Recent Education Policy Research

School Finance, Accountability, and Vouchers

Competitive Effects of School Vouchers

In the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Figlio and Cassandra Hart of the University of California, Davis, a former IPR graduate research assistant, study the effects of private school competition on public school students’ test scores after the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a school choice/voucher program, was introduced in 2001. Before the program, some communities had a richer and more diverse set of private school options than others. Figlio and Hart examine whether test scores improved more for students attending public schools with many private schools nearby than for those attending schools with fewer local options. They find that both easier access to private schools and the variety of religious or secular affiliations of private schools are positively linked with public school students’ test scores after the program’s launch. Gains were more pronounced in schools most at risk to lose students, such as elementary and middle schools, where the price to attend private school with a voucher is much lower. But the results also indicate that the program’s introduction led to overall improvements in public school performance, with the gains occurring immediately—before students left the public schools to use a voucher. This implies that competitive threats are responsible for at least some of the voucher program’s estimated effects. 

Education Interventions and Program Evaluations

Multidisciplinary Training for Doctoral Students

Northwestern University’s Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences (MPES) received a $4 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), its third since the program’s creation in 2004, to train doctoral students from different disciplines in state-of-the-art education research methods. Directed by IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and housed in the School of Education and Social Policy, the program’s 2014 cohort is the first to participate in a unique applied research partnership with Evanston Township High School (ETHS), providing a field research experience that is rare for doctoral students. The three-year training program allows Northwestern doctoral students from a number of different disciplines to pair multidisciplinary coursework, which is key to studying education well, with conducting research with affiliated MPES and IPR faculty and completing the ETHS applied research practicum. Schanzenbach hopes the practicum will improve upon a program that has already produced 52 alumni. Alumni of the program credit it with giving them a knowledge base to understand education policy issues from multiple perspectives, as well as introducing them to a community of fellow students and faculty with related interests. Northwestern was one of five universities to which IES awarded 2014 training program grants; the others are New York University, Stanford University, University of Chicago, and University of Virginia. 

Matched Administrative Data Network

While it has become a national priority, states’ data collection efforts are still in their infancy, with little in the way of best practices or minimum guidelines to optimize data collection and use, and other related issues. A National Science Foundation (NSF)- supported group led by IPR Director and education economist David Figlio and Kenneth Dodge of Duke University is building a network of faculty, policymakers, and practitioners from around the nation to examine construction of these “next-generation” datasets. The group held two meetings in 2014. From October 1–3 in Hollywood, Florida, academics, policymakers, and practitioners from across the nation discussed the types of research policymakers want. They reviewed examples of successful researcher-state collaborations and institutional structures that might facilitate them, how to craft legislation to achieve objectives, and other issues related to leveraging matched administrative datasets to improve education policy and outcomes. The next meeting on October 6–7 at Duke University included research presentations by Stanford’s Macke Raymond, Michigan’s Susan Dynarski, Duke’s Atila Abdulkadiroglu, and IPR economist Jonathan Guryan. Guryan, Schanzenbach, social demographer Quincy Thomas Stewart, psychobiologist Emma Adam, and biological anthropologists Christopher Kuzawa and Thomas McDade are all members of the group. Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics. 

School Finance Reform and Student Achievement

Over the past 40 years, a number of states have reformed their school finance systems—some under court order, some not—to redirect funding from wealthier to poorer school districts. In the most recent wave of reforms, beginning in 1989, arguments for such reforms shifted from discussion of “equity” to the “adequacy” of school funding. Previous studies established that early reforms did, indeed, lead to increases in the relative and absolute funding of low-income students’ school districts, with some exceptions. But how do later reforms affect funding and student outcomes? Schanzenbach and University of California, Berkeley’s Jesse Rothstein investigate using a database of student test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered to large, nationally representative samples of students since the 1990s, that has been merged with information on school finance reforms and state policy measures. The researchers first document how “adequacy” affects the school funding level and rich-poor inequality in funding. They then investigate the reforms’ effects on low-income students’ academic achievement in absolute terms and relative to their higher-income, in-state peers. Preliminary findings reveal that school finance reforms increased spending at the bottom and the progressivity of education finance, pushing the United States to a “new era” of finance reforms. The reforms also raised test scores 10—and even 20—years after they passed. 

