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K-12 Education

Jing Liu, Monica Lee, Seth Gershenson.
We provide novel evidence on the causal impacts of student absences in middle and high school on state test scores, course grades, and educational attainment using a rich administrative dataset that tracks the date and class period of each absence. We use two similar but distinct identification strategies that address potential endogeneity due to time-varying student-level shocks by exploiting within-student, between-subject variation in class-specific absences. We also leverage information on the timing of absences to show that absences that occur after the annual window for state standardized testing do not affect test scores, providing a further check of our identification strategy. Both approaches yield similar results. We nd that absences in middle and high school harm contemporaneous student achievement and longer-term educational attainment: On average, missing 10 classes reduces math or English Language Arts test scores by 3-4% of a standard deviation and course grades by 17-18% of a standard deviation. 10 total absences across all subjects in 9th grade reduce both the probability of on-time graduation and ever enrolling in college by 2%. Learning loss due to school absences can have profound economic and social consequences.

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Bradley D. Marianno, Stefani R. Relles.

This case study offers an organizational perspective on the ways in which a collective bargaining agreement shaped the administrative functioning of schools within an urban district. The data demonstrate how rational choice assumptions failed to account for the everyday site interactions between principals and teachers. Using complexity theory as an analytic tool, the authors consider the interference of external pressures on a system defined by internal interdependence. Reforms that address the complexity of workplace conditions in K-12 contexts are offered.

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Melissa Arnold Lyon.

Although the Janus v. AFCSME (2018) decision fundamentally changed the institutional context for U.S. teachers’ unions by placing all public school teachers in a “Right to Work” (RTW) framework, little research exists to conceptualize the effects of such policies that hinder unionization. To fill this gap, I exploit the different timing across states in the passage of RTW policies in a differences-in-differences framework to identify how exposure to a RTW policy affects students, teachers, and education policymaking. I find that RTW policies lead to declines in teachers’ union power, but contrary to what many union critics have argued, I find that efforts to weaken unions did not result in political opportunities for education reforms nor did they improve student achievement outcomes.

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C. Kirabo Jackson, Claire Mackevicius.

We use estimates across all known "credibly causal" studies to examine the distributions of the causal effects of public K12 school spending on test scores and educational attainment in the United States. Under reasonable assumptions, for each of the 31 included studies, we compute the same parameter estimate. Method of moments estimates indicate that, on average, a $1000 increase in per-pupil public school spending (for four years) increases test scores by 0.044 standard deviations, high-school graduation by 2.1 percentage points, and college-going by 3.9 percentage points. The pooled averages are significant at the 0.0001 level. When benchmarked against other interventions, test score impacts are much smaller than those on educational attainment -- suggesting that test-score impacts understate the value of school spending. The benefits to capital spending increases take about five-to-six years to materialize, but after this, one cannot reject that the average marginal effects differ across capital and non-capital spending types. The marginal spending impacts are much less pronounced for economically advantaged populations. Consistent with a cumulative effect, the educational attainment impacts are larger with more years of exposure to the spending increase. Average impacts are similar across a wide range of baseline spending levels -- providing little evidence of diminishing marginal returns at current spending levels.

To speak to generalizability, we estimate the variability across studies attributable to effect heterogeneity (as opposed to sampling variability). This heterogeneity explains about 40 and 70 percent of the variation across studies for educational attainment and test scores, respectively, which allows us to provide a range of likely policy impacts. A policy that increases per-pupil spending for four years will improve test scores 92 percent of the time, and educational attainment even more often.  We find suggestive evidence consistent with small possible publication bias, but demonstrate that any effects on our estimates are minimal.

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Michael Gilraine, Odhrain McCarthy.

We show that fade out biases value-added estimates at the teacher-level. To do so, we use administrative data from North Carolina and show that teachers' value-added depend on the quality of the teacher that preceded them. Value-added estimators that control for fade out feature no such teacher-level bias. Under a benchmark policy that releases teachers in the bottom five percent of the value-added distribution, fifteen percent of teachers released using traditional techniques are not released once fade out is accounted for. Our results highlight the importance of incorporating dynamic features of education production into the estimation of teacher quality.  

