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Standards, accountability, assessment, and curriculum

Marjorie Wechsler, David Kirp, Titilayo Tinubu Ali, Madelyn Gardner, Anna Maier, Hanna Melnick, Patrick M. Shields.

Although there is considerable research on the elements of high-quality preschool and its many benefits, particularly for low-income children and English learners, little information is available to policymakers about how to convert their visions of good early education into on-the-ground reality. This study fills that gap by describing and analyzing how four states—Michigan, West Virginia, Washington, and North Carolina—have built high-quality early education systems. Among the common elements of their success are strategies that prioritize quality and continuous improvement, invest in training and coaching for program staff, coordinate the administration of birth-through-grade-3 programs, strategically combine multiple funding sources to increase access and improve quality, and create broad-based coalitions and support.

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Beth Meloy, Madelyn Gardner, Linda Darling-Hammond.

Research showing that high-quality preschool benefits children’s early learning and later life outcomes has led to increased state engagement in public preschool. However, mixed results from evaluations of two programs—Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program and Head Start—have left many policymakers unsure about how to ensure productive investments. This report presents the most rigorous evidence on the effects of preschool and clarifies how the findings from Tennessee and Head Start relate to the larger body of research showing that high-quality preschool enhances children’s school readiness by supporting substantial early learning gains in comparison to children who do not experience preschool and can have lasting impacts far into children’s later years of school and life. Therefore, the issue is not whether preschool “works,” but how to design and implement programs that ensure public preschool investments consistently deliver on their promise.

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Michael Gilraine, Uros Petronijevic, John D. Singleton.

While school choice may enhance competition, incentives for public schools to raise productivity may be muted if public education is viewed as imperfectly substitutable with alternatives. This paper estimates the aggregate effect of charter school expansion on education quality while accounting for the horizontal differentiation of charter school programs. To do so, we combine student-level administrative data with novel information about the educational programs of charter schools that opened in North Carolina following the removal of the statewide cap in 2011. The dataset contains students' standardized test scores as well as geocoded residential addresses, which allow us to compare the test score changes of students who lived near the new charters prior to the policy change with those for students who lived farther away. We apply this research design to estimate separate treatment effects for exposure to charter schools that are and are not differentiated horizontally from public school instruction. The results indicate learning gains for treated students that are driven entirely by non-horizontally differentiated charter schools: we find that non-horizontally differentiated charter school expansion causes a 0.05 SD increase in math scores. These learning gains are driven by public schools responding to increased competition.

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Anne Podolsky, Linda Darling-Hammond, Christopher Doss, Sean Reardon.

Despite wide achievement gaps across California between students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, some school districts have excelled at supporting the learning of all their students. This analysis identifies these positive outlier districts—those in which students of color, as well as White students, consistently achieve at higher levels than students from similar racial/ethnic backgrounds and from families of similar income and education levels in most other districts. These results are predicted, in significant part, by the qualifications of districts’ teachers, as measured by their certification and experience. In particular, the proportion of underprepared teachers—those teaching on emergency permits, waivers, and intern credentials—is associated with decreased achievement for all students, while teaching experience is associated with increased achievement, especially for students of color.

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David D. Liebowitz.

Teacher evaluation policies seek to improve student outcomes by increasing the effort and skill levels of current and future teachers. Current policy and most prior research treats teacher evaluation as balancing two aims: accountability and growth. Proper teacher evaluation design has been understood as successfully weighting the accountability and growth dimensions of policy and practice. I detail six assumptions underlying teacher evaluation for growth and accountability and assess their reasonableness in light of empirical evidence from the personnel economics, social psychology and management literatures. I simulate a set of teacher evaluation policies and find that those that treat evaluation for accountability and evaluation for growth as substitutes modestly outperform policies that treat them as complements. The teachers’ rates of learning through evaluation and the labor market effects of evaluation are critical in determining its impact. I conclude with recommendations for the design of teacher evaluation policies.

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David D. Liebowitz, Lorna Porter, Dylan Bragg.

