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Inequality

Carly D. Robinson, Biraj Bisht, Susanna Loeb.

Billions of dollars are invested in opt-in, educational resources to accelerate students’ learning. Although advertised to support struggling, marginalized students, there is no guarantee these students will opt in. We report results from a school system’s implementation of on-demand tutoring. The take up was low. At baseline, only 19% of students ever accessed the platform, and struggling students were far less likely to opt in than their more engaged and higher achieving peers. We conducted a randomized controlled trial (N=4,763) testing behaviorally-informed approaches to increase take-up. Communications to parents and students together increase the likelihood students access tutoring by 46%, which led to a four-percentage point decrease in course failures. Nonetheless, take-up remained low, showing concerns that opt-in resources can increase—instead of reduce—inequality are valid. Without targeted investments, opt-in educational resources are unlikely to reach many students who could benefit.

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Matthew A. Kraft, Sarah Novicoff.

Policymakers have renewed calls for expanding instructional time in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We establish a set of empirical facts about time in school, synthesize the literature on the causal effects of instructional time, and conduct a case study of time use in an urban district. On average, instructional time in U.S. public schools is comparable to most high-income countries, with longer days but shorter years. However, instructional time varies widely across U.S. public schools with a 90th-10th percentile difference of 190 total hours. Empirical literature confirms that additional time can increase student achievement, but how this time is structured matters. Our case study suggests schools might also recover substantial lost learning time within the existing school day.

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Christina Weiland, Meghan McCormick, Jennifer Duer, Allison Friedman-Kraus, Mirjana Pralica, Samantha Xia, Milagros Nores, Shira Mattera.

Nearly all states with public prekindergarten programs use mixed-delivery systems, with classrooms in both public schools and community-based settings.  However, experts have long raised concerns about systematic inequities by setting within these public systems.  We used data from five large-scale such systems that have taken steps to improve equity by setting  (Boston, New York City, Seattle, New Jersey, and West Virginia) to conduct the most comprehensive descriptive study of prekindergarten setting differences to date. Our public school sample included 2,395 children in 383 classrooms in 152 schools, while our community-based sample is comprised of 1,541 children in 201 classrooms in 103 community-based organizations (CBOs).  We examined how child and teacher demographic characteristics, structural and process quality features, and child gains differed by setting within each of these systems.  We found evidence of sorting of children and teachers by setting within each locality, including of children with higher baseline skills and more educated teachers into public schools. Where there were differences in quality and children’s gains, these tended to favor public schools.  The localities with fewer policy differences by setting – NJ and Seattle – showed fewer differences in quality and child gains.  Our findings suggest that inequities by setting are common, appear consequential, and deserve more research and policy attention.  

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Alex Eble, Maya Escueta.

How much does family demand matter for child learning in contexts of extreme poverty? In rural Gambia, families with high aspirations for their children's future education and career, measured before children start school, go on to invest substantially more than other families in their children’s education. Despite this, essentially no children are literate or numerate three years later. When villages receive a highly-impactful, teacher-focused supply-side intervention, however, children of these families are 25 percent more likely to achieve literacy and numeracy than other children in the same village. Furthermore, improved supply enables these children to acquire other higher-level skills necessary for later learning and child development. In such settings, greater demand can map onto developmentally meaningful learning differences, but only with adequate complementary inputs.

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Zachary Oberfield, Bruce Baker.

This paper contributes to our understanding of American education politics by exploring when and why states redistribute K-12 education dollars to poorer schools. It does so by examining three explanations for intra-state changes in progressivity: court-ordered finance reforms, political trends, and demographic changes. Using state-level data from 1995-2016, we find mixed evidence that progressivity increased following a court-ordered school finance overhaul. Rather, we show that changes in progressivity were most consistently tied to changes in student demography: as students became poorer, or more racially diverse, lawmakers created less progressive finance systems. The paper concludes by discussing what these findings mean for advocates seeking to protect and advance gains in education spending progressivity.

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Kate Antonovics, Sandra E. Black, Julie Berry Cullen, Akiva Yonah Meiselman.

