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K-12 Education

Ishtiaque Fazlul, Cory Koedel, Eric Parsons.

Measures of student disadvantage—or risk—are critical components of equity-focused education policies. However, the risk measures used in contemporary policies have significant limitations, and despite continued advances in data infrastructure and analytic capacity, there has been little innovation in these measures for decades. We develop a new measure of student risk for use in education policies, which we call Predicted Academic Performance (PAP). PAP is a flexible, data-rich indicator that identifies students at risk of poor academic outcomes. It blends concepts from emerging “early warning” systems with principles of incentive design to balance the competing priorities of accurate risk measurement and suitability for policy use. PAP is more effective than common alternatives at identifying students who are at risk of poor academic outcomes and can be used to target resources toward these students—and students who belong to several other associated risk categories—more efficiently.

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Victoria Hunter Gibney, Kristine L. West, Seth Gershenson.

The burnout, stress, and work-life balance challenges faced by teachers have received renewed interest due to the myriad disruptions and changes to K-12 schooling brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, even prior to the pandemic relatively little was known about teachers’ time use outside of the classroom, the blurring of work and home boundaries, and how teachers compare to similar professionals in these regards. We use daily time-diary data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) for 3,227 teachers and 1,947 professionals in similarly prosocial occupations from 2003 to 2019 to examine occupational differences in time use. Compared to observationally similar non-teachers, teachers spend significantly more time volunteering at their workplace and completing work outside the workplace. On average, teachers spend 12 more minutes working outside of the workplace on weekdays than observably similar non-teachers, and 39 more minutes on weekends. The weekend disparity is particularly large among secondary school teachers. This suggests that before the widespread switch to online and hybrid learning necessitated by the COVID pandemic, teachers were already navigating blurrier work-life boundaries than their counterparts in similar professions. This has important implications for teacher turnover and for the effectiveness and wellness of teachers who remain in the profession.

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Benjamin W. Arold.

Anti-scientific attitudes can impose substantial costs on societies. Can schools be an important agent in mitigating the propagation of such attitudes? This paper investigates the effect of the content of science education on anti-scientific attitudes, knowledge, and choices. The analysis exploits staggered reforms that reduce or expand the coverage of evolution theory in US state science education standards. I compare adjacent cohorts in models with state and cohort fixed effects and conduct fine-grained placebo tests to rule out scientific, religious and political confounders. There are three main results. First, expanded evolution coverage increases students’ knowledge about evolution. Second, the reforms translate into greater evolution belief in adulthood, but do not crowd out religiosity or affect political attitudes. Third, the reforms affect high-stakes life decisions, namely the probability of working in life sciences.

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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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Shaun M. Dougherty, Mary M. Smith.

Career and technical education (CTE) has existed in the United States for over a century, and only in recent years have there been opportunities to assess the causal impact of participating in these programs while in high school. To date, no work has assessed whether the relative costs of these programs meet or exceed the benefits as described in recent evaluations. In this paper, we use available cost data to compare average costs per pupil in standalone high school CTE programs in Connecticut and Massachusetts to the most likely counterfactual schools. Under a variety of conservative assumptions about the monetary value of known educational and social benefits, we find that programs in Massachusetts offer clear positive returns on investment, whereas programs in Connecticut offer smaller, though mostly non-negative expected returns. We also consider the potential cost effectiveness of CTE programs offered in other contexts to address questions of generalizability.  

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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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Jonathan L. Presler.

Using daily lunch transaction data from NYC public schools, I determine which students frequently stand next to one another in the lunch line. I use this `revealed' friendship network to estimate academic peer effects in elementary school classrooms, improving on previous work by defining not only where social connections exist, but the relative strength of these connections. Equally weighting all peers in a reference group assumes that all peers are equally important and may bias estimates by underweighting important peers and overweighting unimportant peers. I find that students who eat together are important influencers of one another's academic performance, with stronger effects in math than in reading. Further exploration of the mechanisms supports my claim that these are friendship networks. I also compare the influence of friends from different periods in the school year and find that connections occurring around standardized testing dates are most influential on test scores.

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David Blazar.

Using a causal mediation framework, I find several social dynamics that explain how and why Black teachers benefit students. Random assignment to a Black versus a White teacher in upper-elementary school increases self-efficacy and engagement of Black students (0.6 SD), and increases test scores (0.2 SD) and decreases chronic absenteeism (60% reduction) of all students. These total effects are partly explained by “good” teaching practices and mindsets that Black teachers possess more than White teachers. However, the measures do not fully mediate the total effects of Black teachers, indicating that other social interactions such as role modeling also play a role. The findings provide motivation for recruiting more Black teachers and insight into training the current, mostly White teacher workforce.

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Lindsey Rose Bullinger, Maithreyi Gopalan, Caitlin Lombardi.
Publicly funded adult health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has had positive effects on low-income adults. We examine whether the ACA’s Medicaid expansions influenced child development and family functioning in low-income households. We use a difference-in-differences framework that exploits cross-state policy variation and focus on children in low-income families from a nationally representative, longitudinal sample followed from kindergarten to fifth grade. The ACA Medicaid expansions improved children’s reading test scores by approximately 2 percent (0.04 SD). Potential mechanisms for these effects within families are more time spent reading at home, less parental help with homework, and eating dinner together. We find no effects for children’s math test scores or socioemotional skill development.

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Monica Lee, James Soland.

Reclassification can be an important juncture in the academic experience of English Learners (ELs). Literature has explored the potential for reclassification to influence academic outcomes like achievement, yet its impact on social-emotional learning (SEL) skills, which are as malleable and important to long-term success, remains unclear. Using a regression discontinuity design, we examine the causal effect of reclassification on SEL skills (self-efficacy, growth mindset, self-management, and social awareness) among 4th to 8th graders. In the districts studied, reclassification improved academic self-efficacy by 0.2 standard deviations for students near the threshold. Results are robust to alternative specifications and analyses. Given this evidence, we discuss ways districts might establish practices that instill more positive academic beliefs among ELs.

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