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Early childhood

Walter Herring, Daphna Bassok, Anita McGinty, Luke C. Miller, James H. Wyckoff.

Third grade is oftentimes the first year standardized literacy assessments are mandated. In turn many policies aimed at improving literacy have focused on third-grade test scores as a key indicator. Yet literacy struggles begin well before third grade, as do racial and socioeconomic disparities in children’s literacy skills. Kindergarten readiness assessments provide a unique opportunity to better understand the emergence of literacy disparities. We use unique kindergarten literacy data from nearly every school district in Virginia to document the relationship between children’s early literacy skills and their later reading proficiency. Comparing children with similar literacy skills at kindergarten entry, we find significant racial and socioeconomic differences in the likelihood a child is proficient on their third-grade reading assessment.

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Benjamin W. Domingue, Heather J. Hough, David Lang, Jason Yeatman.

Education has faced unprecedented disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic; evidence about the subsequent effect on children is of crucial importance. We use data from an oral reading fluency (ORF) assessment—a rapid assessment taking only a few minutes that measures a fundamental reading skill—to examine COVID’s effects on children’s reading ability during the pandemic in more than 100 U.S. school districts. Effects were pronounced, especially for Grades 2–3, but distinct across spring and fall 2020. While many students were not assessed in spring 2020, those who were seemed to have experienced relatively limited or no growth in ORF relative to gains observed in other years. In fall 2020, a far more representative set of students was observed. For those students, growth was more pronounced and seemed to approach levels observed in previous years. Worryingly, there were also signs of stratification such that students in lower-achieving districts may be falling further behind. However, at the level of individual students, those who were struggling with reading prior to the pandemic were not disproportionately impacted in terms of ORF growth. This data offers an important window onto how a foundational skill is being affected by COVID-19 and this approach can be used in the future to examine how student abilities recover as education enters a post-COVID paradigm.

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Qing Zhang, Maria Sauval, Jade M. Jenkins.

COVID-19 has created acute challenges for the child care sector, potentially leading to a shortage of supply and a shrinking sector as the economy recovers. This study provides the first comprehensive, census-level evaluation of the medium-term impacts of COVID-19 on the county child care market in a large and diverse state, North Carolina. We also document the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on different types of providers and disadvantaged communities. We use data from two time points (February and December) from 2018 to 2020 and a difference-in-differences design to isolate the effects of COVID-19. We find that COVID- 19 reduced county-level child care enrollment by 40%, and reduced the number of providers by 2%. Heterogeneity analyses reveal that family child care providers experienced not only less severe reductions in enrollment and closures than center providers, but a small growth in the number of family providers. Declines in enrollment were most substantial for preschool-aged children. COVID-19 did not appear to further exacerbate inequities in terms of enrollment amongst low-income communities, communities with a larger share of Black residents, or rural communities, although communities with a larger share of Hispanic residents had more provider closures. Our findings underscore the importance of family child care providers in the child care sector and providing continuing and targeted support to help the sector through this crisis. Implications for future policies are discussed.

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Gary T. Henry, Shelby M. McNeill, Erica Harbatkin.

Test-based accountability pressures have been shown to result in transferring less effective teachers into untested early grades and more effective teachers to tested grades. In this paper, we evaluate whether a state initiative to turnaround its lowest performing schools reproduced a similar pattern of assigning teachers and unintended, negative effects on the outcomes of younger students in untested grades. Using a sharp regression discontinuity design, we find consistent evidence of increased chronic absenteeism and grade retention in the first year. Also, the findings suggest negative effects on early literacy and reading comprehension in the first year of the reform that rebounded somewhat in the second year. Schools labeled low performing reassigned low effectiveness teachers from tested grades into untested early grades, though these assignment practices were no more prevalent in reform than control schools. Our results suggest that accountability-driven school reform can yield negative consequences for younger students that may undermine the success and sustainability of school turnaround efforts.

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Jon Valant, Lindsay Weixler.

In order for school choice reforms to fulfill their potential, school choosers must be informed about their options. We conducted a randomized controlled trial during the school choice application period in New Orleans to assess the effects of providing information to parents. Families with children entering pre-K, kindergarten, or ninth grade were assigned to one of two treatment groups or a control group. A “performance” group received lists of the highest-performing schools or programs available (via U.S. mail, email, and text message). A “neighborhood” group received lists of the schools or programs in their home geographic zone. We find that the performance treatment made applicants significantly more likely to request high-performing schools, though the effects were concentrated among high school choosers. The performance treatment had especially strong effects among families of students with disabilities. The neighborhood treatment had only modest effects. We consider these findings in the context of questions about the role of information in school choice markets, as well as which families may be in particular need of support.

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Rebecca Unterman, Christina Weiland.