Schools often track students to classes based on ability. Proponents of tracking argue it is a low-cost tool to improve learning since instruction is more effective when students are more homogeneous, while opponents argue it exacerbates initial differences in opportunities without strong evidence of efficacy. In fact, little is known about the pervasiveness or determinants of ability tracking in the US. To fill this gap, we use detailed administrative data from Texas to estimate the extent of tracking within schools for grades 4 through 8 over the years 2011-2019. We find substantial tracking; tracking within schools overwhelms any sorting by ability that takes place across schools. The most important determinant of tracking is heterogeneity in student ability, and schools operationalize tracking through the classification of students into categories such as gifted and disabled and curricular differentiation. When we examine how tracking changes in response to educational policies, we see that schools decrease tracking in response to accountability pressures. Finally, when we explore how exposure to tracking correlates with student mobility in the achievement distribution, we find positive effects on high-achieving students with no negative effects on low-achieving students, suggesting that tracking may increase inequality by raising the ceiling.

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Lauren C. Russell, Michael J. Andrews.

We exploit historical natural experiments to test whether universities increase economic mobility and equality. We use "runner-up’" counties that were strongly considered to become university sites but were not selected for as-good-as-random reasons as counterfactuals for university counties. University establishment causes greater intergenerational income mobility but also increases cross-sectional income inequality. We highlight four findings to explain this seeming paradox: universities hollow out the local labor market and provide greater opportunities to achieve top incomes, both of which increase cross-sectional inequality, and increase educational attainment and connections to high-SES people, which prevent inequality from perpetuating into intergenerational immobility.

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Kenneth A. Shores, Hojung Lee, Elinor Williams.

Levels of governance (the nation, states, and districts), student subgroups (racially and ethnically minoritized and economically disadvantaged students), and types of resources (expenditures, class sizes, and teacher quality) intersect to represent a complex and comprehensive picture of K-12 educational resource inequality. Drawing on multiple sources of the most recently available data, we describe inequality in multiple dimensions. At the national level, racially and ethnically minoritized and economically disadvantaged students receive between $30 and $800 less in K-12 expenditures per pupil than White and economically advantaged students. At the state and district levels, per-pupil expenditures generally favor racially and ethnically minoritized and economically disadvantaged students compared to White and economically advantaged students. Looking at nonpecuniary resources, minoritized and economically disadvantaged students have smaller class sizes than their subgroup counterparts in the average district, but these students also have greater exposure to inexperienced teachers. We see no evidence that district-level spending in favor of traditionally disadvantaged subgroups is explained by district size, average district spending, teacher turnover, or expenditures on auxiliary staff, but Black and Hispanic spending advantage is correlated with the relative size of the Black and Hispanic special education population.

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C. Kirabo Jackson, Sebastian Kiguel, Shanette C. Porter, John Q. Easton.

We estimate the longer-run effects of attending an effective high school (one that improves a combination of test scores, survey measures of socio-emotional development, and behaviors in 9th grade) for students who are more versus less educationally advantaged (i.e., likely to attain more years of education based on 8th-grade characteristics). All students benefit from attending effective schools, but the least advantaged students experience larger improvements in high-school graduation, college going, and school-based arrests. This heterogeneity is not solely due to less-advantaged groups being marginal for particular outcomes. Commonly used test-score value-added understates the long-run importance of effective schools, particularly for less-advantaged populations. Patterns suggest this partly reflects less-advantaged students being relatively more responsive to non-test-score dimensions of school quality.

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David M. Quinn, Tara-Marie Desruisseaux.

Scholars argue the “racial achievement gap” frame perpetuates deficit mindsets. Previously, we found teachers gave lower priority to racial equity when disparities were framed as “achievement gaps” versus “inequality in educational outcomes.” In this brief, we analyze data from two survey experiments using a teacher sample and an MTurk sample. We find: (1) the effect of “achievement gap” (AG) language on equity prioritization is moderated by implicit bias, with larger negative effects among teachers holding stronger anti-Black/pro-White stereotypes, (2) the negative effect of AG language replicates with non-teachers, and (3) AG language causes respondents to express more negative racial stereotypes.

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