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K-12 Education

Melanie Rucinski.

Prior research has found that economic downturns have positive effects on new teacher quality, but has not been able to determine the extent to which this relationship arises from a supply response (increased quantity or positive selection of teaching candidates) vs. a demand response (selection in hiring enabled by falling demand). In this paper, I use longitudinal data on students and teachers in Massachusetts to describe the effects of higher unemployment rates on both supply and demand for teachers. I show that students who graduate from college when unemployment rates are higher are more likely to take a teacher certification test, and that this effect is stronger among students who were higher achieving while in high school. On the demand side of the market, higher unemployment reduces new teacher hiring and the overall number of teachers employed, but I find no evidence that schools differentially employ higher achieving teaching candidates during economic downturns. While I cannot definitively rule out changes in demand-side selection, I show that much of the positive relationship between unemployment rates and teacher quality can be explained by positively selected supply. My results suggest that economic incentives impact both the quantity and the quality of new teaching candidates, with implications for attracting and retaining high-quality teachers outside of economic downturns.

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Beth Schueler, Liz Nigro, John Wang.

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. 

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Quentin Brummet, Lindsay Liebert, Thurston Domina, Paul Yoo, Andrew Penner.

Although existing research suggests that students benefit on a range of outcomes when they enroll in early algebra classes, policy efforts that accelerate algebra enrollment for large numbers of students often have negative effects. Explanations for this apparent contradiction often emphasize the potential role of teacher and peer effects, which could create positive effects for individual students placed into early algebra that would not translate to larger-scale policies. We use detailed data from Oregon that contain information on the teachers and peers to whom students are exposed in order to investigate these explanations. Our regression discontinuity analyses replicate key findings from prior studies, indicating that placement in eighth-grade algebra boosts student achievement in math and English language arts. We then demonstrate that eighth-grade algebra placement positively affects the achievement level of students’ classmates, as well as the years of experience and value added of students’ math teachers. The effects on peer composition that we observe are large enough to plausibly explain the majority of the effects of eighth-grade algebra on student test scores.

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Lam D. Pham, Gage F. Matthews, Timothy A. Drake.

While multiple studies have examined the impact of school turnaround, less is known about reforms under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). To advance this literature, we examine North Carolina’s Restart (NCR) model. NCR aligns with ESSA by giving school leaders increased flexibility. Also, NCR differs from previous turnaround models by repackaging a traditionally sanction-based approach to instead motivate school leaders with increased autonomy. Using comparative interrupted time series models, we find positive NCR effects in math, but not in English Language Arts or on non-test-based student outcomes. Also, nearly a quarter of the positive NCR effect can be explained by decreased teacher and principal turnover. These results provide evidence to support current shifts toward reform models featuring local autonomy.

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Lotte van der Haar, Guthrie Gray-Lobe, Michael Kremer, Joost de Laat.

This study reports the findings from a year-long randomized evaluation assessing the impact of assigning 62 classrooms in Nigeria to receive either blocked or interleaved math problem sets. Blocked practice sessions focused on a single skill at a time. Interleaved problem sets alternated between different skills within a practice session. On tests of short-term retention, interleaved practice increased test scores by 0.29 standard deviations. In contrast, we find no evidence that interleaving improves average performance on a cumulative assessment measuring retention of material over the academic year. We find some evidence of large impacts on the cumulative assessment at the bottom of the distribution, but these impacts appear to be offset by negative impacts at the top.

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Dorottya Demszky, Jing Liu, Heather C. Hill, Shyamoli Sanghi, Ariel Chung.

While recent studies have demonstrated the potential of automated feedback to enhance teacher instruction in virtual settings, its efficacy in traditional classrooms remains unexplored. In collaboration with TeachFX, we conducted a pre-registered randomized controlled trial involving 523 Utah mathematics and science teachers to assess the impact of automated feedback in K-12 classrooms. This feedback targeted “focusing questions” – questions that probe students’ thinking by pressing for explanations and reflection. Our findings indicate that automated feedback increased teachers’ use of focusing questions by 20%. However, there was no discernible effect on other teaching practices. Qualitative interviews revealed mixed engagement with the automated feedback: some teachers noticed and appreciated the reflective insights from the feedback, while others had no knowledge of it. Teachers also expressed skepticism about the accuracy of feedback, concerns about data security, and/or noted that time constraints prevented their engagement with the feedback. Our findings highlight avenues for future work, including integrating this feedback into existing professional development activities to maximize its effect.

