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Program and policy effects
The Post-9/11 GI Bill allows service members to transfer generous education benefits to a dependent. We run a large-scale experiment to test whether active choice framing impacts US Army service members’ decision to transfer benefits. Individuals who received email messages framing GI Bill use as an active choice between own use and transfer to a family member are more likely to pursue information about the benefit than individuals receiving outreach that does not frame the decision as an active choice. While we find no overall effect of framing on transfer, active choice increases transfer among service members with graduate degrees.
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.
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.
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.
We present results from a five-year effort to design promising online and text-message interventions to improve college achievement through several distinct channels. From a sample of nearly 25,000 students across three different campuses, we find some improvement from coaching-based interventions on mental health and study time, but none of the interventions we evaluate significantly influences academic outcomes (even for those students more at risk of dropping out). We interpret the results with our survey data and a model of student effort. Students study about five to eight hours fewer each week than they plan to, though our interventions do not alter this tendency. The coaching interventions make some students realize that more effort is needed to attain good grades but, rather than working harder, they settle by adjusting grade expectations downwards. Our study time impacts are not large enough for translating into significant academic benefits. More comprehensive but expensive programs appear more promising for helping college students outside the classroom.
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.
The sustaining environments thesis hypothesizes that PreK effects are more likely to persist into later grades if children experience high-quality learning environments in the years subsequent to PreK. This study tests this hypothesis using data from a statewide PreK randomized experiment in Tennessee that found positive effects at the end of PreK that did not persist past kindergarten. These data were combined with teacher observation and school-level value-added scores from Tennessee’s formal evaluation system to determine whether positive effects of PreK persisted for the subgroup of students exposed to higher-quality learning environments between kindergarten and 3rd-grade. Neither exposure to highly effective teachers nor attending a high-quality school was sufficient by itself to explain differences in achievement between PreK participants and non-participants in 3rd-grade. However, this study found evidence that having both was associated with a sustained advantage for PreK participants in both math and ELA that lasted through at least 3rd-grade. Notably, however, very few children were exposed to high-quality learning environments after PreK, suggesting that maximizing PreK investments may require attending to the quality of learning environments during PreK and beyond.
The sustaining environments hypothesis refers to the popular idea, stemming from theories in developmental, cognitive, and educational psychology, that the long-term success of early educational interventions is contingent on the quality of the subsequent learning environment. Several studies have investigated whether specific kindergarten classroom and other elementary school factors account for patterns of persistence and fadeout of early educational interventions. These analyses focus on the statistical interaction between an early educational intervention – usually whether the child attended preschool – and several measures of the quality of the subsequent educational environment. The key prediction of the sustaining environments hypothesis is a positive interaction between these two variables. To quantify the strength of the evidence for such effects, we meta-analyze existing studies that have attempted to estimate interactions between preschool and later educational quality in the United States. We then attempt to establish the consistency of the direction and a plausible range of estimates of the interaction between preschool attendance and subsequent educational quality by using a specification curve analysis in a large, nationally representative dataset that has been used in several recent studies of the sustaining environments hypothesis. Both analyses yield interaction estimates of approximately 0. We consider a range of plausible explanations, including 1) the null hypothesis is true, 2) we did not have statistical power to detect interactions of a realistic magnitude, 3) model misspecification because of theoretical ambiguity, and 4) heterogeneity of these interactions across treatments, contexts, and children. We offer a set of recommendations for future research on the sustaining environments hypothesis.
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.
English-only college education in non-English speaking countries is a rapidly growing phenomenon that has been dubbed as the most important trend in higher education internationalization. Despite worldwide popularity, there is little empirical evidence about how the transition to English-only instruction affects students’ academic outcomes. Using a natural experiment at a selective university in Central Asia and a difference-in-differences strategy, we estimate the causal effect of switching to English-only instruction on students’ college outcomes. We find that the introduction of English-only instruction led to a decrease of GPAs and probability of graduation and an increase in the number of failed course credits. Although negative, the effects were short-lived. The difference-in-differences estimates and the examination of potential mechanisms suggest that at least in selective universities in non-English speaking countries, the switch to English-only instruction may affect college outcomes negatively at the time of transition but may not necessarily imply longer-run negative effects.