Gema Zamarro

Institution: University of Arkansas

Gema Zamarro (Ph.D. Economics, CEMFI & UNED, Madrid (Spain), 2006) is a Professor (Full) and 21st Century Endowed Chair in Teacher Quality at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Dr. Zamarro also directs Charassein: the Character Assessment Initiative, a research group for the study of measures and development of character skills. She is also adjunct Senior Economist at the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR). Prior to joining the University of Arkansas, Zamarro was a Senior Economist at CESR (2013-2014), an Economist at the RAND Corporation (2007-2013; Adjunct Economist 2013-2016) and Professor of Econometrics at the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy (2007-2013), as well as, assistant professor in the Department of Econometrics at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and a junior research fellow at NETSPAR (Network for Studies on Pensions, Aging and Retirement) (2005-2007). Dr. Zamarro has performed research on applied econometrics in the areas of education and labor economics. She has completed studies on heterogeneity in returns to education, on the relationship between teacher quality and student performance, on the effect of school closing policies on student outcomes, on the properties of value-added methods for estimating teacher quality, on the effect of dual-language immersion programs on student outcomes, and on the causal effect of retirement on health, among others. Her current education research focuses on the measurement and development of character skills, determinants of gender gaps in STEM and the study of teacher turnover decisions. Dr. Zamarro’s work has been featured several times in the media including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post of Chicago, and the Oregorian.


Gema Zamarro, Andrew Camp, Josh McGee, Taylor Wilson, Miranda Vernon.

Attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is a pressing policy concern. Increasing teacher salaries and creating more attractive compensation packages are often proposed as a potential solution. Signed into law in March 2023, the LEARNS Act increased Arkansas's minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000, guaranteed all teachers a minimum raise of $2,000, and added flexibility allowing school districts to deviate from seniority-based traditional salary schedules. To study school districts’ adjustments to the new legislation, we collected information about districts' teacher compensation policies one year before and the first year of implementation. We also integrated this data with teachers' administrative records to study patterns of teacher retention and mobility. Our results reveal a more equitable distribution of starting teacher salaries across districts, with minimal variation. The LEARNS Act notably increased funding for rural and high-poverty districts, mitigating the negative association between starting salaries and district poverty rates. However, the initial effects on teacher retention and mobility were modest. While some positive trends emerged, such as reduced probabilities of teachers transitioning to non-instructional roles and increased new teacher placement in geographic areas of shortage, broader impacts on retention and mobility were limited in the first year of implementation.

More →

Andrew Camp, Gema Zamarro, Josh McGee.

Teachers' levels of stress and burnout have been high throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, raising concerns about a potential increase in teacher turnover and future teacher shortages. We examine how the COVID-19 pandemic affected teacher turnover in Arkansas from 2018-19 to 2022-23 using administrative data. We find no major changes in turnover entering the first two pandemic years, but a large increase of 5.3 percentage points (26%) entering the third year, with variation by teacher and student characteristics. We also find that increases in teacher turnover are related to instructional mode and that this turnover may partially be explained by the use of COVID-19 relief funds. Additionally, we find evidence that more effective teachers became more likely to leave the education sector after the pandemic as compared to before the pandemic. Our results suggest increased strain and reduced diversity and quality in the Arkansas teacher workforce and raise concerns about the long-term impacts that COVID-19 may have on its stability and quality.

More →

Andrew Camp, Alison H. Johnson, Gema Zamarro.

During the 2020-21 school year, Black and Hispanic students were less likely to attend school in-person than white students. Prior research indicated multiple factors helped explain this gap. In this study, we revise these observed racial gaps in in-person learning to examine whether the relationship between these gaps and explanatory factors observed earlier in the pandemic changed during the 2021-2022 school year. We find that, while in-person gaps decreased, Black respondents continued to be less likely to report in-person learning than white respondents. Political leanings and COVID-19 health risks, which helped explain observed gaps in 2020-2021, lose explanatory power. But the availability of learning options remains an important factor in helping explain the observed in-person gaps. In this respect, our results suggest the presence of a mismatch between the preferences that Black families have and what they are being offered.

More →

Andrew Camp, Gema Zamarro, Josh B. McGee.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a trying period for teachers. Teachers had to adapt to unexpected conditions, teaching in unprecedented ways. As a result, teachers' levels of stress and burnout have been high throughout the pandemic, raising concerns about a potential increase in teacher turnover and future teacher shortages. We use administrative data for the state of Arkansas to document the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on teachers’ mobility and attrition during the years 2018-19 to 2021-2022. We find stable turnover rates during the first year of the pandemic (2020-2021) but an increase in teacher mobility and attrition in the second year (2021-2022). Teacher mobility and attrition increased by 2 percentage points (10% relative increase) this second year but with heterogeneous effects across regions and depending on the teacher and school characteristics. Our results raise concerns about increased strain in areas already experiencing teacher shortages and a potential reduction in the diversity of the Arkansas teacher labor force.

More →

Gema Zamarro, Andrew Camp, Dillon Fuchsman, Josh B. McGee.

