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Program and policy effects

Kai Hong, Syeda Sana Fatima, Sherry Glied, Leanna Stiefel, Amy Ellen Schwartz.

There is increasing concern about risky behaviors and poor mental health among school-aged youth. A critical factor in youth well-being is school attendance. This study evaluates how school organization and structure affect health outcomes by examining the impacts of a popular urban high school reform -- “small schools” -- on youth risky behaviors and mental health, using data from New York City. To estimate a causal estimate of attending small versus large high schools, we use a two-sample-instrumental-variable approach with the distance between student residence and school as the instrument for school enrollment. We consider two types of small schools – “old small schools,” which opened prior to a system-wide 2003 reform aimed at increasing educational achievement and “new small schools,” which opened in the wake of that reform. We find that girls enrolled in older small schools are less likely to become pregnant, and boys are less likely to be diagnosed with mental health disorders than their counterparts in large schools. Both girls and boys enrolled in more recently opened small schools, however, are more likely to be diagnosed with violence-associated injuries and (for girls only) with mental health disorders. These disparate results suggest that improving a school’s organization and inputs together is likely more effective in addressing youth risky behaviors than simply reducing school size.

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Ann Mantil, John Papay, Preeya Pandya Mbekeani, Richard J. Murnane.

Preparing K-12 students for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is an ongoing challenge confronting state policymakers. We examine the implementation of a science graduation testing requirement for high-school students in Massachusetts, beginning with the graduating class of 2010. We find that the design of the new requirement was quite complicated, reflecting the state’s previous experiences with test-based accountability, a broad consensus on policy goals among key stakeholders, and the desire to afford flexibility to local schools and districts. The consequences for both students and schools, while largely consistent with the goals of increasing students’ skills and interest in STEM fields, were in many cases unexpected. We find large differences by demographic subgroup in the probabilities of passing the first science exam and of succeeding on retest, even when conditioning on previous test-score performance. Our results also show impacts of science exit-exam performance for students scoring near the passing threshold, particularly on the high-school graduation rates of females and on college outcomes for higher-income students. These findings demonstrate the importance of equity considerations in designing and evaluating ambitious new policy initiatives.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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Sterling Alic, Dorottya Demszky, Zid Mancenido, Jing Liu, Heather C. Hill, Dan Jurafsky.

Responsive teaching is a highly effective strategy that promotes student learning. In math classrooms, teachers might funnel students towards a normative answer or focus students to reflect on their own thinking, deepening their understanding of math concepts. When teachers focus, they treat students’ contributions as resources for collective sensemaking, and thereby significantly improve students’ achievement and confidence in mathematics. We propose the task of computationally detecting funneling and focusing questions in classroom discourse. We do so by creating and releasing an annotated dataset of 2,348 teacher utterances labeled for funneling and focusing questions, or neither. We introduce supervised and unsupervised approaches to differentiating these questions. Our best model, a supervised RoBERTa model fine-tuned on our dataset, has a strong linear correlation of .76 with human expert labels and with positive educational outcomes, including math instruction quality and student achievement, showing the model’s potential for use in automated teacher feedback tools. Our unsupervised measures show significant but weaker correlations with human labels and outcomes, and they highlight interesting linguistic patterns of funneling and focusing questions. The high performance of the supervised measure indicates its promise for supporting teachers in their instruction.

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