong decision is profound.”

The education that Shaver received at Harris prepared him to make data-informed decisions based on science, not gut-feelings—a skill that touches many lives in his day-to-day work. He says that regardless of how individuals strive to make an impact—to run a not-for-profit or work in the governor's office or for the city—they can only drive change if their good ideas are combined with precise data and the knowledge of how to apply it.

For Shaver, the best kind of impact would be the kind that puts him out of a job.

“We want to build and scale solutions that make case management services for kids in the child welfare or foster care system unnecessary. We know that there are policies and practices that work when we invest in the potential of parents and kids early on,” he says. “By stepping up our home visiting programs, providing more capable health services, and ensuring kids attend schools with wrap-around services that are free of stigma, we believe there will be far fewer kids who get abused or neglected”

Until Shaver can make his job obsolete, he says that his passion for kids and families—particularly for those who have “lots of odds stacked against them”—will keep him going.

“I will keep working and advocating on behalf of kids and families until zip codes and poverty levels are no longer the greatest determinants of their destinies.”

Read more student and alumni stories.