School Finance Reforms and Adult Outcomes

In an effort to ensure equal educational opportunity for all children, most states adopted school finance reforms between 1970 and 1995 that caused some of the most dramatic changes in the structure of education spending in U.S. history. Little research, however, exists on whether and how these changes have affected the adult well-being of students from poor neighborhoods. With support from the NSF, IPR economist Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley and IPR graduate research assistant Claudia Persico are examining the long-term effects of school finance reforms on state distributions of school spending, academic achievement, and adult outcomes, using detailed, nationally-representative data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) on children born between 1955 and 1985 and who were followed through 2011. Preliminary findings reveal that a 10 percent increase in spending per pupil led to about an extra third of a year in terms of completed education, a 7.25 percent increase in wages, and lower poverty for children from low-income households. Spending increases were also associated with improvements in school quality, increases in teacher salaries, and longer school years. The results indicate that school finance reform policies introduced by states can improve student outcomes and help reduce the intergenerational transmission of poverty. 

Using Mentors to Prevent Dropouts

While urban high school dropouts have received a great deal of policy attention, the problem almost always starts much earlier with truancy from school. However, very little is known about the risk and protective factors involved in truancy—and even less about effective remedies. To shed light on this issue, Guryan and his team of researchers are continuing to implement a new program called Check & Connect that matches students with adult mentors in an effort to increase school attendance and student engagement at 24 public elementary and middle schools in Chicago. Check & Connect is motivated by findings that show a strong relationship with a helpful adult is a highly protective factor against children failing school—something that many of those growing up in distressed family and community environments often lack. More than 3,000 students in 24 Chicago public schools are in the treatment and control groups, with close to 500 students receiving the intervention. The program involves mentoring, monitoring, and enhancing communication between school and home. The program’s potential spill-over effects on peers of students in the program are also being measured by looking at outcomes for the more than 6,000 control students. The project is supported by IES, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and the William T. Grant Foundation. 

Racial Classification of Schools

When black students attend schools where white students dominate academically, how are their perceptions of these schools, and of their race, affected? In Sociology of Education, education sociologist and IPR associate Simone Ispa-Landa examines how and why black students classify their schools in racial terms. She draws on data from a program called Diversify, which buses black students from poor and working class, majority-minority neighborhoods to affluent, majority-white middle and high schools in suburban areas. Students who are waitlisted for Diversify attend their local, majority-black urban schools. Ispa-Landa finds that Diversify students who attended the suburban schools equated whiteness with achievement and blackness with academic deficiency because their schools had white-dominated achievement hierarchies. Students who had been waitlisted for Diversify, and who attended majority-black urban schools, did not classify schools as either white or black. Ispa-Landa concludes that students might perceive entire schools as “sites of potential racial classification,” perceptions that reinforce the divide between black students who attend “white” schools and those who attend “black” schools. Ispa-Landa recommends that educators and the public should pay more attention to the school policies and programs they promote since these have major impacts on how students understand race, achievement, and school quality. 

Using Research to Create School Policies

How do school leaders decide when and how to use research? In the second volume of Policy Implications of Research in Education (Springer, 2014), education researcher and IPR associate Cynthia Coburn and co-author William Penuel of the University of Colorado, Boulder describe how and when decision makers at school and district levels use research. The decision to use research is “interactive” and complex, the researchers explain, where leaders must make sense of conclusions from research, deliberate its local relevance, and create policies that reflect the inherent deliberation between internal actors, such as administrators and educators, and external ones, such as consultants and advocates. These decisions, Coburn and Penuel note, are not made by isolated individuals, but stretch across and even outside districts and schools. Coburn and Penuel highlight recent studies on research and data use among administrators and school board members, as well as the role of research for changing work practices of educators. They conclude that researchers need to understand more about the interactive processes involved in research use before they can improve use among district and school leaders to policymakers’ specifications.

Teacher and Principal Characteristics

Use of Technology in Early Education

Millions of dollars for technology in classrooms are being funneled into K–12 schools nationwide, yet its successful integration into lesson plans is another matter. Communication studies researcher and IPR associate Ellen Wartella, with Northwestern doctoral student Courtney Blackwell and lecturer Alexis Lauricella, examines this puzzling relationship in an article in Computers & Education. Drawing on data from 1,234 early childhood educators, the researchers explore how school environment and attitudes toward the affordances and barriers of technology integration predicted the use of various devices. Their results indicate that while external obstacles influence access to a range of technologies, the educators’ positive beliefs in children’s learning from technology predicted technology use more accurately. Interestingly, while educators with more experience in the classroom were more likely to use technology when they taught, they were less likely to think that students would actually benefit from the technology. Wartella and her colleagues hypothesize that a new teacher might feel more comfortable using technology, but lack the experience to effectively integrate it into a curriculum. The study results suggest that adjusting teacher attitudes to better appreciate the benefits of technology could prove more effective in increasing its use in pre-K classes. Wartella is Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication. 

