Recent Education Policy Research


School Spending and Student Outcomes

Investing in Children and Schools
When and where should society invest funds in children to break the cycle of poverty? In an IPR working paper, IPR labor and education economist Kirabo Jackson and Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley, focus on the causal effects of spending on Head Start programs, K–12 school spending, and the effects of the interaction between the two. Rather than rely on test scores to evaluate the effects on children, they used the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) to look at the educational attainment, adult wages, and the likelihood of adult incarceration of people born between 1950 and 1976. Head Start was launched in 1964 and was rolled out over time in different counties and at differing funding levels. Court-ordered school finance reforms between 1971 and 2010 led to increases in public school funding to correct some of the inequities between school districts due to their varying wealth. Jackson and Rucker establish that the effects of increases in Head Start spending were larger when participants in the program subsequently attended schools that were relatively well-funded as a result of the court-ordered reforms. These are interactive, or synergistic, effects between the two types of investment in children. The combined benefits for poor children growing up in places with both greater Head Start spending and K–12 per pupil spending are significantly greater than the sum of the independent effects of either investment on its own. The National Institutes of Health, Russell Sage Foundation, and National Science Foundation (NSF) provided research support.

Kirabo Jackson
IPR labor and education economist Kirabo Jackson has
discovered that investment in Head Start, followed by
sustained educational investments over time, can help
to break the cycle of poverty.

School Finance and Student Success
Finance reforms are key for promoting equal educational opportunity, according to IPR Director and economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and fellow researchers Julien Lafortune and Jesse Rothstein of the University of California, Berkeley. In research supported by the Spencer Foundation and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, the authors examine the impact of “adequacy” school finance reforms in the 1990s that raised funding levels of poorer school districts to guarantee equal access to an “adequate education.” These reforms led to sharp and sustained increases in spending in low-income school districts and sometimes resulted in higher spending in these poorer school districts than in higher-income ones. Using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the “nation’s report card,” for 1990–2011, the researchers determine that school finance reforms reduced the test-score gap between low- and high-income districts and that the implied effect of school resources on educational achievement is large. They caution, however, that school finance reforms are a rather blunt instrument in improving education for lower-income children since most do not live in a low-income school district. The research was published in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Schanzenbach is Margaret Walker Alexander Professor.

Schools Differ Within Districts
Understanding which school districts do better at educating both socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged students is the first step towards uncovering the causes of success and, ultimately, how to replicate it. A closer look reveals, however, that schools in the same district might differ a great deal. Using linked birth and school records in Florida, IPR education economist David Figlio and IPR research associate Krzysztof Karbownik demonstrate that within single districts, both advantaged and disadvantaged students fare well in some schools, while in others, both groups do poorly. In yet other schools, one group does relatively well, but the other does relatively poorly. The researchers find that preschool preparation for kindergarten did not explain the differences across schools. Nor were overall school advantage levels related to differences between achievement levels of advantaged and disadvantaged students. Figlio and Karbownik point out that policymakers need to enact school accountability policies that hold schools accountable for the success of specific populations, rather than focusing only on overall schoolwide performance gains or losses. They also urge a closer study of practices at individual schools, rather than stopping research at the district level. The research is ongoing and is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Early results appear in the Brookings Institution’s Evidence Speaks reports. Figlio is the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics.

Improving Academic Achievement

How Do Preemies Do in School?
Parents of prematurely born babies often fear their children might go on to struggle in school, but findings from a large-scale study by IPR faculty should be reassuring. Results published in JAMA Pediatrics show that two-thirds of babies born at only 23 or 24 weeks were ready for kindergarten on time. While those born extremely prematurely often scored low on standardized tests, preterm infants born at 25 weeks or later performed only slightly lower than full-term infants. Pediatrician and IPR associate Craig Garfield, with Figlio, Karbownik, IPR economist Jonathan Guryan, and their colleagues analyze the records of more than 1.3 million babies born in Florida from 1992–2002. The babies had gestational ages of 23–41 weeks and later entered public schools between 1995 and 2012. The researchers match the babies’ vital statistics with their school records to examine the association between being born early and educational performance. They learn that most babies born prematurely performed similarly to other children on standardized tests through elementary and middle school. Funding support was provided by the NSF, U.S. Department of Education, Smith Richardson Foundation, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

Ofer Malamud
Research by IPR economist Ofer Malamud
suggests that higher-quality schools
might help children overcome their
disadvantage.

