- Beth Schueler
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The improvement of low-performing school systems is one potential strategy for mitigating educational inequality. Some evidence suggests districtwide reform may be more effective than school-level change, but limited research examines district-level turnaround. There is also little scholarship examining the effects of turnaround reforms on outcomes beyond the first few years of implementation, on outcomes beyond test scores, or on the effectiveness of efforts to replicate district improvement successes beyond an initial reform context. We study these topics in Massachusetts, home to the Lawrence district representing a rare case of demonstrated improvements in the early years of state takeover and turnaround and where state leaders have since intervened in three other contexts as a result. We use statewide student-level administrative data (2006-07 to 2018-19) and event study methods to estimate medium-term reform impacts on test and non-test outcomes across four Massachusetts-based contexts: Lawrence, Holyoke, Springfield, and Southbridge. We find substantial district improvement was possible although sustaining the rate of gains was more complicated. Replicating gains in new contexts was also possible but not guaranteed.
What guidance does research provide school districts about how to improve system performance and increase equity? Despite over 30 years of inquiry on the topic of effective districts, existing frameworks are relatively narrow in terms of disciplinary focus (primarily educational leadership perspectives) and research design (primarily qualitative case studies). To bridge this gap, we first review the theoretical literatures on how districts are thought to affect student outcomes, arguing that an expanded set of disciplinary perspectives—organizational behavior, political science, and economics—have distinct theories about why districts matter. Next, we conduct a systematic review of quantitative studies that estimate the relationship between district-level inputs and performance outcomes. This review reveals benefits of district-level policies that cross disciplinary perspectives, including higher teacher salaries and strategic hiring, lower student-teacher ratios, and data use. One implication is that future research on district-level policymaking needs to consider multiple disciplinary perspectives. Our review also reveals the need for significant additional causal evidence and provides a multidisciplinary map of theorized pathways through which districts could influence student outcomes that are ripe for rigorous testing.
We study an early effort amid the Covid-19 pandemic to develop new approaches to virtually serving students, supporting teachers, and promoting equity. This five-week, largely synchronous, summer program served 11,769 rising 4th-9thgraders. “Mentor teachers” provided PD and videos of themselves teaching daily lessons to “partner teachers” across the country. We interviewed a representative sample of teachers and analyzed educator, parent, and student surveys. Stakeholders perceived that students made academic improvements, and the content was rigorous, relevant, and engaging. Teachers felt their teaching improved and appreciated receiving adaptable curricular materials. Participants wanted more relevant math content, more differentiated development, and less asynchronous movement content. Findings highlight promising strategies for promoting online engagement and exploiting virtual learning to strengthen teacher development.
Access to quality secondary schooling can be life-changing for students in developing contexts. In Kenya, entrance to such schools has historically been determined by performance on a high-stakes exam. Understandably then, preparation for this exam is a high priority for Kenyan families and educators. To increase the share of students gaining entry to these schools, some educational providers offer targeted instruction for students they believe have a chance of securing a spot. We experimentally evaluate the impact of these “symposia” programs—week-long, sleep-away camps where eighth grade students receive a burst of academic instruction from teachers selected based on merit. While similar models have been tested in the U.S., less is known about this intervention in developing settings. Our results suggest these programs are not particularly effective for the average nominated student relative to a typical week of school. However, we find large, positive effects among students attending schools from which few students are nominated for symposia. We provide suggestive evidence that this was because students from low- representation schools had less pre-camp practice test resources outside of school. The results have implications for program design and contribute to the growing literature on the effectiveness of appropriately targeted individualized instruction.
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.