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Parents and communities

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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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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Weina Zhou, Andrew J. Hill.

Children exposed to Interparental Verbal Conflict (IPVC) exert negative spillovers on their peers. Using nationally representative survey data from middle schools in China, focusing on schools that randomly assign students into classrooms, and using both (1) within-school, across-classroom variation and (2) within-student, year-to-year variation to identify effects, we find that being assigned to classes where more classmates experience IPVC reduces mental wellbeing, diminishes self-confidence, lowers social engagement, and increases the likelihood of problem behaviors. Effects operate by damaging relationships between classmates. There is no evidence of impacts on test scores or teacher’s outcomes.

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Jeehee Han, Amy Ellen Schwartz.

Is public housing bad for children? Critics charge that public housing projects concentrate poverty and create neighborhoods with limited opportunities, including low-quality schools. However, whether the net effect is positive or negative is theoretically ambiguous and likely to depend on the characteristics of the neighborhood and schools compared to origin neighborhoods. In this paper, we draw on detailed individual-level longitudinal data on students moving into New York City public housing and examine their academic outcomes over time. Exploiting plausibly random variation in the precise timing of entry into public housing, we estimate credibly causal effects of public housing using both difference-in-differences and event study designs. We find credibly causal evidence of positive effects of moving into public housing on student test scores, with larger effects over time. Stalled academic performance in the first year of entry may reflect, in part, disruptive effects of residential and school moves. Neighborhood matters: effects are larger for students moving out of low-income neighborhoods or into higher-income neighborhoods, and these students move to schools with higher average test scores and lower shares of economically disadvantaged peers. We also find some evidence of improved attendance outcomes and reduction in incidence of childhood obesity for boys following public housing residency. Our study results refute the popular belief that public housing is bad for kids and probe the circumstances under which public housing may work to improve academic outcomes for low-income students.

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S. Michael Gaddis, Joseph Murphy.

Scholars debate whether cultural capital reproduces existing inequalities or provides a path to upward mobility. Most studies, however, focus only on cross-sectional associations and are unclear about how disadvantaged adolescents can increase their amounts of cultural capital. Adolescents may be able to increase cultural capital through ties to adults with high educational attainment. We investigate this topic using experimental longitudinal data on mentoring relationships. We find that mentors with a college degree or greater have positive effects on cultural capital, but primarily for adolescents with a parent with some college or greater. Thus, cultural capital may not be an engine of social mobility if adolescents from low-SES households cannot obtain or increase their cultural capital.

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Lindsey Rose Bullinger, Maithreyi Gopalan, Caitlin Lombardi.

Empirical evidence demonstrates that 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 skills.

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Meira Levinson, Alan C. Geller, Joseph G. Allen.

At least 25 million K-12 students in the U.S.—disproportionately children of color from low-income families—have been physically out of school for a full year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These children are at risk of significant academic, social, mental, and physical harm now and in the long-term. We must determine how to help all students gain access to safe, in-person schooling. In this interdisciplinary Viewpoint, we review the literature about the association between school reopening and COVID-19 transmission rates, and about the political, social, and environmental conditions that shape families’ and teachers’ choices to return to in-person schooling. Even though schools can safely be opened with appropriate mitigation measures, we find four reasons for schooling hesitancy: high community transmission rates; the Trump administration’s politicization of school re-openings in Summer 2020; long-term histories of mutual mistrust and racialized disinvestment in urban districts; and rational calculation about vulnerability due to the social determinants of health that have led Black and Latinx parents disproportionately to keep their children at home and White families disproportionately to send their children to school. Given the deep interconnections between the social determinants of health and of learning, and between schooling hesitancy and community vulnerability, stark inequities in in-person schooling access and take-up are likely to persist. In addition to ramping up safe and speedy school reopening now, we must make a long-term commitment to supporting schools as both sites of and contributors to public health, especially in historically marginalized communities.

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Gregory Gilpin, Ezra Karger, Peter Nencka.

Local governments spend over 12 billion dollars annually funding the operation of 15,000 public libraries in the United States. This funding supports widespread library use: more than 50% of Americans visit public libraries each year. But despite extensive public investment in libraries, surprisingly little research quantifies the effects of public libraries on communities and children. We use data on the near-universe of U.S. public libraries to study the effects of capital spending shocks on library resources, patron usage, student achievement, and local housing prices. We use a dynamic difference-in-difference approach to show that library capital investment increases children’s attendance at library events by 18%, children’s checkouts of items by 21%, and total library visits by 21%. Increases in library use translate into improved children’s test scores in nearby school districts: a $1,000 or greater per-student capital investment in local public libraries increases reading test scores by 0.02 standard deviations and has no effects on math test scores. Housing prices do not change after a sharp increase in public library capital investment, suggesting that residents internalize the increased cost and improved quality of their public libraries.

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Margot Jackson, Daniel Schneider.

Families and governments are the primary sources of investment in children, proving access to basic resources and other developmental opportunities.  Recent research identifies significant class gaps in parental investments that contribute to high levels of inequality by family income and education and, potentially, to inequality in children’s development.  State-level public investments in children and families have the potential to reduce class inequality in children’s developmental environments by affecting parents’ behavior.  Using newly assembled administrative data from 1998-2014, linked to household-level data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, we examine how public sector investment in income support, health and education is associated with the private expenditures of low and high-SES parents on developmental items for children. Are class gaps in parental investments in children narrower in contexts of higher public investment for children and families?  We find that more generous public spending for children and families is associated with significantly narrower class gaps in private parental investments.  Moreover, we find that equalization is driven by bottom up increases in low-SES household spending for the progressive investments of income support and health, and by top down decreases in high-SES household spending for the universal investment of public education.

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