Despite frequent political and policy debates, the effects of imposing accountability pressures on public school teachers are empirically indeterminate. In this paper, we study the effects of accountability in the context of teacher responses to student behavioral infractions in the aftermath of teacher evaluation reforms. We leverage cross-state variation in the timing of state policy implementation to estimate whether teachers change the rate at which they remove students from their classrooms. We find that higher-stakes teacher evaluation had no causal effect on the rates of disciplinary referrals, and we find no evidence of heterogeneous effects for grades subject to greater accountability pressures or in schools facing differing levels of disciplinary infractions. Our results are precisely estimated and robust to a battery of specification checks. Our findings provide insights on the effects of accountability policy on the black-box of classroom practice and highlight the loose-coupling of education policy and teacher behaviors.

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Alex Eble, Chris Frost, Alpha Camara, Baboucarr Bouy, Momodou Bah, Maitri Sivaraman, Jenny Hsieh, Chitra Jayanty, Tony Brady, Piotr Gawron, Peter Boone, Diana Elbourne.

Despite large schooling and learning gains in many developing countries, children in highly deprived areas are often unlikely to achieve even basic literacy and numeracy. We study how much of this problem can be resolved using a multi-pronged intervention combining several distinct interventions known to be effective in isolation. We conducted a cluster-randomized trial in The Gambia evaluating a literacy and numeracy intervention designed for primary-aged children in remote parts of poor countries. The intervention combines para teachers delivering after-school supplementary classes, scripted lesson plans, and frequent monitoring focusing on improving teacher practice (coaching). A similar intervention previously demonstrated large learning gains in a cluster-randomized trial in rural India. After three academic years, Gambian children receiving the intervention scored 46 percentage points (3.2 SD) better on a combined literacy and numeracy test than control children.  This intervention holds great promise to address low learning levels in other poor, remote settings.

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Susana Claro, Susanna Loeb.

While the importance of social-emotional learning for student success is well established, educators and researchers have less knowledge and agreement about which social-emotional skills are most important for students and how these skills distribute across student subgroups. Using a rich longitudinal dataset of 221,840 fourth through seventh grade students in California districts, this paper describes growth mindset gaps across student groups, and confirms, at a large scale, the predictive power of growth mindset for achievement gains, even with unusually rich controls for students’ background, previous achievement, and measures of other social-emotional skills. Average annual growth in English language arts and math corresponding to differences between students with fixed and growth mindset in a same school and grade level is 0.07 and 0.05 standard deviations respectively, after adjusting for students’ characteristics and previous achievement. This estimate is equivalent to 48 and 35 additional days of learning.

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Briana Ballis, Katelyn Heath.

Over 13 percent of US students participate in Special Education (SE) programs annually, at a cost of $40 billion. However, the effect of SE placements remains unclear. This paper uses administrative data from Texas to examine the long-run effect of reducing SE access. Our research design exploits variation in SE placement driven by a state policy that required school districts to reduce SE caseloads to 8.5 percent. We show that this policy led to sharp reductions in SE enrollment. These reductions in SE access generated significant reductions in educational attainment, suggesting that marginal participants experience long-run benefits from SE services.

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Andrew McEachin, Thurston Domina, Andrew M. Penner.

We identify 510 California public middle schools (and 753 school-years) that use a 7th grade achievement threshold to place students into 8th grade Algebra, and we use these schools to estimate fuzzy regression discontinuity effects of 8th grade Algebra placement. We find that enrolling in 8th grade Algebra boosts students’ chances of taking advanced math courses in high school by 30 percentage points in 9th grade and 16 percentage points in 11th grade, as well as boosting achievement on the 10th grade math California High School Exit Exam by .031sd (ITT) and .053sd (LATE). Eighth-grade algebra has a smaller, positive effect on student ELA achievement in grades 9 through 11. Importantly, we also find that the effects of 8th grade Algebra vary substantially across students and schools. Encouragingly, women, students of color, and English-Language Learners benefit disproportionately from access to accelerated coursework. However, school-level decisions about how to implement accelerated coursework in middle school appear to matter. In particular, we find that the benefits of 8th grade  algebra are substantially larger in schools that enroll students whose 7th grade math scores are at least “Proficient” (or grade level).

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