While there is a consensus that attending preschool better prepares children for kindergarten, evidence on the factors that sustain the preschool boost into the early elementary years is still emerging.  To add to this literature, we use lottery data from applicants to oversubscribed schools in Boston Public Schools (BPS) prekindergarten program to estimate variation in the effects of the program across school sites through the end of third grade.  Student outcomes include children’s kindergarten-through-second-grade retention, kindergarten-through-third-grade special education placement, and third-grade state English Language Arts and math test scores.  We find statistically significant variation in effects in all student outcomes and we predict this variation with multiple proxies for early elementary school quality.  We find that the academic proficiency of third-graders within the schools for which prekindergarten children competed is most strongly associated with prekindergarten program effects. Prekindergarten gains persisted if students applied to and won a seat in a higher-quality elementary school. Our findings appear to be driven by the schools themselves and not by student selection in higher-scoring schools, nor by the counterfactual.  These findings imply that policymakers and practitioners interested in sustained gains may need to also invest in improving the quality of children’s K-3 experience.

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Heather C. Hill, Erica Litke, Kathleen Lynch.

For nearly three decades, policy-makers and researchers in the United States have promoted more intellectually rigorous standards for mathematics teaching and learning. Yet, to date, we have limited descriptive evidence on the extent to which reform-oriented instruction has been enacted at scale.

The purpose of the study is to examine the prevalence of reform-aligned mathematics instructional practices in five U.S. school districts. We also seek to describe the range of instruction students experience by presenting case studies of teachers at high, medium and low levels of reform alignment.

We draw on 1,735 video-recorded lessons from 329 elementary teachers in these five U.S. urban districts.

Research Design:
We present descriptive analyses of lesson scores on a mathematics-focused classroom observation instrument. We also draw upon interviews with district personnel, rater-written lesson summaries, and lesson video in order to develop case studies of instructional practice.

We find that teachers in our sample do use reform-aligned instructional practices, but that they do so within the confines of traditional lesson formats. We also find that the implementation of these instructional practices varies in quality. Furthermore, the prevalence and strength of these practices corresponds to the coherence of district efforts at instructional reform.

Our findings suggest that unlike other studies in which reform-oriented instruction rarely occurred (e.g. Kane & Staiger, 2012), reform practices do appear to some degree in study classrooms. In addition, our analyses suggest that implementation of these reform practices corresponds to the strength and coherence of district efforts to change instruction.

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Christopher Doss, Hans Fricke, Susanna Loeb.

This study assesses the effects of two text-messaging programs for parents that aim to support the development of math skills in prekindergarten students. One program focuses purely on math, while the other takes an identical approach but focuses on a combination of math, literacy, and social-emotional skills. We find no evidence that the math-only program benefits children’s development. However, the combination program shows greater promise, particularly for girls. Quantile regressions indicate that the effects are concentrated in the lower half of the outcome distribution. Results imply that girls may have started the year behind boys in math and caught up to and even surpassed boys when their parents have access to the program that combines topics. Our results also provide evidence that the structure of behavioral interventions can affect who benefits from the program, sometimes in unexpected ways, to produce meaningful differences in outcomes. We discuss and provide evidence for various hypotheses that could explain these differences.

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Anna Shapiro.

Much of the literature estimating disproportionality in special education identification rates has focused on socioeconomic status, race, and gender. However, recent evidence suggests that a student’s school starting age also impacts the likelihood they receive special education services, particularly in the early grades. I build on the evidence that the youngest students in a grade more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and more likely to be placed in special education by estimating the effect of school starting age on special education identification in Michigan. I also estimate heterogeneity in this effect by student characteristics and across school districts. Using a regression discontinuity design exploiting variation in kindergarten starting age generated by a statewide kindergarten entrance age policy, I find that the youngest students in a kindergarten cohort are 40% more likely (3.3 percentage points, p<0.001) to be placed in special education than are the oldest students, and that this effect persists through eighth grade. Despite little evidence of heterogeneity by gender, race, or socioeconomic status, I find some suggestive evidence that the effect is particularly large for white boys in the early elementary grades and for black girls in the later elementary grades. I find no evidence that these effects vary across school districts. Finally, I find exploratory evidence of variation by school cohort age composition, suggesting these effects are driven moreso by relative age comparisons than absolute age developmental differences. Given the importance of special education services to the academic success of children with disabilities, these findings have implications for schools and for policymakers seeking to improve special education program provision.

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Scott Latham, Sean P. Corcoran, Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, Jennifer L. Jennings.

New York City’s universal pre-kindergarten program, which increased full-day enrollment from 19,000 to almost 70,000 children, is ambitious in both scale and implementation speed. We provide new evidence on the distribution of pre-K quality in NYC by student race/ethnicity, and investigate the extent to which observed differences are associated with the spatial distribution of higher-quality providers. Relative to other jurisdictions, we find the average quality of public pre-K providers is high. However, we identify large disparities in the average quality of providers experienced by black and white students, which is partially explained by differential proximity to higher-quality providers. Taken together, current racial disparities in the quality of pre-K providers may limit the program’s ability to reduce racial achievement gaps.

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