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Politics, governance, philanthropy, and organizations

Agustina S. Paglayan.

Because primary education is often conceptualized as a pro-poor redistributive policy, a common argument is that democratization increases its provision. But primary education can also serve the goals of autocrats, including redistribution, promoting loyalty, nation-building, and/or industrialization. To examine the relationship between democratization and education provision empirically, I leverage new datasets covering 109 countries and 200 years. Difference-in-differences and interrupted time series estimates find that, on average, democratization had no or little impact on primary school enrollment rates. When unpacking this average null result, I find that, consistent with median voter theories, democratization can lead to an expansion of primary schooling, but the key condition under which it doeswhen a majority lacked access to primary schooling before democratizationrarely holds. Around the world, state-controlled primary schooling emerged a century before democratization, and in three-fourths of countries that democratized, a majority already had access to primary education before democratization.

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David M. Houston, Michael B. Henderson, Paul E. Peterson, Martin R. West.

States and districts are increasingly incorporating measures of achievement growth into their school accountability systems, but there is little research on how these changes affect the public’s perceptions of school quality. We conduct a nationally representative online survey experiment to identify the effects of providing participants with information about their local school districts’ average achievement status and/or average achievement growth. In the control group, participants who live in higher status districts tend to grade their local schools more favorably. The provision of status information does not fundamentally alter this relationship. The provision of growth information, however, reshapes Americans’ views about educational performance. Once informed, participants’ evaluations of their local public schools better reflect the variation in district growth.

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Vladimir Kogan, Stéphane Lavertu, Zachary Peskowitz.

America's decentralized system of public school governance is premised on the assumption that the interests of voters who elect school boards will be aligned with the educational needs of students. We explore the plausibility of this assumption by comparing the demographic characteristics of voters and students across four states. Using official voter turnout records and rich microtargeting data, we document considerable demographic differences between voters who participate in school board elections and the students attending the schools that boards oversee, suggesting that the assumption is unlikely to describe reality in many settings. For example, we show that most majority-nonwhite districts in our sample have a majority-white electorate and that these electoral disparities are associated with racial achievement gaps. Our novel analysis provides important political context for considering the electoral incentives facing school boards and how these incentives shape the quality of public education.

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James G. Cibulka, Martin E. Orland, Kenneth K. Wong.

The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) grants states unprecedented discretion in implementing many of the federal law’s requirements concerning the needs of the nation’s educationally disadvantaged students. This theoretical paper addresses a void in the policy implementation literature on why ESEA reform efforts have not been more effectively sustained. It synthesizes previous research on ESEA by proposing the use of multiple political science frames to guide new empirical research on ESSA’s impacts. These alternative models—ESSA’s Legal Framework, Institutional Actors, and Stakeholder Bargaining—can inform the law’s national impacts on equity for disadvantaged students and the key conditions affecting differences in state responses to the equity challenge ESSA presents.

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Leslie K. Finger, Sarah Reckhow.

Political parties in the U.S. are composed of networks of interest groups, according to the extended party network theory. Scholars have focused on national extended party networks. We use the case of education interest groups to explore how policy environments shape party networks on the state level. Using 145,000 campaign contributions from 2000 to 2017, we show that the alignment of education interest groups has changed over time. In 2000, teachers unions were the dominant group and aligned with Democrats. Meanwhile, Republicans lacked support from any education group. This pattern was relatively consistent across states. Over time, coalitions diverged, with some state networks polarizing, meaning unions increasingly aligned with Democrats and reform groups with Republicans, while others did not experience such polarization. We find that labor law restrictions and private school choice programs were related to these trends, suggesting that state-level policies shape the contours of state party networks.

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Matthew A. Kraft, Eric Brunner, Shaun M. Dougherty, David Schwegman.

In recent years, states have sought to increase accountability for public school teachers by implementing a package of reforms centered on high-stakes evaluation systems. We examine the effect of these reforms on the supply and quality of new teachers. Leveraging variation across states and time, we find that accountability reforms reduced the number of newly licensed teacher candidates and increased the likelihood of unfilled teaching positions, particularly in hard-to-staff schools. Evidence also suggests that reforms increased the quality of new labor supply by reducing the likelihood new teachers attended unselective undergraduate institutions. Decreases in job security, satisfaction, and autonomy are likely mechanisms for these effects.

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Beth Schueler, Martin R. West.

Public support for school improvement policies can increase the success and durability of those reforms. However, little is known about public views on turnaround. We deployed questions and embedded experiments in a nationally representative 2017 survey (n=4,214) to uncover opinions regarding (a) which level of government should lead on turnaround and (b) state takeover of troubled districts. We find a large plurality prefers states play the greatest role in identifying and fixing failing schools. However, a substantial share prefers local governments increase their role. We find high levels of support for state takeover, yet support is greater in cases of financial mismanagement than academic underperformance. Those most likely to be directly affected express the least support for state takeover. 

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Jonathan E. Collins.

Is there democratic accountability to the public at the local level, and if so, how does it work? We know that a major part of democratic ability depends on citizens being able to properly evaluate government based on government performance, particularly at the local level. However, we know much less about all of the potential pathways to get from performance to evaluations and vice versa. This study argues that establishing a "deliberative culture" of routine discourse in public meetings can help explain public evaluations and government performance. With a focus on public education, I find evidence that residents of districts with a more deliberative culture are more likely to give positive evaluations of their schools, particularly when residents lack access to information or live in low-performing districts. I also find that in school districts with a more deliberative culture, students - on average - show a higher proficiency in reading and math. This trend also holds true for vulnerable sub- populations: poor students, Black students, and Latinx students. These results suggest that deliberative democracy plays an important role in local and urban politics.

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Ying Shi, John D. Singleton.

In this paper, we study the roles of expertise and independence on governing boards in the context of education. In particular, we examine the causal influence of professional educators elected to local school boards on education production. Educators may bring valuable human capital to school district leadership, thereby improving student learning. Alternatively, the independence of educators may be distorted by interest groups. The key empirical challenge is that school board composition is endogenously determined through the electoral process. To overcome this, we develop and implement a novel research design that exploits California's randomized assignment of the order that candidates appear on election ballots. The insight of our empirical strategy is that ballot order effects generate quasi-random variation in the elected school board's composition. This approach is made possible by a unique dataset that combines election information about California school board candidates with district-level data on education inputs and outcomes. The results reveal that educators on the school board causally increase teacher salaries and reduce district enrollment in charter schools relative to other board members. We do not find accompanying effects on student test scores. We interpret these findings as consistent with educators on school boards shifting bargaining in favor of teachers' unions.

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Morgan Polikoff, Shauna E. Campbell, Cory Koedel, Quynh Tien Le, Tenice Hardaway, Hovanes Gasparian.

Textbooks are a widely used educational intervention that can affect student achievement, and the marginal cost of choosing a more effective textbook is typically small. However, we know little about how textbooks get from the publisher to the classroom. We use a lens of institutional theory and interviews with district leaders in a stratified random sample of 34 California school districts to investigate the ways mathematics textbook adoption practices vary and predict adoption decisions. We find isomorphic, highly formalized adoption processes in most districts. However, we observe some differences along dimensions of district size, technological interest/infrastructure, and English learner concentration. We recommend states produce and update lists of high quality materials early and often, and that they use a highly rigorous evaluation process. We also recommend states experiment with encouraging similar districts to partner on textbook evaluation and adoption to respond to district demands for information and capacity building around curricula.

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