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K-12 Education

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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Jonathan L. Presler.

Using daily lunch transaction data from NYC public schools, I determine which students frequently stand next to one another in the lunch line. I use this `revealed' friendship network to estimate academic peer effects in elementary school classrooms, improving on previous work by defining not only where social connections exist, but the relative strength of these connections. Equally weighting all peers in a reference group assumes that all peers are equally important and may bias estimates by underweighting important peers and overweighting unimportant peers. I find that students who eat together are important influencers of one another's academic performance, with stronger effects in math than in reading. Further exploration of the mechanisms supports my claim that these are friendship networks. I also compare the influence of friends from different periods in the school year and find that connections occurring around standardized testing dates are most influential on test scores.

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David Blazar.

Using a causal mediation framework, I find several social dynamics that explain how and why Black teachers benefit students. Random assignment to a Black versus a White teacher in upper-elementary school increases self-efficacy and engagement of Black students (0.6 SD), and increases test scores (0.2 SD) and decreases chronic absenteeism (60% reduction) of all students. These total effects are partly explained by “good” teaching practices and mindsets that Black teachers possess more than White teachers. However, the measures do not fully mediate the total effects of Black teachers, indicating that other social interactions such as role modeling also play a role. The findings provide motivation for recruiting more Black teachers and insight into training the current, mostly White teacher workforce.

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Lindsey Rose Bullinger, Maithreyi Gopalan, Caitlin Lombardi.
Publicly funded adult health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has had positive effects on low-income adults. We examine whether the ACA’s Medicaid expansions influenced child development and family functioning in low-income households. We use a difference-in-differences framework that exploits cross-state policy variation and focus on children in low-income families from a nationally representative, longitudinal sample followed from kindergarten to fifth grade. The ACA Medicaid expansions improved children’s reading test scores by approximately 2 percent (0.04 SD). Potential mechanisms for these effects within families are more time spent reading at home, less parental help with homework, and eating dinner together. We find no effects for children’s math test scores or socioemotional skill development.

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Monica Lee, James Soland.

Reclassification can be an important juncture in the academic experience of English Learners (ELs). Literature has explored the potential for reclassification to influence academic outcomes like achievement, yet its impact on social-emotional learning (SEL) skills, which are as malleable and important to long-term success, remains unclear. Using a regression discontinuity design, we examine the causal effect of reclassification on SEL skills (self-efficacy, growth mindset, self-management, and social awareness) among 4th to 8th graders. In the districts studied, reclassification improved academic self-efficacy by 0.2 standard deviations for students near the threshold. Results are robust to alternative specifications and analyses. Given this evidence, we discuss ways districts might establish practices that instill more positive academic beliefs among ELs.

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Joseph Waddington, Ron Zimmer, Mark Berends.

A pervasive issue in the school choice literature is whether schools of choice cream-skim students by enrolling high-achieving, less challenging, or less costly students. Similarly, schools of choice may “pushout” low-achieving, more challenging, or more costly students. Using longitudinal student-level data from Indiana, we created multiple measures to examine whether there is evidence consistent with the claims of voucher-participating private schools cream skimming the best students from public schools or pushing out voucher-receiving students. We do not find evidence consistent the claim of cream skimming. However, we find evidence consistent with the claim of private schools pushing out the lowest achieving voucher students.

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Sterling Alic, Dorottya Demszky, Zid Mancenido, Jing Liu, Heather C. Hill, Dan Jurafsky.

Responsive teaching is a highly effective strategy that promotes student learning. In math classrooms, teachers might funnel students towards a normative answer or focus students to reflect on their own thinking, deepening their understanding of math concepts. When teachers focus, they treat students’ contributions as resources for collective sensemaking, and thereby significantly improve students’ achievement and confidence in mathematics. We propose the task of computationally detecting funneling and focusing questions in classroom discourse. We do so by creating and releasing an annotated dataset of 2,348 teacher utterances labeled for funneling and focusing questions, or neither. We introduce supervised and unsupervised approaches to differentiating these questions. Our best model, a supervised RoBERTa model fine-tuned on our dataset, has a strong linear correlation of .76 with human expert labels and with positive educational outcomes, including math instruction quality and student achievement, showing the model’s potential for use in automated teacher feedback tools. Our unsupervised measures show significant but weaker correlations with human labels and outcomes, and they highlight interesting linguistic patterns of funneling and focusing questions. The high performance of the supervised measure indicates its promise for supporting teachers in their instruction.

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Tuan D. Nguyen, Chanh B. Lam, Paul Bruno.

Teachers are critical to student learning, but adequately staffing classrooms has been challenging in many parts of the country. Even though teacher shortages are being reported across the U.S., teacher shortages are poorly understood. Determining and addressing teacher shortages is difficult due to the lack of data. Neither the federal government nor the majority of states have provided sufficient information on teacher shortages. To address this gap, we systematically examine news reports, department of education data, and publicly-available information on teacher shortages for every state in the U.S. We find there are at least 36,000 vacant positions along with at least 163,000 positions being held by underqualified teachers, both of which are conservative estimates of the extent of teacher shortages nationally. We discuss the implications of our findings for a robust data system, including more specific and consistent reporting of shortage, as well as implications for teacher preparation and education in the United States.

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Christine Mulhern.

Counselors are a common school resource for students navigating complicated and con- sequential education choices. I estimate counselors’ causal effects using quasi-random assignment policies in Massachusetts. Counselors vary substantially in their effectiveness at increasing high school graduation and college attendance, selectivity, and persistence. Counselor effects on educational attainment are similar in magnitude to teacher effects, but they flow through improved information and assistance more than cognitive or non-cognitive skill development. Counselor effectiveness is most important for low-income and low-achieving students, so improving access to effective counseling may be a promising way to increase educational attainment and close socioeconomic gaps in education.

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Joshua Bleiberg, Matthew A. Kraft.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended the U.S. education system and the economy in ways that dramatically affected the jobs of K-12 educators. However, data limitations have led to considerable uncertainty and conflicting reports about the nature of staffing challenges in schools. We draw on education employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and State Education Agencies (SEA) to describe patterns in K-12 education employment and to highlight the limitations of available data. Data from the BLS suggest overall employment in the K-12 labor market declined by 9.3 percent at the onset of the pandemic and remains well below pre-pandemic levels. SEA data suggest that teachers have not (yet) left the profession in mass as many predicted, but that turnover decreased in the summer of 2020. We explore possible explanations for these patterns including (1) weak hiring through the summer of 2020 and (2) high attrition among K-12 instructional support staff. State vacancy data also suggest that schools are facing substantial challenges filling open positions during the 2021-22 academic year. Our analyses illustrate the imperative to build more timely, detailed, and nationally representative data systems on the K-12 education labor market to better inform policy.  

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