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Program and policy effects

Elise Swanson, Tatiana Melguizo, Francisco Martorell.

This paper estimates the relationship between students’ psychosocial and academic outcomes during their first three years enrolled at public, four-year institutions. Our sample is comprised of students from low-income backgrounds who applied for a competitive scholarship and enrolled at a four-year public institution. We follow two cohorts of entering students throughout their first three years on campus. We observe their cumulative GPA and persistence decisions each semester, and have annual measures of four psychosocial outcomes: mattering to campus, sense of belonging to campus, academic self-efficacy, and social self-efficacy. We find that psychosocial outcomes are moderately predictive of academic outcomes, with sense of belonging and academic self-efficacy emerging as most predictive of both cumulative GPA and persistence.

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Elise Swanson, Joseph Kitchen, Tatiana Melguizo, Francisco Martorell.

We examine the impact of the Thompson Scholars Learning Community (TSLC), a comprehensive college transition program serving students with a variety of majors, on students’ science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related outcomes. We use an explanatory mixed-methods design, which prioritizes the quantitative analyses and uses qualitative analyses to contextualize and explain our quantitative findings. Overall, participating in TSLC does not make students more likely to declare a STEM major, although we do find a positive effect for students of color. TSLC students earn higher overall GPAs than their scholarship-only peers, and TSLC students majoring in STEM outperform scholarship-only STEM majors in STEM courses. Qualitative analyses suggest these results stem from the student-centered and proactive support the program provides students. Our results suggest that a disciplinarily-agnostic program can support student success in STEM, and may increase equitable representation in STEM fields.

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Plamen Nikolov, Nusrat Jimi.

Evidence on educational returns and the factors that determine the demand for schooling in developing countries is extremely scarce. We use two surveys from Tanzania to estimate both the actual and perceived schooling returns and subsequently examine what factors drive individual misperceptions regarding actual returns. Using ordinary least squares and instrumental variable methods, we find that each additional year of schooling in Tanzania increases earnings, on average, by 9 to 11 percent. We find that on average, individuals underestimate returns to schooling by 74 to 79 percent, and three factors are associated with these misperceptions: income, asset poverty, and educational attainment. Shedding light on what factors relate to individual beliefs about educational returns can inform policy on how to structure effective interventions to correct individuals' misperceptions.

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Heidi H. Erickson, Angela R. Watson, Jay P. Greene.

This paper presents results of a multi-visit, longitudinal experiment on the academic and social-emotional effects of arts-based field trips. We randomly assign fourth and fifth grade students to receive arts-based field trips throughout the school year or to serve as a control. Treatment students express greater tolerance for people with different opinions and a desire to consume arts. Additionally, treatment students have fewer behavioral infractions, attend school more frequently, score higher on their end-of-grade exams, and receive higher course grades. Effects are strongest when students enter middle school. We find no effect on students’ desire to participate in the arts, empathy, or social perspective taking.

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Jing Liu, Susanna Loeb, Ying Shi.

Classroom teachers in the US are absent on average approximately six percent of a school year. Despite the prevalence of teacher absences, surprisingly little research has assessed the key source of replacement instruction: substitute teachers. Using detailed administrative and survey data from a large urban school district, we document the prevalence, predictors, and variation of substitute coverage across schools. Less advantaged schools systematically exhibit lower rates of substitute coverage compared with peer institutions. Observed school, teacher, and absence characteristics account for only part of this school variation. In contrast, substitute teachers’ preferences for specific schools, mainly driven by student behavior and support from teachers and school administrators, explain a sizable share of the unequal distribution of coverage rates above and beyond standard measures in administrative data.

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Plamen Nikolov, Nusrat Jimi.

Numerous studies have considered the important role of cognition in estimating the returns to schooling. How cognitive abilities affect schooling may have important policy implications, especially in developing countries during periods of increasing educational attainment. Using two longitudinal labor surveys that collect direct proxy measures of cognitive skills, we study the importance of specific cognitive domains for the returns to schooling in two samples. We instrument for schooling levels and we find that each additional year of schooling leads to an increase in earnings by approximately 18-20 percent. The estimated effect sizes—based on the two-stage least squares estimates—are above the corresponding ordinary least squares estimates. Furthermore, we estimate and demonstrate the importance of specific cognitive domains in the classical Mincer equation. We find that executive functioning skills (i.e., memory and orientation) are important drivers of earnings in the rural sample, whereas higher-order cognitive skills (i.e., numeracy) are more important for determining earnings in the urban sample. Although numeracy is tested in both samples, it is only a statistically significant predictor of earnings in the urban sample. (JEL I21, F63, F66, N37)

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Mark J. Chin, Lena Shi.

Given states’ balanced budget requirements, investment decisions often involve trade-offs between policymakers’ budget priorities. Does political party control affect investment decisions and outcomes? Using a regression discontinuity design based on close state elections between 1984-2013, we find that marginally Democratic legislatures spend more on higher education but less on K-12 education. Rather than trading off within the education budget, policymakers trade education and welfare, particularly in liberal and high-poverty states. Increases in local revenue offset party differences in K-12 spending, suggesting that policymakers make trade-offs by considering the availability of external budget sources and how investments respond to constituents’ needs. (JEL I22, I28, H72, H75)

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Christian Buerger, Seung Hyeong Lee, John D. Singleton.

A recent literature provides new evidence that school resources are important for student outcomes. In this paper, we show that school finance reform-induced increases in student performance are driven by those states that had test-based accountability policies in place at the time. By incentivizing school improvement, accountability systems (such as the federal No Child Left Behind act) may raise the efficiency with which additional school funding gets spent. Our empirical approach leverages the timing of school finance reforms to compare funding impacts on student test scores between states that had accountability in place at the time of the reform with states that did not. The results indicate that finance reforms are three times more productive in low-income school districts when also accompanied by test-based accountability. These findings shed new light on the role of accountability incentives in education production and the mechanisms supporting the effectiveness of school resources.

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Michael Gilraine, Valentina Duque.

We examine the effect of air pollution from power production on students' cognitive outcomes by leveraging year-to-year production variation, wind patterns, and plant closures. We find that every one million megawatt hours of coal-fired power production decreases student performance in schools within ten kilometers by 0.02 standard deviations. Gas-fired plants exhibit no such relationship. Extrapolating our results nationwide indicates that the decline in coal use over the last decade raises test scores by 0.008 standard deviations and reduces the black-white test score gap by 0.006 standard deviations. The nationwide effect obscures substantial spatial variation: The respective numbers for the Midwest are 0.016 and 0.023.

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Beth E. Schueler, Catherine Armstrong Asher, Katherine E. Larned, Sarah Mehrotra, Cynthia Pollard.

The public narrative surrounding efforts to improve low-performing K-12 schools in the U.S. has been notably gloomy. Observers argue that either nothing works or we don’t know what works. At the same time, the federal government is asking localities to implement evidence-based interventions. But what is known empirically about whether school improvement works, how long it takes, which policies are most effective, and which contexts respond best to intervention? We meta-analyze 141 estimates from 67 studies of turnaround policies implemented post-NCLB. On average, these policies have had a moderate positive effect on math but no effect on ELA achievement as measured by high-stakes exams. We find evidence of positive impacts on low-stakes exams in STEM and humanities subjects and no evidence of harm on non-test outcomes. Some elements of reform, namely extended learning time and teacher replacements, predict greater effects. Contexts serving majority-Latinx populations have seen the largest improvements.

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