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K-12 Education

Carly D. Robinson, Raj Chande, Simon Burgess, Todd Rogers.

Many educational interventions encourage parents to engage in their child’s education as if parental time and attention is limitless. Sadly, though, it is not. Successfully encouraging certain parental investments may crowd out other productive behaviors. A randomized field experiment (N = 2,212) assessed the impact of an intervention in which parents of middle and high school students received multiple text messages per week encouraging them to ask their children specific questions tied to their science curriculum. The intervention increased parent-child at-home conversations about science but did not detectably impact science test scores. At the same time, the intervention decreased parent engagement in other, potentially productive, behaviors, such as turning off the television or monitoring their child’s studying. These findings illustrate that parent engagement interventions are not costless: there are opportunity costs to shifting parental effort.

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Tareena Musaddiq, Kevin Stange, Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Joshua Goodman.

The Covid-19 pandemic drastically disrupted the functioning of U.S. public schools, potentially changing the relative appeal of alternatives such as homeschooling and private schools. Using longitudinal student-level administrative data from Michigan and nationally representative data from the Census Household Pulse Survey, we show how the pandemic affected families’ choices of school sector. We document four central facts. First, public school enrollment declined noticeably in fall 2020, with about 3 percent of Michigan students and 10 percent of kindergartners using other options. Second, most of this was driven by homeschooling rates jumping substantially, driven largely by families with children in elementary school. Third, homeschooling increased more where schools provided in-person instruction while private schooling increased more where instruction was remote, suggesting heterogeneity in parental concerns about children’s physical health and instructional quality. Fourth, kindergarten declines were highest among low income and Black families while declines in other grades were highest among higher income and White families, highlighting important heterogeneity by students’ existing attachment to public schools. Our results shed light on how families make schooling decisions and imply potential longer-run disruptions to public schools in the form of decreased enrollment and funding, changed composition of the student body, and increased size of the next kindergarten cohort.

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Anjali Adukia, Alex Eble, Emileigh Harrison, Hakizumwami Birali Runesha, Teodora Szasz.

Books shape how children learn about society and social norms, in part through the representation of different characters. To better understand the messages children encounter in books, we introduce new artificial intelligence methods for systematically converting images into data. We apply these image tools, along with established text analysis methods, to measure the representation of race, gender, and age in children’s books commonly found in US schools and homes over the last century. We find that more characters with darker skin color appear over time, but "mainstream" award-winning books, which are twice as likely to be checked out from libraries, persistently depict more lighter-skinned characters even after conditioning on perceived race. Across all books, children are depicted with lighter skin than adults. Over time, females are increasingly present but are more represented in images than in text, suggesting greater symbolic inclusion in pictures than substantive inclusion in stories. Relative to their growing share of the US population, Black and Latinx people are underrepresented in the mainstream collection; males, particularly White males, are persistently overrepresented. Our data provide a view into the "black box" of education through children’s books in US schools and homes, highlighting what has changed and what has endured.

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Morgan S. Polikoff, Daniel Silver, Marshall Garland, Anna R. Saavedra, Amie Rapaport, Michael Fienberg.

During the 2020-21 school year, families' access to--and desire to participate in--in-person schooling was highly stratified along racial and income lines. Research to date suggests that "school hesitancy" was driven by concerns about "fit" and safety, as well as simple access to in-person opportunities. In the context of a nationally-representative survey study, we tested the impact of targeted messaging on parents' reported willingness to send their children back for in-person learning in the 2021-22 school year. Our results suggest that specific messages focused on either fit or safety issues outperform generic messages--they substantially increase the reported likelihood for previously-unsure parents to send their children back for in-person learning (while having no effect on parents who already reported they would or would not send their children back). The results have direct implications for education agencies seeking to address school hesitancy as the pandemic continues.

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Matthew A. Lenard, Mikko Silliman.