Family and School Interactions
IPR education economist Ofer Malamud is examining the possible interactions between conditions in early childhood and the productivity of later investments in education. In a working paper, he and co-authors Cristian Pop-Eleches and Miguel Urquiola of Columbia University use administrative data from Romania to learn whether the benefit of access to better schools—determined by a high-stakes exam—is larger for children who experienced better family environments because they were born after abortion became more widely available in 1990. The results show that access to abortion and access to better schools each had a positive impact on test scores, but they find no evidence of significant interactions between them and later educational investments. If anything, the benefits of access to a better school were larger for children born under a more restrictive abortion policy, suggesting that higher-quality schools might help children overcome their disadvantage.

Race, Gender in School Discipline
Several forms of school discipline might be found to coexist in the same school, IPR education sociologist Simone Ispa-Landa observes in Social Currents. For example, fairly authoritarian disciplinary policies that include police officers stationed in schools might be found side by side with restorative justice programs meant to counter harsh, criminalizing, and racially disproportionate punishment. The impact on students and student discipline of these two quite different approaches functioning in the same school is not well understood. Are certain types of students (African American girls, for instance) more likely to be routed through the authoritarian channel—disciplined and perhaps even arrested—in contrast with others (middle-class whites, for instance) who are sent through the school’s restorative justice program? Ispa-Landa calls for more research to investigate how broader policy contexts influence particular disciplinary programs so as to enrich current scholarship on race and gender disparities in school discipline.

Race, Stress, and Academic Outcomes
How do racial stressors affect sleep and academic outcomes among teenagers? With funding from the Spencer Foundation, IPR development psychobiologist Emma Adam, IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin, and Adriana Umaña-Taylor of Harvard University are following 300 students at a large, racially and ethnically diverse high school. The researchers are specifically measuring the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as sleep length and quality. They will also assign students to different interventions: One group will participate in an eight-week program that promotes developing a positive self-image related to culture, heritage, and race. Another group will receive eight weekly sessions on college and career planning. Adam, Destin, and Umaña-Taylor plan to examine the impact of the programs on stress biology and sleep, student well-being, and academic outcomes, such as grades and high school graduation rates.

Stress and Testing
In other work funded by the Spencer Foundation,
Adam is investigating how children respond biologically to the stress of standardized testing. With Figlio and former IPR graduate research assistant Jennifer Heissel, now at the Naval Postgraduate School, Adam is also examining whether stressors unrelated to school, such as those associated with children’s neighborhood, affect children’s stress hormones and exacerbate the effects of school-based pressures. Initial results demonstrate that students have significantly higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol during both medium- and high-stakes testing. Younger students showed notable elevations the morning of their medium-stakes tests, which were the first major tests they ever had in their schooling. Older students, meanwhile, registered elevated cortisol across much of the day in response to testing. Students who had larger increases in cortisol on test days performed worse, on average, in mathematics, but researchers did not find any significant differences for the language arts or science sections. Adam and her colleagues plan to continue this work to determine whether stress hormone levels predict students’ academic performance and emotional well-being.

Mindset and Educational Disparities
Some high school students believe their intelligence is a fixed trait, but others believe that intelligence can grow through education and persistence. Are these different understandings, or mindsets, related to socioeconomic status (SES), and do they predict academic achievement? Destin is leading a new interdisciplinary research project with the Mindset Scholars Network to uncover answers to these questions. With colleagues from psychology, statistics, sociology, and data analysis, including statistician and former IPR graduate research assistant Elizabeth Tipton, now at Columbia University, Destin is analyzing three datasets that include about 7,500 students from across the country and from different SES backgrounds. The researchers will be able to observe how mindsets about intelligence vary across a wide range of communities on a national scale. They will be looking to see if trends in mindsets vary based on SES among students from diverse backgrounds. The Raikes Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation, and Joyce Foundation are providing project funding.

