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K-12 Education

Alex Eble, Feng Hu.

We study the transmission of beliefs about gender differences in math ability from adults to children and how this affects girls’ academic performance relative to boys. We exploit randomly assigned variation in the proportion of a child’s middle school classmates whose parents believe boys are innately better than girls at learning math. An increase in exposure to peers whose parents report this belief increases a child’s likelihood of believing it, with similar effects for boys and girls and greater effects from peers of the same gender. This exposure also affects children’s perceived difficulty of math, aspirations, and math performance, generating gains for boys and losses for girls. 

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Anne Podolsky, Linda Darling-Hammond, Christopher Doss, Sean Reardon.

Despite wide achievement gaps across California between students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, some school districts have excelled at supporting the learning of all their students. This analysis identifies these positive outlier districts—those in which students of color, as well as White students, consistently achieve at higher levels than students from similar racial/ethnic backgrounds and from families of similar income and education levels in most other districts. These results are predicted, in significant part, by the qualifications of districts’ teachers, as measured by their certification and experience. In particular, the proportion of underprepared teachers—those teaching on emergency permits, waivers, and intern credentials—is associated with decreased achievement for all students, while teaching experience is associated with increased achievement, especially for students of color.

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Lucy C. Sorensen, Helen F. Ladd.

High teacher turnover imposes numerous burdens on the schools and districts from which teachers depart. Some of these burdens are explicit and take the form of recruiting, hiring and training costs. Others are more hidden and take the form of changes to the composition and quality of the teaching staff. This study focuses on the latter. We ask how schools respond to spells of high teacher turnover, and assess organizational and human capital effects. Our analysis uses two decades of administrative data on math and ELA middle school teachers in North Carolina to determine school responses to turnover across different policy environments and macroeconomic climates. Based on models controlling for school contexts and trends, we find that turnover has marked, and lasting, negative consequences for the quality of the instructional staff and student achievement. Our results highlight the need for heightened policy attention to school specific issues of teacher retention.

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Matthew Kraft, Eric Brunner, Shaun 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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Kenneth A. Shores, Ha Eun Kim, Mela Still.

We characterize the extent to which Black-White gaps for multiple educational outcomes are linked across school districts in the United States. Gaps in disciplinary action, grade-level retention, classification into special education and Gifted and Talented, and Advanced Placement course-taking are large in magnitude and correlated. Racial differences in family income and parent education are strikingly consistent predictors of these gaps, and districts with large gaps in one outcome are likely to have large gaps in another. Socioeconomic and segregation variables explain 1.7 to 3.5 times more variance for achievement relative to non-achievement outcomes. Systemic patterns of racial socioeconomic inequality drive inequalities across multiple educational outcomes; however, discretionary policies at local levels are more influential for non-achievement outcomes.

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Thomas S. Dee, Jessalynn James, James Wyckoff.

Ten years ago, many policymakers viewed the reform of teacher evaluation as a highly promising mechanism to improve teacher effectiveness and student achievement. Recently, that enthusiasm has dimmed as the available evidence suggests the subsequent reforms had a mixed record of implementation and efficacy. Even in districts where there was evidence of efficacy, the early promise of teacher evaluation may not sustain as these systems mature and change. This study examines the evolving design of IMPACT, the teacher evaluation system in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). We describe the recent changes to IMPACT which include higher performance standards for lower-performing teachers and a reduced emphasis on value-added test scores. Descriptive evidence on the dynamics of teacher retention and performance under this redesigned system indicate that lower-performing teachers are particularly likely to either leave or improve. Corresponding causal evidence similarly indicates that imminent dismissal threats for persistently low-performing teachers increased both teacher attrition and the performance of returning teachers. These findings suggest teacher evaluation can provide a sustained mechanism for improving the quality of teaching.

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Jessalynn James, James Wyckoff.

Few topics in education policy have received more attention than teacher turnover—and rightly so. The cost of losing a good teacher can be substantial and is born most directly by students. It is now widely recognized that teachers differ considerably in their ability to improve student outcomes, but discussions of teacher turnover rarely reflect these differences. Instead, we typically treat teacher turnover as uniformly negative. In this paper, we examine teacher turnover in the context of rigorous teacher evaluation to explore three questions. How does teacher turnover affect the quality of teaching and student achievement? How does teacher turnover vary by measured teaching effectiveness? And to what extent is the turnover of effective teachers associated with the evaluation system? We examine these questions employing data from the District of Columbia Public Schools. We find that in general turnover improves teacher quality and student achievement, but that this result masks large differences between teachers identified as more and less effective. Turnover among more effective teachers is relatively low, and when more-effective teachers exit, they infrequently report the evaluation system as a reason.

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Robert M. Costrell.

It has long been argued that cash balance (CB) pension plans offer a more equitable distribution of benefits than traditional final-average-salary (FAS) plans for teachers, particularly between short-termers and career teachers.   However, it has also been understood that the impetus for reform would come from fiscal distress, rather than a concern for equity.  In this paper I examine how the nation’s first CB plan for teachers, in Kansas, adopted under such conditions, has played out for system costs, and the level and distribution of individual benefits, compared to the FAS plan it replaced.  My key findings are:  (1) employer-funded benefits were modestly reduced, despite the surface appearance of somewhat generous employer matches; (2) more importantly, the cost of the pension guarantee, which is off-the-books under standard actuarial accounting, was reduced quite substantially.  Thus, although much of the distributional benefit originally put forth did materialize, the primary gain for states considering reform may well be the reduction in the cost of risk-bearing.  Indeed, I argue that these results are intrinsically linked:  it is CB’s near-elimination of back-loading that simultaneously cuts the implicit cost of risk. 

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Sule Alan, Teodora Boneva, Seda Ertac.

We show that grit, a skill that has been shown to be highly predictive of achievement, is malleable in childhood and can be fostered in the classroom environment. We evaluate a randomized educational intervention implemented in two independent elementary school samples. Outcomes are measured via a novel incentivized real effort task and performance in standardized tests. We find that treated students are more likely to exert effort to accumulate task-specific ability, and hence, more likely to succeed. In a follow up 2.5 years after the intervention, we estimate an effect of about 0.2 standard deviations on a standardized math test.

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Sule Alan, Seda Ertac, Ipek Mumcu.

We study the effect of elementary school teachers’ beliefs about gender roles on student achievement. We exploit a natural experiment where teachers are prevented from self-selecting into schools, and conditional on school, students are allocated to teachers randomly. We show that girls who are taught for longer than a year by teachers with traditional gender views have lower performance in objective math and verbal tests, and this effect is amplified with longer exposure to the same teacher. We find no effect on boys. We show that the effect is partly mediated by teachers transmitting traditional beliefs to girls.

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