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K-12 Education

Nathan Barrett, Andrew McEachin, Jonathan Mills, Jon Valant.

Black and poor students are suspended from U.S. schools at higher rates than white and non-poor students. While the existence of these disparities has been clear, the causes of the disparities have not. We use a novel dataset to examine how and where discipline disparities arise. By comparing the punishments given to black and white (or poor and non-poor) students who fight one another, we address a selection challenge that has kept prior studies from identifying discrimination in student discipline. We find that black and poor students are, in fact, punished more harshly than the students with whom they fight.

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Steven W. Hemelt, Nathaniel L. Schwartz, Susan M. Dynarski.

Dual-credit courses expose high school students to college-level content and provide the opportunity to earn college credits, in part to smooth the transition to college. With the Tennessee Department of Education, we conduct the first randomized controlled trial of the effects of dual-credit math coursework on a range of high school and college outcomes. We find that the dual-credit advanced algebra course alters students’ subsequent high school math course-taking, reducing enrollment in remedial math and boosting enrollment in precalculus and Advanced Placement math courses. We fail to detect an effect of the dual-credit math course on overall rates of college enrollment. However, the course induces some students to choose four-year universities instead of two-year colleges, particularly for those in the middle of the math achievement distribution and those first exposed to the opportunity to take the course in 11th rather than 12th grade. We see limited evidence of improvements in early math performance during college.

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Gary T. Henry, J. Edward Guthrie.

Federal education policies gave political and financial support for state education agencies to turnaround low-performing schools on an unprecedented scale. North Carolina’s ambitious program turned around over half of all schools nationwide that underwent turnaround funded by Race to the Top. Exploiting the assignment to turnaround based on schools’ 2009-10 proficiency rates, we implement  regression discontinuity designs to estimate the effects of state turnaround services on student achievement in North Carolina’s lowest-performing schools annually from the 2011-12 through 2014-15. Overall, we find modest positive effects of turnaround when including treated schools at all grade levels, but these effects are sensitive to bandwidth. For secondary schools, we find consistently positive effects that vary from modest to large. For elementary and middle schools, we find consistent, modest negative effects of turnaround on student achievement.

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Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Linda Darling-Hammond, Christina Krone.

New advances in neurobiology are revealing that brain development and the learning it enables are directly dependent on social-emotional experience. Growing bodies of research reveal the importance of socially-triggered epigenetic contributions to brain development and brain network configuration, with implications for social-emotional functioning, cognition, motivation and learning. Brain development is also impacted by health-related and physical developmental factors, such as sleep, toxin exposure, and puberty, which in turn influence social-emotional functioning and cognition. An appreciation of the dynamic interdependencies of social-emotional experience, health-related factors, brain development and learning underscores the importance of a “whole child” approach to education reform, and leads to important insights for research on Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). To facilitate these interdisciplinary conversations, here we conceptualize within a developmental framework current evidence on the fundamental and ubiquitous biological constraints and affordances undergirding SEL-related constructs and learning more broadly. Learning indeed depends on how nature is nurtured.

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Paul T. von Hippel, Chandi Wagner.

Evidence-based policy is the practice of basing policy decisions on rigorous research evidence, such as randomized experiments. But it is unclear how often evidence-based decisions produce more effective policy. We evaluate an evidence-based policy implemented in 1989-93, after the state of Tennessee completed the famous Project STAR randomized experiment, which showed that reducing average class sizes from 23 to 15 could raise test scores by nearly 0.2 standard deviations (SD). After Project STAR, the state launched Project Challenge, which tried to achieve similar score gains by earmarking $5 million to reduce class sizes in the state’s 17 poorest districts.

We evaluate the effects of Project STAR by applying regression discontinuity and difference in differences analysis to data from district report cards. Our analysis offers no evidence that Project Challenge districts raised test scores, and even raises questions about whether districts reduced class sizes. After Project Challenge, Tennessee’s Basic Education Plan did reduce class sizes, but only by a token amount, from 26 to 25. In this example, it seems that a successful randomized experiment did not lead to successful policy.