Quality of High School Teachers

Research has shown that elementary school teachers matter, but what about high school teachers? Jackson argues that measuring teachers based on test scores might make sense in elementary schools, where students are exposed to a single teacher for a year and follow the same course of study, but not in high schools, where students have many different teachers, take different courses, and are placed into different “tracks,” such as honors or college-prep. He outlines a new method for identifying teacher quality effects in high schools, testing it with data on all North Carolina ninth graders from 2005–10.This new method, unlike previous methods of measuring teacher quality, accounts for the effects of tracks by comparing groups of students in the same track at the same school. He shows that high school Algebra I and English I teachers have much smaller effects on student test scores than elementary school teachers. The Spencer Foundation provided funding for the project, which was published in the Journal of Labor Economics.

Teacher Effects on Long-Term Outcomes

An easy way for researchers to measure teacher effects on students is to look at student test scores, since these are easy to measure and a good teacher might conceivably improve them. But by measuring test scores only, researchers fail to capture teachers’ overall effects on students—both the cognitive effects measured by test scores, as well as noncognitive skills, such as adaptability, self-restraint, and motivation, which test scores do not measure. In an IPR working paper, Jackson develops a model of teacher effects that accounts for how both cognitive and noncognitive skills play into students’ long-run outcomes. Using administrative data from ninth grade teachers in North Carolina, he observes that, consistent with the model, the impact of teachers on students’ noncognitive skills is not reflected in test scores, but rather in data on student absences, suspensions, and grades. Jackson’s model is particularly important in light of the fact that many school districts use test score data for hiring and firing teachers and seems to indicate that such approaches might need rethinking. His data reveal that some teachers, such as English teachers, have much stronger effects on noncognitive skills than do others, for example, algebra teachers. The Spencer Foundation provides support for the project.

Tenure-Track Professors and Teaching

The recent national call for adjunct faculty to protest wages and working conditions with a walkout is but one sign of changes in the higher education landscape in which colleges and universities increasingly rely on a combination of nontenure- and tenure-track faculty. Figlio and IPR higher education economist Morton Schapiro, who is also Northwestern University president and professor, are comparing the impact of tenure-track versus non- tenure-track faculty on student learning using data on more than 15,000 Northwestern freshmen between 2001 and 2008.With Kevin Soter (WCAS ’12), a consultant for The Greatest Good, they point to how students were more likely to take a second course, and to earn a higher grade in that subsequent course, when a nontenure-track instructor taught the introductory course. Their results held consistently across subjects, and the benefits of taking introductory courses with nontenure-track faculty were strongest for incoming freshmen with lower academic indicators. Interestingly, the beneficial effects of adjunct faculty were bigger for two groups of Northwestern students—those who were less academically prepared and those who tended to take more difficult classes. The IPR working paper, which generated a wave of media coverage, also called into question whether the rise of hiring full-time designated teachers in U.S. higher education is “cause for alarm.” Rather, the three researchers suggest that such a trend might offer colleges and universities a way to be great institutions of research and of undergraduate learning at the same time. The paper is forthcoming in The Review of Economics and Statistics.

Helping Novice Principals Through Challenges

School principals face many challenges, from managing budgets to being accountable for schools’ standardized test scores. These challenges are compounded for novice principals, particularly during their first three months on the job. In Educational Administration Quarterly, education professor and IPR associate James Spillane, with the University of Texas–Austin’s Linda Lee, investigates the problems novice principals encounter during this time using a random sample of principals from Chicago Public Schools. They observe that novice principals felt a “sense of ultimate responsibility” toward their school, which in turn contributed to an overwhelming and unpredictable workload. Principals’ issues varied in intensity according to the conditions they faced when assuming their positions—for example, already knowing the culture of the school versus being thrown into a new school at the last minute. Spillane and Lee provide recommendations for easing principals’ transitions, including offering them “adequate time and access to information” about their new schools, implementing policies that hold principals and other administrators responsible for student learning, and launching leadership development programs to prepare principals for the increased responsibility. Spillane is Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Chair in Learning and Organizational Change.

High-School-to-College Transitions

Guiding Students Toward College Achievement

IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin conducted a series of educational experiments in 2014. In collaboration with Evanston Township High School, one field experiment sought to reduce socioeconomic gaps in achievement by alerting students to opportunities for advancement, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Destin randomly assigned students to receive information suggesting that social status is malleable and that people can work to climb the social ladder. Students from low-SES backgrounds who received the information scored higher on measures of academic motivation and persistence than those who did not. Another field experiment targeted parents of eighth-grade students, providing them with strategies for discussing college with their children. Initial results of this intervention reveal that such strategies can lead to positive outcomes for both parents and children: Parents in the treatment group planned to discuss college and financial aid sooner with their children, and also believed that it was more important for their children to persist through academic difficulty. Additionally, their children reported discussing college more recently than children in the control group, and they believed that it was more important to persist through academic difficulty. Future analyses will test if the intervention also affected students’ academic performance. Also, Destin and Jackson conducted a randomized controlled experiment at Northwestern investigating factors that affect student learning and peer influence during college.

