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Evaluations of Education Interventions & Programs

Early-grade Retention for English Language Learners Improves Academic Success

With a large and growing population of students whose second language is not English, educators have stressed the importance of early language learning for academic success. In Florida, the 2002 “Just Read, Florida!” initiative requires that students pass a minimum benchmark on a statewide reading test for promotion to the fourth grade. IPR education economist David Figlio examined data from 12 Florida counties in a new working paper and found that holding students back in the third grade significantly improves short-term and long-term success. Figlio and his co-author found that students who were held back took less time to become fully proficient in English, improved their English skills, and were much more likely to take advanced courses in middle and high school. The effects were more significant for recent immigrants and students in lower-income schools. While the costs, including funding additional years of education and the emotional burden of retention may be very substantial, the researchers argue that the benefits of higher wages later in life and less remedial education could offset the costs. Figlio is the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics.

Uneven Implementation of Florida’s Grade-Retention Policy 

David Figlio
IPR education economist David Figlio conducts research on a wide range of education and health policy issues from school accountability and standards to welfare policy and policy design

Are tough school accountability policies being applied fairly across all socioeconomic classes? Figlio and two AIR researchers, Christina LiCalsi (PhD 2014) and Umet Özek, look for evidence in Florida’s third-grade retention policy, which requires schools to hold children back a year if they are not reading at grade level. But as many as 40% of students are still promoted to the next grade under a policy that grants exemptions in special circumstances, such as limited English proficiency or a disability. The researchers examine students near the reading cutoff, who are similar in academic achievement but different in other characteristics such as socioeconomic status. In Education Finance and Policy, they find that students whose mothers have a bachelor’s degree or higher—an indicator of higher socioeconomic status—are 14% more likely to be granted an exemption than those whose mothers have less than a high-school degree. Poorer students, black students, and students whose mothers were born in another country were also more likely to be held back. The difference in enforcement, Figlio and his co-authors explain, is driven by increased advocacy from parents in higher-income families. Parents in lower-income families tend to have less knowledge of their students’ educational context. This suggests Florida’s promotion policy may be harming, and not helping, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

School Segregation and Racial Gaps in Special Education Identification 

Racial gaps in the identification of students for special education contribute to gaps in education and economic outcomes. In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Labor EconomicsFiglio and his colleagues investigate how the identification of special-needs students varies by race in schools with different populations—mostly white or mostly minority. Using a large dataset of birth and education records from Florida, they find black and Hispanic students were underidentified overall, but overidentified in schools with a relatively small share of racial minorities. The researchers were able to predict disability rates using detailed economic and health data and examined the difference in expected and actual identification rates of minority students. Figlio and his colleagues dispute that the identification gap exists because of differences in resources across schools or economic or academic differences between students. Instead, they point to the racial makeup of schools. They suggest school administrators might have a heightened awareness of disabilities in students whose race and ethnicity differs from the school’s majority. Alternatively, the threshold of identifying a student for special education could depend on the relative number of students with disabilities in the entire school population. In other words, a student with a disability might be more likely to be identified for special education in a school with relatively fewer students with disabilities than those with more.

Impact of Refugees on Classmates

The world today faces the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II. How to cope with the number of asylum seekers raises pressing concerns, notably the ability of schools 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 examine what happened when Haitian earthquake survivors entered Florida schools in 2010. Florida public schools received more than 4,000 refugee students—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 their study, Figlio and Özek report the influx of Haitian students had no effects on incumbent students’ test scores, disciplinary incidents, and student mobility across all groups, regardless of the incumbent students’ socioeconomic status, grade level, ethnicity, or birthplace.

Does Lengthening the School Day Help Students Learn? 

Discussions of whether to expand the school day are often emotionally charged, but little data exist on whether it would improve educational outcomes. To better understand how a longer school day might affect student learning, Figlio and his co-authors estimate its impact on reading achievement. In Economics of Education Review, they examine the case of Florida, where in 2012 the state added one hour of literacy instruction to the school day of its 100 most underperforming elementary schools. They find that in the program’s first year, students enrolled in those schools scored slightly better in reading than students in the comparison group, who were in schools that scored just above the cutoff for extending the school day. Furthermore, they show that the effect size is roughly comparable to a scenario where an extra month of teaching time was added. This nearly equaled the amount of time the extended day added to the students’ school year. The researchers warn that several factors could complicate that comparison, including the amount of resources at the disposal of any given school on either side of that cutoff line, but the findings suggest a benefit roughly in line with that of reducing class sizes by about four students.

Near Peer Mentorship Supports Student Persistence

What their peers believe and do are important influences on children as they enter adolescence. IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin, IPR graduate research assistant Lynn Meissner, and former IPR graduate research assistant Claudia Castillo designed an experiment to learn whether and how other young people can positively influence adolescents’ school motivation and outcomes. When trained high school students mentored eighth graders, the younger students showed greater motivation to do well in school and persist in difficult tasks. The mentored students were more likely to see difficulty as important to overcome rather than impossible for them to conquer. They also showed greater persistence. In contrast, as a control, when high school students only tutored the eighth graders, the younger students’ sense of identity and motivation to succeed did not change nearly as much. Although the mentored adolescents’ grades did not go up, the researchers suggest that the improvements in motivation may result indirectly in improving academic achievement. 

Preschool Options and School Readiness 

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Research by IPR developmental psychologist Terri Sabol is at the intersection of child development and social policy with the broad goal of reducing disparities and maximizing the potential of young children living in economic hardship.

Growth in funding for subsidized pre-kindergarten (e..g, state-funded pre-K), especially for 4-year-olds, has allowed Head Start to serve more 3-year-olds. Many of these younger children continue Head Start for a second year, while others switch into one of many alternative programs, such as state pre-K. IPR developmental psychologist Terri Sabol collaborated on a paper with her colleagues Jade Jenkins and George Farkas (UIC) examines whether the students experienced any benefit or downfall after switching programs. In a recently published article in Evaluation Review, Sabol used data from the Head Start Impact Study, which compared nationally representative Head Start participants to a group of comparable nonparticipants. Sabol finds no differences in school readiness based on whether children stayed or left after one year from Head Start, though those who stayed at the same Head Start center for two years had slightly fewer behavior problems at the end of preschool through the end of first grade than those who attended the second year at a different center. The study suggests the range of preschool options for low-income families offers similar benefits for child school readiness.

Does Vocational Education Work? 

As primary education has become nearly universal in many developing and low-income countries, scholars have increasingly focused their attention on the role of secondary education. In a new working paper, IPR economist Ofer Malamud evaluated the impact of admission to vocational training in secondary schools on labor market outcomes in Mongolia. He and his colleagues created randomized lotteries for admission to 10 secondary vocational schools that received more applicants than they had places. The researchers followed three cohorts of applicants to the schools—about 8,000 people—for up to four years after they completed their training. The analysis showed that admission to these vocational schools led to significantly higher employment of admitted students and to increased earnings for female students; in other words, the women who were admitted to the schools earned more than their peers who were not admitted. The researchers concluded that these positive effects were likely due to acquiring more skills, working more hours, longer terms of employment, and increased opportunities for high-paying jobs.