Evaluations of Education Interventions and Programs

Reading Incentives and Scale-Up
Guryan extended his ongoing research into Project READS, a summer reading program developed by Harvard University’s James Kim. Over summer break, the project mails books weekly to rising fourth- and fifth-grade students. The students were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a control group that received no summer books; a group that received books; and a group that received books and prizes based on the number of books read. In the Economics of Education Review, the researchers demonstrate that incentives led to a significant increase in total reading, and the incentives worked best among students already more motivated to read. Though reading comprehension test scores for average students did not increase as a result of the additional summer reading, test scores of the most motivated students who received books well-matched to their skill level did show significant improvement. In related research, Guryan, Kim, and their colleagues experimented with a method that might lead to successful scale-up of the program and others like it. In Reading Research Quarterly, the investigators compare “Core” READS with a version that included adaptations created by teachers for their students in a structured process. Their results indicate that the adapted version of the reading program increased the level of student and family engagement with summer books, as well as students’ reading comprehension. Additionally, the findings suggest that structured teacher adaptation is a possible method for scaling up literacy interventions.

Impact of Refugees on Classmates
The world is in the midst of a massive refugee crisis. How to cope with the number of asylum seekers has provoked much debate, but scarce empirical evidence exists about the possible effects of refugees on host communities. One concern centers on schools being able to absorb refugee students. In the first investigation of the impact of a large influx of refugees on the educational outcomes of their classmates, Figlio and Umut Özek of the American Institutes for Research study what happened when Haitian earthquake survivors entered Florida schools in 2010. Florida received more than 4,000 refugee students who entered public schools—overwhelmingly in just four school districts—by the end of the 2009–10 school year. Using longitudinal education microdata, the researchers examine the effects of the refugees over two years on various subgroups of incumbent students, including blacks, limited English proficiency (LEP) students, non-LEP students, and immigrant students, both from Haiti and elsewhere. In an IPR working paper, Figlio and Özek report zero effects on incumbent students’ test scores, disciplinary incidents, and student mobility across all groups, regardless of their SES, grade level, ethnicity, or birthplace.

Targeting Parents to Improve Grades
Previous research has shown that students who receive information about how investment in education will yield rewards in the future experience increases in academic motivation. But little research exists into whether similar messages might motivate parents, in turn, to influence their children’s motivation. To investigate,
Destin and IPR graduate research assistant Ryan Svoboda created an experiment directed at a small sample of eighth-grade parents. They recruited parents whose children had already completed eighth grade in the same school to serve on panels to discuss ways they had helped their children think about future opportunities and deal with academic difficulty. The researchers expected that parents in the experiment would be more influenced by members of their own community. The panel’s message was that difficult academic challenges are an important opportunity for achievement. For students whose parents attended the panel, they saw their grades rise throughout the school year, and parents’ responses to academic difficulty mediated the large effect on grades. The research was published in the Journal of Adolescence.

Improving Educational Games
Both computer tutoring systems and games have become popular and widespread in recent years. So-called intelligent tutoring includes correction of a student’s mistakes, while games reward success and penalize players for errors. What balance of these two types of activities increase learning and interest? To find out, learning scientist and IPR associate
Matthew Easterday and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University created two versions of an educational game for learning policy argumentation called Policy World—a game-only version and a game-plus-tutor version that included teaching feedback and immediate error correction. In results published in the Journal of the Learning Sciences, the researchers demonstrate that the game-plus-tutor version increased the players’ learning of policy analysis skills and self-reported competence. The study suggests that increasing tutoring and reducing penalties in educational games can increase learning without sacrificing interest.

James Spillane
Research by James Spillane, an education
professor and IPR associate, suggests that school
buildings should be designed to promote
interaction between teachers.

Teachers Benefit from Proximity
Teachers are usually pictured as isolated from colleagues behind their classroom doors. But new research published in
Sociology of Education by education professor and IPR associate James Spillane suggests that teachers might benefit from the chance encounters that stem from working near one another inside the school building. Spillane, along with former IPR graduate research assistant Matthew Shirrell, now at George Washington University, and Tracy Sweet of the University of Maryland, explore how physical proximity influenced the way teachers interacted. They find that the physical distance between teachers—whether measured using the distance between classrooms or by the overlap of the areas teachers frequent in school buildings—affected the likelihood that school staff interacted with one another and were able to discuss problems and receive advice. Moreover, physical proximity had a stronger impact on teachers of the same grade level than teachers of different grades. The research has several implications for education practice: School buildings should be designed to promote interaction; “master” teachers or those in leadership positions should work in spaces close to other teachers; and school leaders should consider proximity when distributing staff throughout school buildings. Spillane is the Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change.

