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Parents and communities

Vladimir Kogan.

How do adult "culture wars" in education affect student learning in the classroom? I explore this question by combining information on nearly 500 school district political controversies with data on state test scores. Leveraging variation in the location and timing of these events as the basis for a difference-in-differences design, I show that student achievement declines in the wake of adult political battles. The effects are concentrated in math achievement -- the equivalent of approximately 10 days of lost learning -- and persist for at least four years. The declines are particularly pronounced for controversies surrounding racial issues and the teaching of evolution. These results suggest that well-intentioned education advocacy efforts focused on salient social justice issues may backfire, producing in unintended negative impacts on student achievement, and raise new questions about the adequacy of local democratic processes for the governance of public schools.

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Christopher Doss, Hans Fricke, Susanna Loeb, Justin B. Doromal.

This study assesses the effects of two text messaging programs for parents that aim to support the development of math skills in prekindergarten students. One program focuses purely on math, while the other takes an identical approach but focuses on a combination of math, literacy, and social-emotional skills. We find no evidence that the math-only program benefits children’s math development. However, the combination program shows greater promise, particularly for girls. Quantile regressions indicate that the effects are concentrated in the lower half of the outcome distribution. We discuss and provide evidence for various hypotheses that could explain these differences.


  • We test the effects of two text messaging curricula that leverage behavioral economics principles to help parents support the math development of prekindergarteners in the home.
  • We find that a program that cycles through literacy, mathematics, and social-emotional skills increases math achievement for girls, while a program focusing solely on mathematics has no effects.
  • Benefits for girls are concentrated on those with weaker performance on mathematics assessments.
  • We posit potential mechanisms based on the literature.

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William A. Fischel.

This article reviews the development of my thesis that the California Supreme Court's Serrano decisions, which began in 1971 and sought to disconnect district school spending with local property taxes, led to the fiscal conditions that caused California voters to embrace Proposition 13 in 1978, which radically undermined the local property tax system. I submit that my thesis is most likely true because of Proposition 13’s durability and the absence of alternative explanations that account for its longstanding power over California politics. The article then circles back to John Serrano himself. I want to respectfully suggest that John’s views about the role of public education and my own have more in common than might be suspected. At the very least I want to correct the impression that John supported Proposition 13, which was suggested by the title of my last full article about this topic.

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Alex Eble, Maya Escueta.

Can families in low-income contexts “pull themselves up by their bootstraps?” In rural Gambia, caregivers with high aspirations for their children's future education and career, measured before the child starts school, invest substantially more in their children’s education. Despite this, essentially none of these children are literate or numerate three years later. In contrast, a bundled supply-side intervention administered in these same areas generates large literacy and numeracy gains. Conditional on receipt of this intervention, children of high-aspirations caregivers are 25 percent more likely to achieve literacy and numeracy than those of low-aspirations caregivers. Our results show that even in very low-income contexts, greater caregiver aspirations for children can map onto substantially different child learning outcomes, but only in the presence of adequate complementary inputs.

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S. Michael Gaddis, Joseph Murphy.

Scholarly debate focuses on whether cultural capital reproduces existing inequalities or provides a path to upward mobility. Most research, however, focuses only on cross-sectional associations and is unclear about how disadvantaged adolescents can increase their amounts of cultural capital. Traditionally, most adolescents’ interactions with adults occur across two axes of socialization: families and schools. Families provide opportunities to increase cultural capital
while schools value and reward cultural capital. Thus, if adolescents do not obtain cultural capital through their families, they may be at a significant disadvantage when navigating the education system. We hypothesize that adolescents may be able to increase cultural capital through valuable social capital access and exposure – their ties to and meeting frequency with other important adults with knowledge of the education system. We investigate this topic using
experimental longitudinal data on mentoring relationships. We find that high levels of social capital access and exposure positively affect cultural capital, but only for adolescents with highly educated parents. Our findings suggest that cultural capital may not be an engine of social mobility if adolescents from low-SES households cannot acquire or increase their cultural capital.

