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K-12 Education

Sarah Gust, Eric A. Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann.

How far is the world away from ensuring that every child obtains the basic skills needed to be internationally competitive? And what would accomplishing this mean for world development? Based on the micro data of international and regional achievement tests, we map achievement onto a common (PISA) scale. We then estimate the share of children not achieving basic skills for 159 countries that cover 98.1% of world population and 99.4% of world GDP. We find that at least two-thirds of the world’s youth do not reach basic skill levels, ranging from 24% in North America to 89% in South Asia and 94% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Our economic analysis suggests that the present value of lost world economic output due to missing the goal of global universal basic skills amounts to over $700 trillion over the remaining century, or 11% of discounted GDP.

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Michael S. Hayes, Jing Liu, Seth Gershenson.

Teachers affect a wide range of students’ educational and social outcomes, but how they contribute to students’ involvement in school discipline is less understood. We estimate the impact of teacher demographics and other observed qualifications on students’ likelihood of receiving a disciplinary referral. Using data that track all disciplinary referrals and the identity of both the referred and referring individuals from a large and diverse urban school district in California, we find students are about 0.2 to 0.5 percentage points (7% to 18%) less likely to receive a disciplinary referral from teachers of the same race or gender than from teachers of different demographic backgrounds. Students are also less likely to be referred by more experienced teachers and by teachers who hold either an English language learners or special education credential. These results are mostly driven by referrals for defiance and violence infractions, Black and Hispanic male students, and middle school students. While it is unclear whether these findings are due to variation in teachers’ effects on actual student behavior, variation in teachers’ proclivities to make disciplinary referrals, or a combination of the two, these results nonetheless suggest that teachers play a central role in the prevalence of, and inequities in, office referrals and subsequent student discipline.

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Lang (Kate) Yang.

School districts in the United States often borrow on the municipal bond market to pay for capital projects. Districts serving economically disadvantaged communities tend to receive lower credit ratings and pay higher interest rates. To remedy this problem, 24 states have established credit enhancement programs that promise to repay district debt when a district cannot do so, thereby enhancing the district’s credit rating. I rely on cross- and within-district variations to estimate the effect of receiving state credit enhancement on district bond interest rate, per-pupil capital spending, and student performance. State enhancement reduces district bond interest rates by 6% and increases per-student capital spending by 6% to 7%. It also reduces the disparity in interest rate and capital spending across districts serving lower and higher income families, with no discernible effect on test scores. I find no evidence that the amount of enhanced school debt is associated with significant changes in interest rates paid by state governments. Districts in states without such programs could have achieved cost savings in the range of $383 million to $1 billion from 2009 to 2019 had the states adopted similar programs.

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Leanna Stiefel, Syeda Sana Fatima, Joseph R. Cimpian, Kaitlyn O’Hagan.

There has been an explosion of special education research and new policies surrounding the topic of racial and ethnic disproportionality. Some recent research shifts focus to whether school context moderates findings (e.g., is a Black student less likely than a White student to receive special education services as the proportion of a school’s Black students increases?). We extend this emerging literature using eight years of elementary student-and school-level data from NYC public schools, examining more school contextual moderators, expanding racial categories, and distinguishing between cross-sectional and over-time differences. We find that student racial/ethnic composition, teacher racial composition, school size, concentration of poor students, and teachers’ perceptions of school climate all moderate disproportionality. These school context factors appear to be particularly salient for the classification of Black students, and most of these associations are driven by differences across schools, suggesting new avenues for researchers and levers for policy.

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Mark Murphy, Angela Johnson.
This study examines the effects of English Learner (EL) status on subsequent Special Education (SPED) placement. Through a research-practice partnership, we link student demographic data and initial English proficiency assessment data across seven cohorts of test takers and observe EL and SPED programmatic participation for these students over seven years. Our regression discontinuity (RD) estimates at the English proficiency margin consistently differ substantively from positive associations generated through regression analyses. RD evidence indicates that EL status had no effect on SPED placement at the English proficiency threshold. Grade-by-grade and subgroup RD analyses at this margin suggest that ELs were modestly under-identified for SPED during grade 5 and that ELs whose primary language was Spanish were under-identified for SPED.

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Jessalynn James, James H. Wyckoff.

