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Thurston Domina

Quentin Brummet, Lindsay Liebert, Thurston Domina, Paul Yoo, Andrew Penner.

Although existing research suggests that students benefit on a range of outcomes when they enroll in early algebra classes, policy efforts that accelerate algebra enrollment for large numbers of students often have negative effects. Explanations for this apparent contradiction often emphasize the potential role of teacher and peer effects, which could create positive effects for individual students placed into early algebra that would not translate to larger-scale policies. We use detailed data from Oregon that contain information on the teachers and peers to whom students are exposed in order to investigate these explanations. Our regression discontinuity analyses replicate key findings from prior studies, indicating that placement in eighth-grade algebra boosts student achievement in math and English language arts. We then demonstrate that eighth-grade algebra placement positively affects the achievement level of students’ classmates, as well as the years of experience and value added of students’ math teachers. The effects on peer composition that we observe are large enough to plausibly explain the majority of the effects of eighth-grade algebra on student test scores.

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Paul Yoo, Thurston Domina, Andrew McEachin, Leah Clark, Hannah Hertenstein, Andrew M. Penner.

Virtual charter schools are increasingly popular, yet there is no research on the long-term outcomes of virtual charter students. We link statewide education records from Oregon with earnings information from IRS records housed at the US Census Bureau to provide evidence on how virtual charter students fare as young adults. Virtual charter students have substantially worse high school graduation rates, college enrollment rates, bachelor's degree attainment, employment rates, and earnings than students in traditional public schools. Although there is growing demand for virtual charter schools, our results suggest that students who enroll in virtual charters may face negative long-term consequences.

This paper is available exclusively at REACH until June 30, 2023.


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Deven Carlson, Thurston Domina, James S. Carter III, Rachel M. Perera, Andrew McEachin, Vitaly Radsky.

This paper conceptualizes segregation as a phenomenon that emerges from the intersection of public policy and individual decision-making. Contemporary scholarship on complex decision-making describes a two-step process—1) Editing and 2) Selection— and has emphasized the individual decision-maker’s agency in both steps. We build on this work by exploring, both theoretically and empirically, how policy can structure the choices individuals face at each step. We conduct this exploration within the empirical context of enrollment decisions among families in the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), which used a controlled school choice system to help achieve diversity aims. We first investigate the schooling choice sets that WCPSS constructed for families and then examine families’ schooling selections. We find that families were offered choice sets containing schools varying racial compositions, but that the racial makeup of schools in families’ choice set systematically varied by schooling type and student race/ethnicity. We further show that a majority of families enrolled in their district-assigned default school, with Black and Hispanic families more likely than white or Asian families to attend this option. Finally, we demonstrate that white or Asian families enroll in their default school at lower rates as the share of Black students increases.

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Thurston Domina, Deven Carlson, James S. Carter III, Matthew A. Lenard, Andrew McEachin, Rachel Perera.

Many public school diversity efforts rely on reassigning students from one school to another. While opponents of such efforts articulate concerns about the consequences of reassignments for students’ educational experiences, little evidence exists regarding these effects, particularly in contemporary policy contexts. Using an event study design, we leverage data from an innovative socioeconomic school desegregation plan to estimate the effects of reassignment on reassigned students’ achievement, attendance, and exposure to exclusionary discipline. Between 2000 and 2010, North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) reassigned approximately 25 percent of students with the goal of creating socioeconomically diverse schools. Although WCPSS’s controlled school choice policy provided opportunities for reassigned students to opt out of their newly reassigned schools, our analysis indicates that reassigned students typically attended their newly reassigned schools. We find that reassignment modestly boosts reassigned students’ math achievement, reduces reassigned students’ rate of suspension, and has no offsetting negative consequences on other outcomes. Exploratory analyses suggest that the effects of reassignment do not meaningfully vary by student characteristics or school choice decisions. The results suggest that carefully designed school assignment policies can improve school diversity without imposing academic or disciplinary costs on reassigned students.

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Andrew McEachin, Thurston Domina, Andrew M. Penner.

How should schools assign students to more rigorous math courses so as best to help their academic outcomes? We identify several hundred California middle schools that used 7th grade test scores to place students into 8th grade Algebra courses, and use a regression discontinuity design to estimate average impacts and heterogeneity across schools. Enrolling in 8th grade algebra boosts students’ enrollment in advanced math in 9th grade by 30 percentage points and 11th grade by 16 percentage points. Math scores in 10th grade rise by 0.05 standard deviations. Women, students of color, and English-language learners benefit disproportionately from placement into early Algebra. Importantly, the benefits of 8th grade algebra are substantially larger in schools that set their eligibility threshold higher in the baseline achievement distribution. This suggests a potential tradeoff between increased access and rates of subsequent math success.

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Marianne Bitler, Sean P. Corcoran, Thurston Domina, Emily Penner.

Estimates of teacher “value-added” suggest teachers vary substantially in their ability to promote student learning. Prompted by this finding, many states and school districts have adopted value-added measures as indicators of teacher job performance. In this paper, we conduct a new test of the validity of value-added models. Using administrative student data from New York City, we apply commonly estimated value-added models to an outcome teachers cannot plausibly affect: student height. We find the standard deviation of teacher effects on height is nearly as large as that for math and reading achievement, raising obvious questions about validity. Subsequent analysis finds these “effects” are largely spurious variation (noise), rather than bias resulting from sorting on unobserved factors related to achievement. Given the difficulty of differentiating signal from noise in real-world teacher effect estimates, this paper serves as a cautionary tale for their use in practice.

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Thurston Domina, Andrew McEachin, Paul Hanselman, Priyanka Agarwal, NaYoung Hwang, Ryan Lewis.

Schools utilize an array of strategies to match curricula and instruction to students’ heterogeneous skills. While generations of scholars have debated “tracking” and its consequences, the literature fails to account for diversity of school-level sorting practices. In this paper we draw upon the work of Sørenson (1970) to articulate and develop empirical measures of five distinct dimensions of school cross-classroom tracking systems: (1) the degree of course differentiation, (2) the extent to which sorting practices generate skills-homogeneous classrooms, (3) the rate at which students enroll in advanced courses, (4) the extent to which students move between tracks over time, and (5) the relation between track assignments across subject areas. Analyses of longitudinal administrative data following 24,000 8th graders enrolled in 23 middle schools through the 10th grade indicate that these dimensions of tracking are empirically separable and have divergent effects on student achievement and the production of inequality.

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