Critical Learning

Kevin Lewis

July 05, 2021

The impact of a lack of mathematical education on brain development and future attainment
George Zacharopoulos, Francesco Sella & Roi Cohen Kadosh
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 15 June 2021


Formal education has a long-term impact on an individual’s life. However, our knowledge of the effect of a specific lack of education, such as in mathematics, is currently poor but is highly relevant given the extant differences between countries in their educational curricula and the differences in opportunities to access education. Here we examined whether neurotransmitter concentrations in the adolescent brain could classify whether a student is lacking mathematical education. Decreased γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) concentration within the middle frontal gyrus (MFG) successfully classified whether an adolescent studies math and was negatively associated with frontoparietal connectivity. In a second experiment, we uncovered that our findings were not due to preexisting differences before a mathematical education ceased. Furthermore, we showed that MFG GABA not only classifies whether an adolescent is studying math or not, but it also predicts the changes in mathematical reasoning ∼19 mo later. The present results extend previous work in animals that has emphasized the role of GABA neurotransmission in synaptic and network plasticity and highlight the effect of a specific lack of education on MFG GABA concentration and learning-dependent plasticity. Our findings reveal the reciprocal effect between brain development and education and demonstrate the negative consequences of a specific lack of education during adolescence on brain plasticity and cognitive functions.

A randomized controlled trial of instructional coaching in high-poverty urban schools: Examining teacher practices and student outcomes
Linda Reddy, Elisa Shernoff & Adam Lekwa
Journal of School Psychology, June 2021, Pages 151-168


Job-embedded professional development is needed to effectively and efficiently enhance teachers' use of evidence-based practices in high-poverty urban communities. This study employed a three-cohort, waitlist controlled, randomized block design to investigate the effectiveness of the Classroom Strategies Coaching Model (CSC) in 14 high-poverty urban elementary schools. The CSC Model is guided by observations of teachers' instructional and behavioral management practices as measured by the Classroom Strategies Assessment System. Primary dependent measures included teacher use of evidence-based practices, student academic engagement, and teacher ratings of class wide student academic and behavior functioning along with perceived instrumental support, emotional support, and stress. The sample included 2195 students and 106 teachers randomly assigned to CSC coaching or waitlist control. Multilevel negative binomial modeling revealed that teachers in the CSC coaching condition had significant improvements in the frequency of academic praise (used 1.74 times more frequently) and behavior praise (used 2.10 times more frequently) as compared to teachers in the waitlist control condition. Multilevel linear models revealed that, relative to the waitlist control condition, teachers in the CSC coaching condition demonstrated significant improvements in quality of instruction (d = 0.52), behavior management (d = 0.60), and class wide student academic engagement (d = 0.41). Teachers reported significant improvements in class wide student academic (d = 0.96) and behavioral functioning (d = 1.24), instrumental support (d = 0.90) and emotional support (d = 1.04). No change was found for teacher stress. Implications for research and practice are reviewed.

Improving Outcomes for English Learners Through Technology: A Randomized Controlled Trial
David Harper et al.
AERA Open, June 2021


English learners (ELs) in K–12 schools must acquire English while simultaneously mastering content knowledge. Educational technology may support students’ learning through the affordance of individualized language practice. The current randomized controlled trial intervention study examined the effects of Rosetta Stone Foundations software on English learning among middle school ELs. The study took place in Grades 6 to 8 of an urban U.S. school district (N = 221). Predictors of interest included time of testing (pretest vs. posttest) and software usage, and covariates included grade level, sex, and attendance. Additionally, socioeconomic status and home language were accounted for due to sample homogeneity. Multilevel models indicated that treatment group students showed larger gains than control group students on oral/aural outcomes. These results indicate that the software intervention enables individualized practice that can produce proficiency-related gains over and above the typical classroom curriculum.

