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A career at the intersection of policy, education and data

by Jennifer Johnson,

Emily Brixey

When the pandemic caused a massive upheaval in the K12 education system, from school closures to staff turnover and declining attendance, Emily Brixey ’15 watched the developments closely.  

At nonprofit KnowledgeWorks, Brixey tracks education issues and works with state leaders to develop and implement education policy. Her organization encourages the development of personalized competency-based learning, which provides support and educational opportunities that target a student’s individual needs. 

This approach is particularly relevant now, she said, as students who were already struggling lost the traditional forms of assistance and safety nets they’d had before. 

“It’s a really critical time for education policy leaders to look at the way they’ve been delivering education,” said Brixey, who joined the organization as a senior manager of policy, advocacy and research in 2021. “We have to do a lot better to make up for the last few years.” 

Education policy wasn’t Brixey’s initial career plan. At Willamette University, she majored in economics, a mix of math, statistics and theory that was the perfect route for her — she loved the nerdy, “graph shifting” aspect of it, participating in the International Collegiate Business Strategy Competition and the financial life lessons she could draw from the field, she said.  

Networking at Willamette also led her to excellent opportunities after graduation. A work study job assisting the Willamette MBA budget and accreditation analyst — as well as an internship at the Oregon State Capitol in the Legislative Revenue Office — landed her a full time budget analyst job in the Oregon State Senate, where she performed policy research, analyzed expenditures and provided funding recommendations. 

When the session adjourned, she continued to work with Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, then Senate co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, who was running for secretary of state. Figuring it would be a good opportunity, she expressed interest in working on the campaign and became its director of operations. Her major and the legislative internship secured the job for her, she said, as they knew she had familiarity with the process and she had built good recommendations from the office.  

Ultimately, campaign work wasn’t her calling. She started eyeing doctorate programs and in 2016, she began a PhD in public affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. Three years later, she joined the Education Commission of the States, an interstate agency that operates similar to a public policy think tank. Among her contributions as a policy researcher was the "Governor’s Top Education Priorities in 2021: State of the State Addresses," a special report that analyzes 42 governors’ addresses and their education-related proposals. 

The job provided her a great foundation to learn about education policy, she said, and its partnership with KnowledgeWorks paved the way to her next role as senior manager. 

Much of her job involves reading state statutes, studying policy and writing to share their findings. Data plays a role, too — Brixey uses it to identify education policy trends, and sets up search strings to scan for relevant education information in policy databases. The interdisciplinary nature of the job is among its greatest perks. 

“One thing I really enjoy about this work is that I can do a lot of reading, stay updated on policy reports and still apply an academic lens to it,” she said. 

After Brixey completes her PhD, she plans on staying in the field of education policy, so she can apply the good research skills she developed at Willamette and during her graduate program, she said. 

“I genuinely feel attending Willamette helped open these doors,” she said. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” 

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