Closing the Social Class Achievement Gap

College students who do not have parents with four-year degrees (first-generation students) earn lower grades and encounter more obstacles to success than do students who have at least one parent with a four-year degree (continuing-generation students). In Psychological Science, Destin and his colleagues tested a novel “difference-education” intervention to remedy this issue. In the study, first- and continuing-generation students attended an hour-long program welcoming new students to a university. The program included a discussion where a diverse panel of college seniors relayed how their backgrounds affected their college experiences. The first- generation students who attended the panel not only reduced the achievement gap between themselves and students with a college-educated parent by 63 percent, but they also experienced less stress and anxiety, adjusted better to college life, and were more academically and socially engaged than those in the control group.

Interventions for Community Colleges

While access to college has expanded recently, a new challenge remains for community colleges. IPR education researcher James Rosenbaum and his colleagues reveal that many young people who enroll in community college fail to complete their studies and attain a degree. In fact, 46 percent of community college students do not earn a credential within eight years. In a report for the William T. Grant Foundation, Rosenbaum and his colleagues investigate this so-called “forgotten half,” consider current challenges for community colleges, and describe needed research for helping young people complete their education. Using Educational Longitudinal Survey data, the researchers show that while degree attainment is still a challenge for community college students, 37 percent of college students currently attend a community college. The researchers then point to several areas to improve degree completion rates. Better counseling and guidance would benefit community college students, while research can inform the training for counselors on how to support disadvantaged and struggling students. Rosenbaum and his co-authors also call for more research on the alignment between high schools and colleges, increasing links between colleges and employers, and more structured college procedures. 

Comparing Two-Year Colleges

In the United States, private and public two-year colleges enroll similar students—yet private schools have much higher degree completion rates. In recent research, Rosenbaum, IPR graduate research assistant Kelly Iwanaga Becker, and IPR project coordinator Caitlin Ahearn, examine and compare strategies used at nine public and private two-year colleges. They underscore that private, two-year colleges often employ “package-deal programs,” where students are given a structured curriculum aligned to high-demand jobs. The private colleges also integrate frequent, mandatory group advising every term to monitor student progress, and emphasize soft skills, such as time management and teamwork. In contrast, the researchers ascertain that structures are “less clear” at public, two-year colleges. They urge public, two-year colleges to offer more structured programs, with a stronger emphasis on counseling and teaching professional soft skills. While the study focused on two-year colleges, they suggest that four-year institutions could also benefit from their findings.

Improving College Access and Success

Despite rising college costs and student-debt burdens, research continues to show that a four-year college degree is still one of the most viable ways to climb the ladder of success in the United States, especially for students from underrepresented groups. At the same time, the barriers to reaching college, and then succeeding once enrolled, often serve to derail low-income and low-achieving students from obtaining four-year degrees. On May 6, IPR faculty and others convened in Washington, D.C., to discuss how to help low-income students enter, thrive, and succeed in college. Nearly 100 scholars, students, researchers, congressional staff, and members of the public attended. Rosenbaum highlighted his work evaluating a new college counseling program in Chicago Public Schools that targets disadvantaged students by pairing them with “college coaches” who offer advice on college options, working with admissions counselors, and scholarship applications. He has discovered that the coaches improve the types of colleges students attend. The University of Virginia’s Sarah Turner spoke about how information interventions can benefit low-income, high-achieving students who do not apply for college because they find it difficult to identify affordable, high quality colleges and universities. Bridget Terry Long of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education analyzed how to present complicated information about financing college as to not overwhelm students and their families. Figlio moderated the event.

Gaps in Academic Achievement

Interventions for Low-Achieving Students

By the time they reach high school, many low-achieving students in distressed communities have been written off. They can be as many as four to seven years behind their grade level, particularly in math. Guryan and his colleagues at the Urban Education Lab have partnered with Chicago Public Schools to test two interventions—one academic and one behavioral—targeting “mismatch” between what schools deliver and the needs of disadvantaged youth who have fallen behind in their academic or nonacademic development. In an IPR working paper, they share initial results from a rigorous randomized controlled trial with 106 ninth- and tenth-grade boys at Harper High School in Chicago. Ninety-five percent of the participants were black, and 99 percent were eligible for free or reduced lunch. The academic intervention consists of two-on-one math instruction for an hour each school day, or “math tutoring on steroids,” developed by Match Education. The behavioral intervention was the B.A.M. (Becoming A Man) program, a sociocognitive-skills intervention based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, developed by the Chicago non-profit organization Youth Guidance. Promising results from the pilot study led to a large-scale study of the two interventions being implemented in 21 Chicago public high schools in fall 2013 and expanding again for the 2014–15 school year. In the expanded study, Guryan and colleagues are seeking to disentangle how each intervention component affects student outcomes, generating better understanding of potential policies and how to better inform future scale-ups. Additional results suggest that the tutoring program can improve test scores in math by an amount comparable to two-thirds of the black-white test score gap. 