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Andrew C. Johnston.

Human capital shapes income, inequality, and growth. In the public sphere, human-capital formation depends largely on the selection and retention of teachers. To understand how to improve selection and retention, I use a discrete-choice experiment to estimate teacher preferences for compensation structure, working conditions, and contracts. High-performing teachers have stronger preferences for schools offering performance pay, which implies it promotes positive selection. Under a variety of school objectives, schools appear to underpay in salary and performance pay while overpaying in retirement. The results suggest significant efficiency gains from restructuring compensation: teacher welfare and student achievement can be simultaneously much improved.

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Lucy C. Sorensen, Shawn D. Bushway, Elizabeth J. Gifford.
Nationwide, school principals are given wide discretion to use disciplinary tools like suspension and expulsion to create a safe learning environment. There is legitimate concern that this power can have negative consequences, particularly for the students who are excluded. This study uses linked disciplinary, education, and criminal justice records from 2008 to 2016 in North Carolina to examine the impact of principal driven disciplinary decisions on middle school student outcomes. We find that principals who are more likely to remove students lead to reductions in reported rates of minor student misconduct. However, this deterrence comes at a high cost – these harsher principals generate more juvenile justice complaints and reduce high school graduation rates for all students in their schools. Students who committed minor disciplinary infractions in a school with a harsh principal suffer additional declines in attendance and test scores. Finally, principals exhibiting racial bias in their disciplinary decisions also widen educational gaps between White and Black students.

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Matt Grossmann, Sarah Reckhow, Katharine Strunk, Meg Turner.

The COVID-19 pandemic created enormous challenges for public education. We assess the role of political factors and public health in state and local education decisions, especially the continuation of learning during COVID-19. Using an original dataset of state education policies since the start of the pandemic, we find that governors took the lead on ordering school closures in Spring 2020 but left decisions to districts in the Fall, regardless of partisanship. Partisanship played a much stronger role in local decisions than state decisions. We analyze local district reopening plans and public opinion on reopening in the politically competitive state of Michigan. Partisanship was much more associated with district reopening plans than COVID-19 rates. Republicans in the Michigan public were also far more favorable than were Democrats toward in-person learning. States' decisions to leave reopening plans to their districts opened the way for students’ experiences to be shaped by their area's partisanship.

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Lina M. Anaya, Gema Zamarro.

International assessments are important to benchmark the quality of education across countries. However, on low-stakes tests, students’ incentives to invest their maximum effort may be minimal. Research stresses that ignoring students’ effort when interpreting results from low-stakes assessments can lead to biased interpretations of test performance across groups of examinees. We use data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a low-stakes test, to analyze the extent to which student effort helps to explain test scores heterogeneity across countries and by gender groups. Our results highlight the importance of accounting for differences in student effort to understand cross-country heterogeneity in performance and variations in gender achievement gaps across nations. We find that, once we account for differential student effort across gender groups, the estimated gender achievement gap in math and science could be up to 12 and 6 times wider, respectively, and up to 49 percent narrower in reading, in favor of boys. In math and science, the gap widens in most countries, even among some of the top 20 most gender-equal countries. Altogether, our effort measures on average explain between 36 and 40 percent of the cross-country variation in test scores.

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Helen F. Ladd, Edward B. Fiske.

Because of the many special characteristics of charter schools, policy makers who aim to promote a system of charters schools that ensures fair access to, and fair treatment of, disadvantaged students will need a public accountability system oriented, at least in part, to equity concerns. Massachusetts, with its single statewide authorizer, as well as its system of periodic site visits to schools and specific performance criteria, illustrates such a system. In this paper, we first explain why an equity-oriented approach is important. We then describe and evaluate the Massachusetts approach, with particular attention to the information provided by the periodic site visits. Although Massachusetts does not fully succeed with all its charter schools, especially with respect to fair treatment, it is hard to make the case that charter schools will be beneficial for disadvantaged students in the absence of an accountability system of this type.

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