We study the effects of informal social interactions on academic achievement and behavior using idiosyncratic variation in peer groups stemming from changes in bus routes across elementary, middle, and high school. In early grades, a one standard-deviation change in the value-added of same-grade bus peers corresponds to a 0.01 SD change in academic performance and a 0.03 SD change in behavior; by high school, these magnitudes grow to 0.04 SD and 0.06 SD. These findings suggest that student interactions outside the classroom—especially in adolescence—may be an important factor in the education production function.

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Plamen Nikolov, Steve Yeh.

Cognitive abilities are fundamental for decision-making, and understanding the causes of human capital depreciation in old age is especially important in an aging society. Using a longitudinal labor survey that collects direct proxy measures of cognitive skills, we study the effect of educational attainment on cognitive performance in late adulthood in South Africa. We find robust evidence that an increase in a year of schooling improves memory performance and general cognition. We also find evidence of heterogeneous effects of educational attainment on cognitive performance. We explore the mechanisms through which education can affect cognitive performance. We show that a more supportive social environment, improved health habits, and reduced stress levels likely play a critical role in mediating the beneficial effects of educational attainment on cognition among the elderly.

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Frank Perrone, Coby V. Meyers.

Hiring quality teachers that best meet localized needs to provide students with authentic learning opportunities is crucial to both school and student success. Despite the clear importance of teacher hiring, especially in the current teacher labor market, a review of literature that synthesizes the full body of teacher hiring literature has long been missing from the field. This integrative literature review of 71 empirical studies in an era of federal accountability (2001-2020) provides a full portrait of K-12 teacher hiring research. In so doing, we identify what is known while also unearthing the many knowledge gaps that exist due to factors such as sample and methodological limitations. As such, this review of the literature provides practitioners and policymakers with a number of guideposts to help them with hiring decisions. This review also shows how much more there is to learn and signals to researchers where and how they might build off of the current knowledge base.

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Mark J. Chin.

In this paper I study the impact of court-mandated school desegregation by race on student suspensions and special education classification. Simple descriptive statistics using student enrollment and outcome data collected from the largest school districts across the country in the 1970s and 1980s show that Black-White school integration was increasing for districts under court order, but not for a set of comparison districts. Similarly, Black student suspension rates were increasing at faster rates in integrating districts relative to comparison districts, and their classification rates as having an intellectual disability were decreasing at slower rates. Differences-in-differences and event study models confirm these patterns I observe in the raw data: after integration, school districts experienced statistically and practically significant reductions in racial isolation across schools and growth in racial disparities in discipline and special education classification. The impacts of integration are immediate, sustained, and robust for student suspensions in particular. My results thus provide causal evidence confirming prior descriptive and theoretical work suggesting that the racial composition of schools may influence measures of categorical inequality by race.

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Ismael Sanz, J.D. Tena.

One of the most obvious and not sufficiently well understood political decisions in education regards the optimal amount of instruction time required to improve academic performance. This paper considers an unexpected, exogenous regulatory change that reduced the school calendar of non-fee-paying schools (public and charter schools) in the Madrid region (Spain) by two weeks during the 2017/2018 school year. Using difference-in-differences regression, we found that this regulatory change contributed to a significant deterioration in academic performance, particularly in Spanish and English. We further explored non-linear (quantile) effects across the distribution of scores in standardized exams, finding that the disruption due to the new regulations affected more students in the upper quartile of the distribution. Overall, we found a reduction in the gap across non-fee-paying schools and an increase in the gap between non-fee- and fee-paying schools (private schools).

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Luke Keele, Matthew Lenard, Lindsay Page.

In education settings, treatments are often non-randomly assigned to clusters, such as schools or classrooms, while outcomes are measured for students. This research design is called the clustered observational study (COS). We examine the consequences of common support violations in the COS context. Common support violations occur when the covariate distributions of treated and control units do not overlap. Such violations are likely to occur in a COS, especially with a small number of treated clusters. One common technique for dealing with common support violations is trimming treated units. We demonstrate how this practice can yield nonsensical results in some COSs. More specifically, we show how trimming the data can result in an uninterpretable estimand. We use data on Catholic schools to illustrate concepts throughout.

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