Addressing the Summer Reading Gap

Once children enter school, a reading gap between students from high and low socioeconomic-status (SES) backgrounds appears and begins to grow. It is likely exacerbated by summer vacation, as low-SES students are less likely to receive continued reading instruction over the break. Guryan and James Kim of Harvard University are in the midst of a five- year, multidistrict randomized controlled trial to implement and evaluate Project READS, or “Reading Enhances Achievement During the Summer.” The program, developed by Kim, is being administered to approximately 10,000 students in 70 North Carolina elementary schools over the course of the study. In an NBER working paper, Guryan and Kim, with Harvard doctoral student David Quinn, share results from a randomized evaluation of the program. Project READS mailed 10 books to students, one per week over the summer, matched to students based on their baseline reading skill level and their interests. They show significant effects on reading comprehension test scores in the fall for third grade girls but not for third grade boys or second graders of either gender. Additional analyses show evidence that reading more books generates increases in reading comprehension skills, particularly when students read carefully enough to be able to answer basic questions about the books they read, and particularly for girls. Guryan is also examining different variations of READS to improve effectiveness, measure cost effectiveness, and seek how best to replicate and further expand the program. The U.S. Department of Education is providing support for the project. 

Expanding Access to Preschool Education

On June 19, Schanzenbach was a panelist at the Hamilton Project’s “Addressing America’s Poverty Crisis” conference. There, she spoke about her research with Dartmouth economist Elizabeth Cascio on expanding preschool access for disadvantaged children. In an article that was an IPR working paper, Schanzenbach and Cascio examine the effects of introducing universal preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma in the 1990s, comparing the children and families in those states with children and families elsewhere in the country. They reveal stark differences in preschool enrollment patterns by family back- ground, with children whose mothers have no more than a high school diploma being much more likely to enroll their children in preschool at age 4—experiencing an 18–20 percentage- point enrollment gain versus a 12–15 percentage-point gain in preschool enrollment rates for children whose mothers have more education. The authors also discover some academic benefits, with modest, sustained increases in eighth-grade math test scores for the lower-income children. Conversely, among higher-income children, they see no positive impacts of the program on student achievement. The researchers suggest it might be more cost-effective to design a preschool program to target those most in need to reduce the extent of crowd-out; hence, they proposed a framework at the conference calling for the establishment of a high-quality program in areas where preschool programs do not exist, improved preschool quality in states with subpar programs, and expanded access in areas where high-quality programs already exist.

Developing Diagnostic Tools for Language

In American Psychologist, a team of researchers—including IPR education researcher and statistician Larry Hedges—reviews findings from a four-year longitudinal study of language learning conducted with typically developing children whose parents vary substantially in socioeconomic status and with children who suffered brain injuries either right before or right after birth. This two-sample design enables the researchers to study how language develops across a wide range of language environments and learners. The research team videotaped children’s and parents’ speech and gestures—two behaviors known to vary across individuals and environments—during spontaneous interactions at home every four months, and subsequently transcribed and coded them. These two behaviors have the potential to index, and perhaps even play a role in creating differences across children’s linguistic and cognitive skills. The researchers have formulated several hypotheses that hold promise for new diagnostic tools and interventions to enhance language, cognitive development, and brain plasticity after neonatal injury.

Research Prizes for Minority Students

The need for the United States to compete globally in science continues to rise, but minority groups, despite being the fastest growing segments of the population, are grossly underrepresented in these fields. One attempt at increasing the number of minority students entering biomedical careers is using prizes for undergraduate minority student research, such as those awarded by the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. Though research prizes are common in science, it is unclear if they have effects on scientists’ careers, and if so, how they produce these effects. With funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Hedges and IPR research associate Evelyn Asch are conducting a study of this research prize competition, exploring the mechanisms by which research prizes might affect undergraduate minority students’ career success as scholars. The results from the project will help to provide answers about how to increase the number of minority students who become biomedical researchers and why awards might be a potent tool in transforming students into scientists.