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K-12 Education

Michael Gilraine, Valentina Duque.

We examine the effect of air pollution from power production on students' cognitive outcomes by leveraging year-to-year production variation, wind patterns, and plant closures. We find that every one million megawatt hours of coal-fired power production decreases student performance in schools within ten kilometers by 0.02 standard deviations. Gas-fired plants exhibit no such relationship. Extrapolating our results nationwide indicates that the decline in coal use over the last decade raises test scores by 0.008 standard deviations and reduces the black-white test score gap by 0.006 standard deviations. The nationwide effect obscures substantial spatial variation: The respective numbers for the Midwest are 0.016 and 0.023.

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Beth E. Schueler, Catherine Armstrong Asher, Katherine E. Larned, Sarah Mehrotra, Cynthia Pollard.

The public narrative surrounding efforts to improve low-performing K-12 schools in the U.S. has been notably gloomy. Observers argue that either nothing works or we don’t know what works. At the same time, the federal government is asking localities to implement evidence-based interventions. But what is known empirically about whether school improvement works, how long it takes, which policies are most effective, and which contexts respond best to intervention? We meta-analyze 141 estimates from 67 studies of turnaround policies implemented post-NCLB. On average, these policies have had a moderate positive effect on math but no effect on ELA achievement as measured by high-stakes exams. We find evidence of positive impacts on low-stakes exams in STEM and humanities subjects and no evidence of harm on non-test outcomes. Some elements of reform, namely extended learning time and teacher replacements, predict greater effects. Contexts serving majority-Latinx populations have seen the largest improvements.

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Jessica Lasky-Fink, Carly D. Robinson, Hedy Chang, Todd Rogers.

Many states mandate districts or schools notify parents when students have missed multiple unexcused days of school. We report a  randomized experiment (N = 131,312) evaluating the impact of sending parents truancy notifications modified to target behavioral barriers that can hinder effective parental engagement. Modified truancy notifications that used simplified language, emphasized parental efficacy, and highlighted the negative incremental effects of missing school reduced absences by 0.07 days compared to the standard, legalistic, and punitively-worded notification—an estimated 40% improvement over the standard truancy notification. This work illustrates how behavioral insights and randomized experiments can be used to improve administrative communications in education.

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Robert M. Costrell, Josh B. McGee.

Our goal in this paper, presented at the 2020 Brookings Municipal Finance Conference, is to better understand teacher pension funding dynamics with a focus on sustainability and intergenerational equity.  The origin of this paper is our analysis of the funding policy recommended in a highly publicized paper first presented at the 2019 Brookings Municipal Finance Conference (Lenney, Lutz, and Sheiner, 2019a; 2019b).  That proposed policy aims to alleviate rising pension payments that crowd-out classroom expenditures and teacher salaries by abandoning the attempt to pay down pension debt.  While the problem of crowd-out is real, we show that, with uncertain investment returns, the recommended policy would carry significant risk of pension fund insolvency and a jump in contributions to the pay-go rate, which is much higher than current rates. We close by proposing a policy evaluation framework that better incorporates risk and the intertemporal tradeoffs between current contributions and likely future outcomes.  We illustrate throughout with data from the California Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS).

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David D. Liebowitz.

Teacher evaluation policies seek to improve student outcomes by increasing the effort and skill levels of current and future teachers. Current policy and most prior research treats teacher evaluation as balancing two aims: accountability and skill development. Proper teacher evaluation design has been understood as successfully weighting the accountability and professional growth dimensions of policy and practice. I develop a model of teacher effectiveness that incorporates improvement from evaluation and detail conditions which determine the effectiveness of teacher evaluation for growth and accountability at improving student outcomes. Drawing on empirical evidence from the personnel economics, economics of education and measurement literatures, I simulate the long-term effects of a set of teacher evaluation policies. I find that those that treat evaluation for accountability and evaluation for growth as substitutes outperform policies that treat them as complements. I conclude that optimal teacher evaluation policies would impose accountability on teachers performing below a defined level and above which teachers would be subject to no accountability pressure but would receive intensive instructional supports.

