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K-12 Education

Tomas Monarrez, Brian Kisida, Matthew M. Chingos.

We conduct a comprehensive examination of the causal effect of charter schools on school segregation, using a triple differences design that utilizes between-grade differences in charter expansion within school systems, and an instrumental variable approach that leverages charter school opening event variation. Charter schools increase school segregation for Black, Hispanic, White, and Asian students. The effect is of modest magnitude; segregation would fall 6 percent were charter schools eliminated from the average district. Analysis across varied geographies reveals countervailing forces. In metropolitan areas, charters improve integration between districts, especially in areas with intense school district fragmentation.

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Catherine Armstrong Asher, Ethan Scherer, James S. Kim.

Parental text messaging interventions are growing in popularity to encourage at-home reading, school-attendance, and other educational behaviors. These interventions, which often combine multiple components, frequently demonstrate varying amounts of effectiveness, and researchers often cannot determine how individual components work alone or in combination with one another. Using a 2x2x3 factorial experiment, we investigate the effects of individual and interacted components from three behavioral levers to support summer reading: providing updated, personalized information; emphasizing different reading views; and goal setting. We find that the personalized information condition scored 0.03 SD higher on fall reading assessments. Test score effects were enhanced by messages that emphasized reading being useful for both entertainment and building skills compared to skill building alone or entertainment alone.

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Michael T. Hartney, Leslie K. Finger.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to examine how local governments respond to a public health crisis amid high levels of partisan polarization and an increasing tendency for local issues to become nationalized. As an arena that has, in recent years, been relatively separate from national partisan divides, public schools provide a useful window into these dynamics. Leveraging the fact that all of the nation’s school districts had to adopt a reopening plan for the fall, we test what factors best predict whether a district chose to return students to the classroom or educate them remotely. Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening. Additionally, we find evidence that districts are sensitive to the threat of private school exit. Districts located in counties with a larger number of Catholic schools were less likely to shut down and more likely to return to in-person learning. These findings have important implications for our understanding of education policy and the functioning of American local governments.

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Lucrecia Santibanez, Cassandra Guarino.

In March 2020, most schools in the United States closed their doors and transitioned to distance learning in an effort to contain COVID-19. During the transition a significant number of students did not fully engage in these learning opportunities due to resource or other constraints. An urgent question for schools around the nation is how much did the pandemic impact student academic and social-emotional development. This paper uses administrative panel data from California to approximate the impact of the pandemic by analyzing how absenteeism affects student outcomes. We show wide variation in absenteeism impacts on academic and social-emotional outcomes by grade and subgroup, as well as the cumulative effect of different degrees of absence. Student outcomes generally suffer more from absenteeism in mathematics than in ELA. Negative effects are larger in middle school. Absences negatively affect social-emotional development, particularly in middle school, with slight differences across constructs. Our results add to the emerging literature on the impact of COVID-19 and highlight the need for student academic and social-emotional support to make up for lost time.

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Jessica Goldstein, Josh B. McGee.

Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong (2020a, JWX) provide evidence that education spending reductions following the Great Recession had widespread negative impacts on student achievement and attainment. This paper describes our process of duplicating JWX and highlights a variety of tests we employ to investigate the nature and robustness of the relationship between school spending reductions and student outcomes. Though per-pupil expenditures undoubtedly shifted downward due to the Great Recession, contrary to JWX, our findings indicate there is not a clear and compelling story about the impact of those reductions on student achievement. Moreover, we find that the relationship between K-12 spending and college-going rates is likely confounded with contemporaneous higher education funding trends. While we believe that K-12 spending reductions may have negative impacts on student outcomes, our results suggest that estimating generalizable causal effects remains a significant challenge.

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Robert M. Costrell.

The ongoing crisis in teacher pension funding has led states to consider various reforms in plan design, to replace the traditional benefit formulas, based on years of service and final average salary (FAS).  One such design is a cash balance (CB) plan, long deployed in the private sector, and increasingly considered, but rarely yet adopted for teachers.  Such plans are structured with individual 401(k)-type retirement accounts, but with guaranteed returns.  In this paper I examine how the nation’s first CB plan for teachers, in Kansas, 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 more generous employer contribution matches; (2) more importantly, the cost of the pension guarantee, which is off-the-books under standard actuarial accounting, was reduced quite substantially.  In addition, benefits are more equitably distributed between short termers and career teachers than under the back-loaded structure of benefits characteristic of FAS plans.   The key to the plan’s cost reduction is that the guaranteed return approximates a low-risk market return, considerably lower than the assumed return on risky assets.   

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Samantha Viano, Gary T. Henry.

Credit recovery (CR) refers to online courses that high school students take after previously failing the course. Many have suggested that CR courses are helping students to graduate from high school without corresponding increases in academic skills. This study analyzes administrative data from the state of North Carolina to evaluate these claims using full data from public and private CR providers. Findings indicate that students who fail courses and enroll in CR have lower test scores of up to two tenths of a standard deviation and are about seven percent more likely to graduate high school on time than students who repeat courses traditionally. Test score differences are particularly large for Biology compared to Math I and English II. Hispanic and economically disadvantaged CR students are more likely to graduate high school than their peers.

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Angela Johnson.

This paper reports math and reading academic achievement and growth in grades 2 to 8 for Hispanic participants and nonparticipants of a Spanish-English dual language program. I apply a piecewise multilevel growth model to administrative data from a large school district that enrolls a substantial English Learner student population. Dual language participants started 2nd grade with lower achievement than nonparticipants. In math, dual language participants grew faster than nonparticipants during each school year in grades 2 to 5 but lost more learning during subsequent summers. Thus, despite growing faster in the beginning, dual language students did not learn more than their peers in the long run, and the gap between dual language students and the national average was not closing. In reading, dual language participants grew slightly more slowly during school years but lost less learning during the summers, closing the gap between themselves and the national average. These findings suggest that programs aimed at addressing achievement gaps need to consider summer as well as school-year learning for historically-underserved student populations.

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Cory Koedel, Eric Parsons.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a policy change to the federally-administered National School Lunch Program that allows schools serving low-income populations to classify all students as eligible for free meals, regardless of individual circumstances. This has implications for the use of free and reduced-price meal (FRM) data to proxy for student disadvantage in education research and policy applications, which is a common practice. We document empirically how the CEP has affected the value of FRM eligibility as a proxy for student disadvantage. At the individual student level, we show that there is essentially no effect of the CEP. However, the CEP does meaningfully change the information conveyed by the share of FRM-eligible students in a school. It is this latter measure that is most relevant for policy uses of FRM data.

Note: Portions of this paper were previously circulated under the title “Using Free Meal and Direct Certification Data to Proxy for Student Disadvantage in the Era of the Community Eligibility Provision.” We have since split the original paper into two parts. This is the first part.

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Heather C. Hill, Derek C. Briggs.

Federal policy has both incentivized and supported better use of research evidence by educational leaders.  However, the extent to which these leaders are well-positioned to understand foundational principles from research design and statistics, including those that underlie the What Works Clearinghouse ratings of research studies, remains an open question. To investigate educational leaders’ knowledge of these topics, we developed a construct map and items representing key concepts, then conducted surveys containing those items with a small pilot sample (n=178) and a larger nationally representative sample (n=733) of educational leaders. We found that leaders’ knowledge was surprisingly inconsistent across topics. We also found most items were answered correctly by less than half of respondents, with cognitive interviews suggesting that some of those correct answers derived from guessing or test-taking techniques. Our findings identify a roadblock to policymakers’ contention that educational leaders should use research in decision-making.  

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