The Impact of Teacher Labor Market Reforms on Student Achievement: Evidence from Michigan
Kaitlin Anderson, Joshua Cowen & Katharine Strunk
Education Finance and Policy, forthcoming


Over the past decade, many states enacted substantial reforms to teacher-related laws and policies. In Michigan, the state legislature implemented requirements for teacher evaluation based partly on student achievement, reduced tenure protections, and restricted the scope of teacher collective bargaining. Some teacher advocates view such reform as a “war on teachers,” but proponents argue these policies may have enabled personnel decisions that positively impact student performance. Evidence on this debate remains limited. In this study, we use detailed administrative data from all Michigan traditional public schools from 2005-06 to 2014-15. We estimate event study models exploiting the plausibly exogenous timing of collective bargaining agreement expirations. Across a variety of samples and specification checks, we find these reforms had generally null results, with some evidence of heterogeneity by cohort. We investigate several possible mechanisms and conclude that districts with more restrictive teacher contracts prior to reform and districts with more rigorous use of teacher evaluations experienced more positive impacts after reform exposure.

The Effects of Student Growth Data on School District Choice: Evidence from a Survey Experiment
David Houston & Jeffrey Henig
American Journal of Education, forthcoming


School districts’ racial/ethnic and economic compositions are strongly related to average student achievement. Relationships between districts’ demographic compositions and average student growth are much weaker, and many believe growth measures are a more accurate indicator of student learning. We seek to understand if the dissemination of growth data influences individuals’ district preferences in ways that run counter to the conventional wisdom that the “best” districts are the Whitest and most affluent districts. We conduct an online survey experiment in which participants choose between the five largest districts in a metropolitan area. All participants receive demographic data for each district, but some are randomly assigned to receive achievement and/or growth data as well. Providing growth data leads participants to choose less White and less affluent districts. Moreover, providing both achievement and growth data causes participants to choose less White and less affluent districts than the provision of achievement data alone.

The Effects of Campus Shooting on School Finance and Student Composition
Lang (Kate) Yang & Maithreyi Gopalan
Education Finance and Policy, forthcoming


Between 1999 and 2018, 210 shootings have occurred on public school campuses in the United States. The increased need for security and student support may crowd out instructional resources post-shooting. Shootings may also cause students, especially those from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds, to move away, leading to declines in enrollment. Both changes in the budget allocation and the student composition could exert a negative impact on achievement. First, we examine the effects of campus shootings on public school districts’ revenue, expenditure, debt, and staffing using a long panel of district-year data. Results from event study and difference-in-differences analyses indicate that shootings increase per-pupil spending by $248, which is funded primarily through increased federal transfers. Most spending increases occur in noninstructional functions, such as pupil support services, and capital projects, but they do not crowd out instructional spending. Using school-level data, we show that shootings are followed by a decline in enrollment, driven almost exclusively by reductions in students who do not receive free- or reduced-price lunch. Private schools in the area also experience enrollment drop. In sum, despite the increased intergovernmental transfers, campus shootings reduce the desirability of the community and lead to the exit of relatively well-off families.

University Innovation and Local Economic Growth
Naomi Hausman
Review of Economics and Statistics, forthcoming


This paper identifies the extent to which knowledge from U.S. universities drives industry agglomeration. Establishment-level data indicate faster growth in employment, wages, and corporate innovation after the Bayh-Dole Act's shock to the spread of innovation from universities in industries more closely related to the nearby university's innovative strengths. Federal research funding amplified the effect. University knowledge spillovers strengthen with geographic proximity, density, and local skills. Consistent with spatial equilibrium models, the growth effect is driven by nearby entry in university-linked industries, especially of multi-unit expansions; these firms disproportionately partner with universities in R&D, transfer IP, and innovate.

Helping Students FIG-ure It Out: A Large-Scale Study of Freshmen Interest Groups and Student Success
Lovenoor Aulck et al.
AERA Open, June 2021


Freshman seminars are a ubiquitous offering in higher education, but they have not been evaluated using matched comparisons with data at scale. In this work, we use transcript data on over 76,000 students to examine the impact of first-year interest groups (FIGs) on student graduation and retention. We first apply propensity score matching on course-level data to account for selection bias. We find that graduation and re-enrollment rates for FIG students were higher than non-FIG students, an effect that was more pronounced for self-identified underrepresented racial minority students. We then employ topic modeling to analyze survey responses from over 12,500 FIG students to find that social aspects of FIGs were most beneficial to students. Interestingly, references to social aspects were not disproportionately present in the responses of self-identified underrepresented racial minority students.