The distribution of teaching effectiveness across schools is fundamental to understanding how schools can address disparities in educational outcomes. Research and policy have recognized the importance of teaching effectiveness for decades. Five stylized facts predict that teachers should be differentially allocated across schools such that poor, Black and Hispanic students are taught by less qualified and less effective teachers. Yet, research is unclear whether these predictions have empirical support. Our purpose is to better understand whether there are meaningful differences in teacher effectiveness among schools. We find that poor, Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be taught by novice teachers when they live in more segregated MSAs. Moreover, the geographic nature of segregation varies across MSAs. Differentiating segregation within urban districts and segregation between urban districts and outlying districts in the same MSAs is essential to understanding poor students’ exposure to novice teachers and policies that address these disparities. We find that poor, Black and Hispanic students are 50 percent more likely to be exposed to at least one novice teacher during elementary school compared to their more affluent white peers. These results raise questions regarding the enforcement of ESSA’s requirements on the distribution of teacher qualifications and quality.

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Alvin Christian, Brian Jacob, John D. Singleton.

The COVID-19 pandemic drew new attention to the role of school boards in the U.S. In this paper, we examine school districts' choices of learning modality -- whether and when to offer in-person, virtual, or hybrid instruction -- over the course of the 2020-21 pandemic school year. The analysis takes advantage of granular weekly data on learning mode and COVID-19 cases for Ohio school districts. We show that districts respond on the margin to health risks: all else equal, a marginal increase in new cases reduces the probability that a district offers in-person instruction the next week. Moreover, this negative response is magnified when the district was in-person the prior week and attenuates in magnitude over the school year. These findings are consistent with districts learning from experience about the effect of in-person learning on disease transmission in schools. We also find evidence that districts are influenced by the decisions of their peers.

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Jing Liu, Monica Lee.

Student absenteeism is often conceptualized and quantified in a static, uniform manner, providing an incomplete understanding of this important phenomenon. Applying growth curve models to detailed class-attendance data, we document that secondary school students' unexcused absences grow steadily throughout a school year and over grades, while the growth of excused absences remain essentially unchanged. Importantly, students starting the school year with a high number of unexcused absences, Black and Hispanic students, and low-income students accumulate unexcused absences at a significantly faster rate than their counterparts. Lastly, students with higher growth rates in unexcused absences consistently report lower perceptions of all aspects of school culture than their peers. Interventions targeting unexcused absences and/or improving school culture can be crucial to mitigating disengagement.

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Jing Liu, Megan Kuhfeld, Monica Lee, Danett Song.

Noncognitive constructs such as self-efficacy, social awareness, and academic engagement are widely acknowledged as critical components of human capital, but systematic data collection on such skills in school systems is complicated by conceptual ambiguities, measurement challenges and resource constraints. This study addresses this issue by comparing the predictive validity of two most widely used metrics on noncogntive outcomes|observable academic behaviors (e.g., absenteeism, suspensions) and student self-reported social and emotional learning (SEL) skills|for the likelihood of high school graduation and postsecondary attainment. Our findings suggest that conditional on student demographics and achievement, academic behaviors are several-fold more predictive than SEL skills for all long-run outcomes, and adding SEL skills to a model with academic behaviors improves the model's predictive power minimally. In addition, academic behaviors are particularly strong predictors for low-achieving students' long-run outcomes. Part-day absenteeism (as a result of class skipping) is the largest driver behind the strong predictive power of academic behaviors. Developing more nuanced behavioral measures in existing administrative data systems might be a fruitful strategy for schools whose intended goal centers on predicting students' educational attainment.

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Carly D. Robinson.

Few question the value of teacher-student relationships (TSRs) for educational outcomes. TSRs are positively associated with students’ achievement and engagement, as well as teachers’ well-being. Building and maintaining these crucial classroom relationships, however, is not easy. Drawing on prominent motivation theories in educational psychology, I present the Motivating Teacher-Student Relationships framework for understanding what motivates teachers to build positive TSRs. In particular, I focus on how teachers’ motivational beliefs about TSRs energize, direct, and sustain their efforts to engage in relationship-building behaviors and, thus, lead to positive relationships with their students. To build positive TSRs, teachers must believe it is their role to build TSRs, value TSRs, and believe they can successfully build TSRs (i.e., have relational self-efficacy). These beliefs are shaped by teachers’ sociocultural contexts and can facilitate or undermine the development of these learning relationships. With a greater understanding of how motivational beliefs influence social relationships, the field of education can more effectively develop theoretically grounded interventions to improve TSRs and mitigate inequality.

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