College Transitions and Persistence

College Costs: Burden or Investment?
The high costs of college can be seen either as a burden or an investment in the future. In
Research in Higher Education, Destin and Svoboda investigate if how students at selective colleges and universities think about college costs and their futures affects their academic performance. The researchers performed two studies to establish the links between their awareness of education’s financial burden and psychological and cognitive processes, which in turn affect students’ academic achievement. The first study used longitudinal data from 28 selective colleges and established that students who accumulate student-loan debt are less likely to graduate from college. Their debt predicts a decline in grades over time, even when controlling for other factors such as SES. To identify how financial anxiety influences academic performance, the researchers conducted a second experimental study with 221 undergraduates at an elite research university. Keeping college costs in mind reduced the students’ abilities to complete difficult cognitive tasks. However, those students who thought about college costs and loans but also thought about their connection to future financial success showed no decline in abilities. Better understanding of how students perceive high college costs might help in shaping effective policies to support student performance, especially for low-income and first-generation college students.

College Pathways to Success
Most high school students want to attend college, but not everyone who enrolls succeeds in completing a four-year degree. High-income and high-achieving students are traditionally successful, but what about nontraditional students, who are older, low achieving, or lower income? In Bridging the Gaps: College Pathways to Career Success (Russell Sage Foundation, 2017), IPR education researcher James Rosenbaum, former IPR project coordinator Caitlin Ahearn, and Janet Rosenbaum of SUNY Downstate Medical Center propose more education options such as certificates and associate degrees, which offer strong alternatives to bachelor’s degrees and significant earnings payoffs over high school diplomas. These programs can be completed in less time and cost less than four-year degrees. However, nearly half of students drop out of community college before earning a degree. The authors recommend that community colleges create structured pathways to help students navigate their way toward a degree. They also urge better linkages between high schools and community colleges and between the community colleges and four-year institutions.

Pathways for Low-Income Students
In a new study that received funding from the William T. Grant Foundation,
Rosenbaum continues his research into college pathways for nontraditional students. Which lower SES students complete various college credentials, and which ones receive job payoffs, both monetary—wages and benefits—and nonmonetary—such as job satisfaction? Using national longitudinal survey data from the Education Longitudinal Study 2002–12, Rosenbaum will analyze how colleges serve low-SES students, and what earnings and job rewards they lead to. The study will also include interviews of high school counselors about how they advise and support low-SES students. The study’s goal is to improve understanding about the journeys low-SES students take through college and to lead to better advice, college choices, earnings, and job rewards for these students.

College Options
Examining college pathways from another angle,
Rosenbaum, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation, is beginning a mixed-methods study to identify nontraditional college options, such as vocational training. Analyzing two national surveys, he will examine which students take these options, which pathways benefit these students, and how students learn about these options. Such students are now expected to attend college even if they are not high academic achievers. These youth face added obstacles but might not see alternative options that avoid these obstacles, and perhaps even lead to the same goals. In interviews with high school guidance counselors in cities and suburbs, the study will investigate how they inform students about options beyond traditional four-year degree programs.

Morton Schapiro and Gary Saul Morson
From left: Morton Schapiro, Northwestern
president, professor, and IPR economist,
and Slavic languages professor Gary Saul
Morson reflect on their book, 
Cents and
Sensibility, for a Northwestern University
podcast.

Economics and Literature
Morton Schapiro, Northwestern University president, professor, and IPR economist, and Gary Saul Morson, the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures, published their second book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2017). The scholars argue that the study of literature offers economists ways to improve their models and predictions, as well as ways to shape more effective and just policies. At the same time, they underscore, examining literature through the lens of real-world economic problems can help to revitalize its study. The book was widely reviewed and discussed, in the academic press and beyond, including by the Times Higher Education, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Schapiro and Morson penned several opinion pieces based on the book and spoke about the value of the humanities to the study of economics and vice versa at the Chicago Humanities Festival in November.