How Does Undergraduate Debt Affect Graduate School Application and Enrollment?
Rong Chen & Peter Riley Bahr
Research in Higher Education, June 2021, Pages 528–555


This study estimates the short- and long-term effects of undergraduate educational debt on students' decisions to apply and to enroll in graduate school after completing requirements for a baccalaureate degree, using marginal mean weighting through stratification method (MMW-S) to analyze data from the National Center for Education Statistics Baccalaureate and Beyond 2008–2012 (B&B 08-12) survey. Although we find that historically and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups tend to accumulate higher levels of educational debt, our results indicate minimal effects of undergraduate debt on graduation school application and enrollment. We find no differences by race/ethnicity, family income, or status as a first-generation baccalaureate recipient in the effects of educational debt on graduate school application or enrollment.

The Effects of Handwriting Experience on Literacy Learning
Robert Wiley & Brenda Rapp
Psychological Science, forthcoming


Previous research indicates that writing practice may be more beneficial than nonmotor practice for letter learning. Here, we report a training study comparing typing, visual, and writing learning conditions in adults (N = 42). We investigated the behavioral consequences of learning modality on literacy learning and evaluated the nature of the learned letter representations. Specifically, the study addressed three questions. First, are the benefits of handwriting practice due to motor learning per se or to other incidental factors? Second, do the benefits generalize to untrained tasks? And third, does handwriting practice lead to learning and strengthening only of motor representations or of other types of representations as well? Our results clearly show that handwriting compared with nonmotor practice produces faster learning and greater generalization to untrained tasks than previously reported. Furthermore, only handwriting practice leads to learning of both motor and amodal symbolic letter representations.

Does relative age affect fame? Ask Wikipedia
Pablo Peña & Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
Education Economics, May 2021, Pages 298-311


We analyze whether age relative to school classmates affects the likelihood of becoming famous. We measure such likelihood as the ratio of Wikipedia entries to births, by state and date of birth, among people born in 1969–1988 in the US. Using a reduced-form Regression Discontinuity Design, we find evidence that men born after the Kindergarten cutoff date (i.e., relatively older) are roughly between 5 and 10 percent more likely to become famous, by Wikipedia standards, in comparison to those born before the cutoff (i.e., relatively younger). We don’t find evidence of a similar effect for women.

The Longitudinal Effects of School Improvement Grants
Min Sun, Alec Kennedy & Susanna Loeb
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, forthcoming


School Improvement Grants (SIGs) exemplify a capacity-building investment to spur sustainable changes in America’s persistently lowest-performing schools and stimulate the economy. This study examines both short- and longer-term effects of the first two cohorts of SIG schools from four locations across the country. Dynamic difference-in-differences models show that SIGs’ effects on achievement in Grades 3 to 8, as measured by state test scores in math and English language arts, gradually increased over the three reform years and were largely sustained for 3 or 4 years afterward. Evidence on high school graduation rates, though less robust, also suggests SIGs had positive effects. SIGs’ effects on students of color and low-socioeconomic-status students were similar to or significantly larger than the overall effects.

How Do Teachers From Alternative Pathways Contribute to the Teaching Workforce in Urban Areas? Evidence From Kansas City
Yang An & Cory Koedel
AERA Open, June 2021


We examine how teachers from two alternative preparation programs—Teach for America (TFA) and Kansas City Teacher Residency (KCTR)—contribute to the teacher labor market in and around Kansas City, Missouri. TFA and KCTR teachers are more likely than other teachers to work in charter schools and, more broadly, in schools with more low-income, low-performing, and underrepresented minority (Black and Hispanic) students. Teachers from both programs are more racially/ethnically diverse than the larger local-area teaching workforce, but only KCTR teachers are more diverse than other teachers in the same districts where they work. We estimate value added to achievement for teachers in both programs compared with nonprogram teachers, with the caveat that our KCTR sample for this analysis is small. In math, we find large positive impacts of TFA and KCTR teachers on test score growth; in English language arts also, we estimate positive impacts, but they are smaller.


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