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Zid Mancenido, Heather C. Hill, Jeannette Garcia Coppersmith, Hannah Carter, Cynthia Pollard, Chris Monschauer.

Practice-based teacher education has increasingly been adopted as an alternative to more traditional, conceptually-focused pedagogies, yet the field lacks causal evidence regarding the relative efficacy of these approaches. To address this issue, we randomly assigned 185 college students to one of three experimental conditions reflective of common conceptually-focused and practice-based teacher preparation pedagogies. We find significant and large positive effects of practice-based pedagogies on participants’ skills in eliciting and responding to student thinking as demonstrated through a written assessment and a short teaching episode. Our findings contribute to a developing evidence base that can assist policymakers and teacher educators in designing effective teacher preparation at scale.

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Xi Yang, Jian Zou.

This paper studies how school spending impacts student achievement by exploiting the US interstate branching deregulation as state tax revenue shocks. Leveraging school finance data from universal school districts, our difference-in-differences estimation reveals that deregulation leads to an increase in per-pupil total revenue and expenditure. The rise in revenue is primarily attributed to higher state revenues, while the expenditure increase is more prominent in low-income school districts. Using restricted-use student assessments from the Nation’s Report Card, we find that deregulation results in improved student achievement, with no distributional effects evident across students’ ability, race, or free lunch status. We introduce an instrumental variables approach that accounts for dynamic treatment effects and estimate that a one-thousand-dollar increase in per-pupil spending leads to a 0.035 standard deviation improvement in student achievement.

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Douglas N. Harris.

Market-based policies, especially school vouchers, are expanding rapidly and shifting students out of traditional public schools. This essay broadens, deepens, and updates prior critiques of the free market logic in five ways. First, while prior articles have pointed to some of the conditions necessary for efficient market functioning, I provide a more comprehensive list. Second, with an up-to-date literature review, I show that all of these conditions fail to hold to an unusual extent in schooling, relative to other markets. Third, because of these failures, I argue that the strongest critique of the free market approach to schooling comes from the intellectual home of markets—economics. Fourth, I show that the issues leading to inefficiency are the same ones leading to inequity. Fifth, I argue that the analysis points to specific roles for government, which go well beyond those included in new universal school voucher policies, but which are also narrower than the roles of government encompassed in traditional public education. For these reasons, the current direction of policy is off-track and apparently inconsistent with the main criteria on which we evaluate education policy and even with the values that voucher advocates themselves profess.

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Rui Wang.

While it is commonly believed that teachers take more absences than other professionals, few empirical studies have systematically investigated the prevalence of teacher absences in the US. This study documents the level of teacher absences and compares it with other college-educated workers. Using the Monthly Current Population Survey between the 1995 and 2019 school years, we conduct descriptive and regression analysis to estimate the level of teacher absences and the absence gaps between teachers and other college-educated workers. Additional regression analysis using data from the Leave Module of the American Time Use Survey is conducted to explain the gaps in absences between teachers and other observationally similar college-educated workers. The analysis reveals that 7% of teachers are absent at least once weekly, accounting for around 4% of their weekly working time. Compared to observationally similar college-educated workers, teachers take the same, if not less, amount of absences. Further investigation of teachers’ absence behaviour indicates that teachers report fewer demands for absences, have fewer paid leaves, and are more likely to attend work despite needing to be absent. We also find that individuals who prefer fewer absences tend to enter the teaching profession. This study adds to the emerging group of research examining the nature, determinants, and consequences of teacher absences using national-level data. Our findings imply that policymakers may be able to use more support programs to increase teacher attendance.

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