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Cassandra M. D. Hart, Brian Jacob, Susanna Loeb.

A common rationale for offering online courses in K-12 schools is that they allow students to take courses not offered at their schools; however, there has been little research on how online courses are used to expand curricular options when operating at scale. We assess the extent to which students and schools use online courses for this purpose by analyzing statewide, student-course level data from high school students in Florida, which has the largest virtual sector in the nation. We introduce a “novel course” framework to address this question. We define a virtual course as “novel” if it is only available to a student virtually, not face-to-face through their own home high school. We find that 7% of high school students in 2013-14 enroll in novel online courses. Novel courses were more commonly used by higher-achieving students, in rural schools, and in schools with relatively few Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate offerings.

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Carlos X. Lastra-Anadón, Paul E. Peterson.
The efficiency-equity trade-offs in public service delivery may be influenced by the dependency of local governments on their own resources rather than inter-governmental grants. School districts in the United States are expected both to produce human capital efficiently and to provide educational opportunity equally. To ascertain school district trade-offs, we estimate effects of revenue source on student performances in math and reading. Achievement is estimated from 225,000 observations weighted to be district representative. Estimates are made with OLS, geographic discontinuity models exploiting differences at state borders, and 2SLS models that use changes in housing prices as an instrument. For every 10 percent increase in local revenue share, achievement increases by a sizeable 0.02 to 0.06 standard deviations. Gains for students from low socio-economic backgrounds are about half those from higher ones. Both voice and exit channels moderate the efficiency-equity trade-off. Implications for federalism and state policy are discussed.

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Andre Joshua Nickow, Philip Oreopoulos, Vincent Quan.

Tutoring—defined here as one-on-one or small-group instructional programming by teachers, paraprofessionals, volunteers, or parents—is one of the most versatile and potentially transformative educational tools in use today. Within the past decade, dozens of preK-12 tutoring experiments have been conducted, varying widely in their approach, context, and cost. Our study represents the first systematic review and meta-analysis of these and earlier studies. We develop a framework for considering different types of programs to not only examine overall effects, but also explore how these effects vary by program characteristics and intervention context. We find that tutoring programs yield consistent and substantial positive impacts on learning outcomes, with an overall pooled effect size estimate of 0.37 SD. Effects are stronger, on average, for teacher and paraprofessional tutoring programs than for nonprofessional and parent tutoring. Effects also tend to be strongest among the earlier grades. While overall effects for reading and math interventions are similar, reading tutoring tends to yield higher effect sizes in earlier grades, while math tutoring tends to yield higher effect sizes in later grades. Tutoring programs conducted during school tend to have larger impacts than those conducted after school.

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Andrew C. Johnston.

Improving schools depends on attracting talented teachers and fostering retention, both made possible by appealing to teacher preferences. I deploy a discrete-choice experiment in a setting where teachers have reason to reveal their preferences. Those data allow me to calculate willingness-to-pay for a comprehensive set of workplace attributes including salary structure, retirement benefits, performance pay, class size, and time-to-tenure. Schools can improve the appeal of teaching by shifting compensation into vehicles with greater WTP-to-cost ratios. Highly rated teachers have stronger preferences for schools offering performance pay, which may be used to differentially attract and retain them. Under various criteria, schools seem to underpay in salary and performance pay while overpaying in retirement benefits.

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Oded Gurantz, Michael Hurwitz, Jonathan Smith.

Younger siblings take more advanced high school course end of year exams when their older siblings perform better in those same exams. Using a regression discontinuity and data from millions of siblings who take Advanced Placement (AP) exams, we show that younger siblings with older siblings who marginally “pass” an AP exam are more likely to take at least one AP exam, increase the total number of AP exams, and are more likely to take the same exam as their sibling. The largest impacts are found among sisters, but we do not see differential effects in coursework where females are underrepresented.

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