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Gary T. Henry, Erica Harbatkin.

In contrast to prior federally mandated school reforms, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows states more discretion in reforming their lowest performing schools, removes requirements to disrupt the status quo, and does not allocate substantial additional funds. Using a regression discontinuity design, we evaluate a state turnaround initiative aligned with ESSA requirements. We find the effect on student test score growth was not significant in year one and -0.13 in year two. Also in year two, we find that teachers in turnaround schools were 22.5 percentage points more likely to turn over. Teacher turnover appears to have been voluntary rather than the result of strategic staffing decisions.

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Charles T. Clotfelter, Steven W. Hemelt, Helen F. Ladd, Mavzuna Turaeva.

We document patterns and trends in school segregation by racial/ethnic group and by family income in North Carolina between 1998 and 2016, a period of rapid immigration, decline in federal oversight, and growth of charter schools. Accounting for students in both public and private schools, we find that segregation generally increased over the period, with the increase concentrated in urban areas. In addition, low-income students became more segregated from other students during the period. We measure and decompose segregation in metropolitan areas, finding that more than half can be attributed to racial disparities inside school districts, but in some counties private schools, charter schools, or multiple districts played a deciding role. We also find that segregation between white and Hispanic students increased sharply. We note several policy levers available at the local and state level.

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Elizabeth Setren.

Using novel variation in special education and English Language Learner classification from admissions lotteries, I find that students can achieve large academic gains without specialized services. Enrolling in a Boston charter school doubles the likelihood that students lose their special education or English Language Learner status, but exposes students to a high-performing general education program that includes high intensity tutoring, data driven instruction, and increased instructional time. The positive effects extend to college: charters nearly double the likelihood that English Language Learners enroll in four-year colleges and quadruple the likelihood that special education students graduate from two-year college. A multiple instrument strategy suggests that high quality general education practices drive the gains and finds no detrimental effect from lower classification rates.

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Alvaro Hofflinger, Paul T. von Hippel.

Debates in education policy draw on different theories about how to raise children’s achievement. The school competition theory holds that achievement rises when families can choose among competing schools. The school resource theory holds that achievement rises with school spending and resources that spending can buy. The family resources theory holds that children’s achievement rises with parental education and income. We test all three theories in Chile between 2002 and 2013, when reading and math scores rose by 0.2-0.3 standard deviations, while school competition, school resources, and family resources all increased. In a difference in differences analysis, we ask which Chilean municipalities saw the greatest increases in test scores. Test scores did not rise faster in municipalities with greater increases in competition, but did rise faster in municipalities with greater increases in school resources (teachers per student) and especially family resources (parental education, not income). Student grade point averages show similar patterns. Results contradict the school competition theory but fit the family resource theory and, to a lesser extent, the school resource theory.

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Matthew Kraft, John Papay, Olivia Chi.

We examine the dynamic nature of teacher skill development using panel data on principals’ subjective performance ratings of teachers. Past research on teacher productivity improvement has focused primarily on one important but narrow measure of performance: teachers’ value-added to student achievement on standardized tests. Unlike value-added, subjective performance ratings provide detailed information about specific skill dimensions and are available for the many teachers in non-tested grades and subjects. Using a within-teacher returns to experience framework, we find, on average, large and rapid improvements in teachers’ instructional practices throughout their first ten years on the job as well as substantial differences in improvement rates across individual teachers. We also document that subjective performance ratings contain important information about teacher effectiveness. In the district we study, principals appear to differentiate teacher performance throughout the full distribution instead of just in the tails. Furthermore, prior performance ratings and gains in these ratings provide additional information about teachers’ ability to improve test scores that is not captured by prior value-added scores. Taken together, our study provides new insights on teacher performance improvement and variation in teacher development across instructional skills and individual teachers.

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