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Sarah Ausmus Smith, Ron Zimmer.

Over the past fifty years, school districts have consolidated in an effort to achieve economies of scale. While the determinants and effects of district mergers on operations have been studied (Gordon and Knight 2006; Duncombe and Yinger 2007; Jones et al 2008), the impact on communities has not. In small towns, schools not only educate, but also provide stable employment and are a cornerstone for community engagement and local identity. In this article, we examine whether district mergers have adverse effects on the community at large. We evaluate the effects of rural school district consolidations on town population size, number of schools, and property values using a propensity score matched difference-in-differences design, leveraging a 2003 Arkansas state law requiring reorganization using an enrollment cutoff. We estimate that the reform led to reductions in population, community schools, and property value assessments.

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Margot Jackson, Emily Rauscher, Ailish Burns.

Recent expansions of child tax, food assistance and health insurance programs have made American families’ need for a robust social safety net highly evident, while researchers and policymakers continue to debate the best way to support families via the welfare state. How much do children – and which children – benefit from social spending? Using the State-by-State Spending on Kids Dataset, linked to National Vital Statistics System birth data from 1998-2017, we examine how state-level child spending affects infant health across maternal education groups. We find that social spending has benefits for both low birth weight and preterm birth rates, especially among babies born to mothers with less than a high school education. The stronger benefits of social spending among lower-educated families lead to meaningful declines in educational gaps in infant health as social spending increases. Finally, mediation analyses suggest that social spending benefits infant health through mothers’ increased access to prenatal services, as well as improvements in health behaviors. Our findings are consistent with the idea that a strong local welfare state benefits child health and increases equality of opportunity, and that spending on non-health programs is equally beneficial for child health as investments in health programs.

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Margot Jackson, Daniel Schneider.

Families and governments are the primary sources of investment in children, proving access to basic resources and other developmental opportunities.  Recent research identifies significant class gaps in parental investments that contribute to high levels of inequality by family income and education and, potentially, to inequality in children’s development.  State-level public investments in children and families have the potential to reduce class inequality in children’s developmental environments by affecting parents’ behavior.  Using newly assembled administrative data from 1998-2014, linked to household-level data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, we examine how public sector investment in income support, health and education is associated with the private expenditures of low and high-SES parents on developmental items for children. Are class gaps in parental investments in children narrower in contexts of higher public investment for children and families?  We find that more generous public spending for children and families is associated with significantly narrower class gaps in private parental investments.  Moreover, we find that equalization is driven by bottom up increases in low-SES household spending for the progressive investments of income support and health, and by top down decreases in high-SES household spending for the universal investment of public education.

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Camila Morales.

Policy debate on refugee resettlement focuses on perceived adverse effects on local communities, with sparse credible evidence to ascertain its impact. This paper examines whether attending school with refugees affects the academic outcomes of non-refugee students. Leveraging variation in the share of refugees within schools and across grades, I find that increasing the share of grade-level refugees by 1 pp results in a 0.01 sd increase in average math scores. While I find no effect on average English Language Arts scores, using nonlinear-in-means specifications I estimate negative spillovers in ELA performance among low-achieving students and positive spillovers among high-achieving students.

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David M. Houston, Jeffrey R. Henig.

We examine the effects of disseminating academic performance data—either status, growth, or both—on parents’ school choices and their implications for racial, ethnic, and economic segregation. We conduct an online survey experiment featuring a nationally representative sample of parents and caretakers of children age 0-12. Participants choose between three randomly sampled elementary schools drawn from the same school district. Only growth information—alone and not in concert with status information—has clear and consistent desegregating consequences. Because states that include growth in their school accountability systems have generally done so as a supplement to and not a replacement for status, there is little reason to expect that this development will influence choice behavior in a manner that meaningfully reduces school segregation.

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