The 2020-2021 academic year was a trying year for teachers. We use a nationally representative sample of teachers from the RAND American Teacher Panel to document that teachers’ stated consideration of leaving the profession increased during the pandemic. We also study factors associated with teachers’ consideration of leaving the profession and high levels of job burnout during the pandemic. Approaching retirement age (being 55 or older), having to change instruction modes, health concerns, and high levels of job burnout all appear to be important predictors of the probability of considering leaving or retiring from teaching. Hybrid teaching increased consideration of leaving the profession because of COVID. Health concerns and switching instruction modes are all associated with higher levels of concern about job burnout. Interestingly, those approaching retirement ages do not present higher levels of concern about job burnout than younger teachers. Although increased consideration of leaving and concern about burnout do not yet appear to have materialized into higher attrition rates so far, higher levels of job dissatisfaction could affect teacher effectiveness and could harm student academic progress.

More →

Lina Anaya, Nagore Iriberri, Pedro Rey-Biel, Gema Zamarro.

Standardized assessments are widely used to determine access to educational resources with important consequences for later economic outcomes in life. However, many design features of the tests themselves may lead to psychological reactions influencing performance. In particular, the level of difficulty of the earlier questions in a test may affect performance in later questions. How should we order test questions according to their level of difficulty such that test performance offers an accurate assessment of the test taker's aptitudes and knowledge? We conduct a field experiment with about 19,000 participants in collaboration with an online teaching platform where we randomly assign participants to different orders of difficulty and we find that ordering the questions from easiest to most difficult yields the lowest probability to abandon the test, as well as the highest number of correct answers. Consistent results are found exploiting the random variation of difficulty across test booklets in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triannual international test, for the years of 2009, 2012, and 2015, providing additional external validity. We conclude that the order of the difficulty of the questions in tests should be considered carefully, in particular when comparing performance between test-takers who have faced different order of questions.

More →

Andrew Camp, Gema Zamarro.

A growing body of research and popular reporting shows racial differences in school modality choices during the COVID-19 crisis, with white students more likely to attend school in person.  This in-person learning gap raises serious equity concerns. We use unique panel survey data to explore possible explanations. We find that a combination of factors may explain these differences. School districts’ offerings, political partisanship, and local COVID-19 outbreaks are all meaningfully associated with and plausibly explain the in-person learning racial gap. As schools start offering more in-person learning, significant efforts may be necessary to ensure that families and students attend those in-person learning opportunities.

More →

Lina M. Anaya, Gema Zamarro.

International assessments are important to benchmark the quality of education across countries. However, on low-stakes tests, students’ incentives to invest their maximum effort may be minimal. Research stresses that ignoring students’ effort when interpreting results from low-stakes assessments can lead to biased interpretations of test performance across groups of examinees. We use data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a low-stakes test, to analyze the extent to which student effort helps to explain test scores heterogeneity across countries and by gender groups. Our results highlight the importance of accounting for differences in student effort to understand cross-country heterogeneity in performance and variations in gender achievement gaps across nations. We find that, once we account for differential student effort across gender groups, the estimated gender achievement gap in math and science could be up to 12 and 6 times wider, respectively, and up to 49 percent narrower in reading, in favor of boys. In math and science, the gap widens in most countries, even among some of the top 20 most gender-equal countries. Altogether, our effort measures on average explain between 36 and 40 percent of the cross-country variation in test scores.

More →

Bryan S. Graham, Geert Ridder, Petra Thiemann, Gema Zamarro.

We study the effects of counterfactual teacher-to-classroom assignments on average student achievement in elementary and middle schools in the US. We use the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) experiment to semiparametrically identify the average reallocation effects (AREs) of such assignments. Our findings suggest that changes in within-district teacher assignments could have appreciable effects on student achievement. Unlike policies which require hiring additional teachers (e.g., class-size reduction measures), or those aimed at changing the stock of teachers (e.g., VAM-guided teacher tenure policies), alternative teacher-to-classroom assignments are resource neutral; they raise student achievement through a more efficient deployment of existing teachers.

More →

Dillon Fuchsman, Tim R. Sass, Gema Zamarro.

Teacher turnover has adverse consequences for student achievement and imposes large financial costs for schools. Some have argued that high-stakes testing may lower teachers’ satisfaction with their jobs and could be a major contributor to teacher attrition. In this paper, we exploit changes in the tested grades and subjects in Georgia to study the effects of eliminating high-stakes testing on teacher turnover and the distribution of teachers across grades and schools. To measure the effect of testing pressures on teacher mobility choices we use a "difference-in-differences" approach, comparing changes in mobility over time in grades/subjects that discontinue testing vis-à-vis grades/subjects that are always tested. Our results show that eliminating testing did not have an impact on the likelihood of leaving teaching, changing schools within a district, or moving between districts. We only uncover small negative effects on the likelihood of grade switching. However, we do find relevant positive effects on retention of beginning teachers in the profession. In particular, the average probability of exit for teachers with 0-4 years of experience fell from 14 to 13 percentage points for teachers in grades 1 and 2 and from 14 to 11 percentage points in grades 6 and 7.

More →