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Politics, governance, philanthropy, and organizations

Alvin Christian, Brian Jacob, John D. Singleton.

The COVID-19 pandemic drew new attention to the role of school boards in the U.S. In this paper, we examine school districts' choices of learning modality -- whether and when to offer in-person, virtual, or hybrid instruction -- over the course of the 2020-21 pandemic school year. The analysis takes advantage of granular weekly data on learning mode and COVID-19 cases for Ohio school districts. We show that districts respond on the margin to health risks: all else equal, a marginal increase in new cases reduces the probability that a district offers in-person instruction the next week. Moreover, this negative response is magnified when the district was in-person the prior week and attenuates in magnitude over the school year. These findings are consistent with districts learning from experience about the effect of in-person learning on disease transmission in schools. We also find evidence that districts are influenced by the decisions of their peers.

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Aaron Phipps, Alexander Amaya.

Given the simultaneous rise in time-to-graduation and college GPA, it may be that students reduce their course load to improve their performance. Yet, evidence to date only shows increased course loads increase GPA. We provide a mathematical model showing many unobservable factors -- beyond student ability -- can generate a positive relationship between course load and GPA unless researchers control student schedules. West Point regularly implements the ideal experiment by randomly modifying student schedules with additional training courses. Using 19 years of administrative data, we provide the first causal evidence that taking more courses reduces GPA and increases course failure rates, sometimes substantially.

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Christina Weiland, Meghan McCormick, Jennifer Duer, Allison Friedman-Kraus, Mirjana Pralica, Samantha Xia, Milagros Nores, Shira Mattera.

Nearly all states with public prekindergarten programs use mixed-delivery systems, with classrooms in both public schools and community-based settings.  However, experts have long raised concerns about systematic inequities by setting within these public systems.  We used data from five large-scale such systems that have taken steps to improve equity by setting  (Boston, New York City, Seattle, New Jersey, and West Virginia) to conduct the most comprehensive descriptive study of prekindergarten setting differences to date. Our public school sample included 2,395 children in 383 classrooms in 152 schools, while our community-based sample is comprised of 1,541 children in 201 classrooms in 103 community-based organizations (CBOs).  We examined how child and teacher demographic characteristics, structural and process quality features, and child gains differed by setting within each of these systems.  We found evidence of sorting of children and teachers by setting within each locality, including of children with higher baseline skills and more educated teachers into public schools. Where there were differences in quality and children’s gains, these tended to favor public schools.  The localities with fewer policy differences by setting – NJ and Seattle – showed fewer differences in quality and child gains.  Our findings suggest that inequities by setting are common, appear consequential, and deserve more research and policy attention.  

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Jonathan E. Collins.

The George Floyd Protests of the Summer of 2020 initiated public conversations around the need for antiracist teaching. Yet, over time the discussion evolved into policy debates around the use of Critical Race Theory in civics courses. The rapid transition masked the fact that we know little about Americans' policy preferences. Do Americans support antiracist teaching? What factors best explain support/opposition? How does critical race theory factor in? Using a series of original survey experiments, this study shows that Americans maintain strong support for antiracist teaching, but that support is drastically weakened when curriculum features the term "critical race theory."

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Zachary Oberfield, Bruce Baker.

This paper contributes to our understanding of American education politics by exploring when and why states redistribute K-12 education dollars to poorer schools. It does so by examining three explanations for intra-state changes in progressivity: court-ordered finance reforms, political trends, and demographic changes. Using state-level data from 1995-2016, we find mixed evidence that progressivity increased following a court-ordered school finance overhaul. Rather, we show that changes in progressivity were most consistently tied to changes in student demography: as students became poorer, or more racially diverse, lawmakers created less progressive finance systems. The paper concludes by discussing what these findings mean for advocates seeking to protect and advance gains in education spending progressivity.

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D'Wayne Bell, Jing Feng, John Holbein, Jonathan Smith.

For decades, pundits, politicians, college administrators, and academics have lamented the dismal rates of civic engagement among students who enroll in courses and eventually major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (i.e., STEM) fields. However, the research supporting this conclusion has faced distinct challenges in terms of data quality. Does STEM actually decrease the odds that young people will be actively involved in democracy? This paper assesses the relationship between studying STEM and voting.  To do so, we create a dataset of over 23 million students in the U.S. matched to national validated voting records.  The novel dataset is the largest known individual-level dataset in the U.S. connecting high school and college students to voting outcomes.  It also contains a rich set of demographic and academic variables, to account for many of the common issues related to students' selection into STEM coursework. We consider two measures of STEM participation ---Advanced Placement (AP) Exam taking in high school and college major. Using both measures, we find that, unconditionally, STEM students are slightly more likely to vote than their non-STEM peers.  After including the rich set of controls, the sign reverses and STEM students are slightly less likely to vote than their non-STEM peers. However, these estimated relationships between STEM and voting are small in magnitude---about the same effect size as a single get-out-the-vote mailer---and we can rule out even very modest causal effects of marginally more STEM coursework on voting for the typical STEM student.  We cannot rule out modest effects for a few subfields. Our analyses demonstrate that, on average, marginally more STEM coursework in high school and college does not contribute to the dismally low participation rates among young people in the U.S.

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Jeremy Singer.

After near-universal school closures in the United States at the start of the pandemic, lawmakers and educational leaders made plans for when and how to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year. Educational researchers quickly assessed how a range of public health, political, and demographic factors were associated with school reopening decisions and parent preferences for in-person and remote learning. I review this body of literature, to highlight what we can learn from its findings, limitations, and influence on public discourse. Studies consistently highlighted the influence of partisanship, teachers’ unions, and demographics, with mixed findings on COVID-19 rates. The literature offers useful insight and requires more evidence, and it highlights benefits and limitations to rapid research with large-scale quantitative data.

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Jeremy Singer, Julie A. Marsh, David Menefee-Libey, Jacob Alonso, Dwuana Bradley, Hanora Tracy.

Nearly all schools in the United States closed in spring 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a micropolitical lens, we analyze traditional public and charter schools reopenings for the 2020-21 school year in five urban districts. Districts’ adherence to and strategic uses of public health guidance, as well as a combination of union-district relations and labor market dynamics, influenced reopening. Parents, city and state lawmakers, and local institutional conditions also played a role, helping to explain differences across cases. We provide a rich description of reopening decisions in each of our case districts, and offer theoretically-grounded explanations for how factors identified in prior studies—which were interrelated and varied across local contexts—influenced district decision-making.

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Min Sun, Christopher A. Candelaria, David Knight, Zachary LeClair, Sarah E. Kabourek, Katherine Chang.

Knowing how policy-induced salary schedule changes affect teacher recruitment and retention will significantly advance our understanding of how resources matter for K-12 student learning. This study sheds light on this issue by estimating how legislative funding changes in Washington state in 2018-19—induced by the McCleary court-ordered reform—affected teacher salaries and labor market outcomes. By embedding a simulated instrumental variables approach in a mixed methods design, we observed that local collective bargaining negotiations directed new state-level funding allocations toward certificated base salaries, particularly among more senior teachers. Variability in political power, priorities, and interests of both districts and unions led to greater heterogeneity in teacher salary schedules. Teacher mobility rate was reduced in the first year of the reform, and subsequently new hiring rate was reduced in the second year. Suggestive evidence indicates that a $1,000 salary increase would have larger effects on junior teachers’ hiring and their transfers between districts to a greater extent than late-career teachers.

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David Blazar, Beth Schueler.

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.

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