Lessons Not Learned

Kevin Lewis

April 05, 2021

Large socio-economic, geographic and demographic disparities exist in exposure to school closures
Zachary Parolin & Emma Lee
Nature Human Behaviour, forthcoming


The coronovirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has prompted many school districts to turn to distance or at-home learning. Studies are emerging on the negative effects of distance learning on educational performance, but less is known about the socio-economic, geographic and demographic characteristics of students exposed to distance learning. We introduce a U.S. School Closure and Distance Learning Database that tracks in-person visits across more than 100,000 schools throughout 2020. The database, which we make publicly accessible and update monthly, describes year-over-year change in in-person visits to each school throughout 2020 to estimate whether the school is engaged in distance learning. Our findings reveal that school closures from September to December 2020 were more common in schools with lower third-grade math scores and higher shares of students from racial/ethnic minorities, who experience homelessness, have limited English proficiency and are eligible for free/reduced-price school lunches. The findings portend rising inequalities in learning outcomes.

Essay Content is Strongly Related to Household Income and SAT Scores: Evidence from 60,000 Undergraduate Applications
AJ Alvero et al.
Stanford Working Paper, April 2021


There is substantial evidence of the potential for class bias in the use of standardized tests to evaluate college applicants, yet little comparable inquiry considers the written essays typically required of applicants to selective US colleges and universities. We utilize a corpus of 240,000 admissions essays submitted by 60,000 applicants to the University of California in November 2016 to measure the relationship between the content of application essays, reported household income, and standardized test scores (SAT) at scale. We quantify essay content using correlated topic modeling (CTM) and the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software package. Results show that essays have a stronger correlation to reported household income than SAT scores. Essay content also explains much of the variance in SAT scores, suggesting that essays encode some of the same information as the SAT, though this relationship attenuates as household income increases. Efforts to realize more equitable college admissions protocols can be informed by attending to how social class is encoded in non-numerical components of applications.

The Incidence and Magnitude of the Health Costs of In-person Schooling during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Casey Mulligan
NBER Working Paper, March 2021


The health costs of in-person schooling during the pandemic, if any, fall primarily on the families of students, largely due to the fact that students significantly outnumber teachers. Data from North Carolina, Wisconsin, Australia, England, and Israel covering almost 80 million person-days in school help assess the magnitude of the fatality risks of in-person schooling (with mitigation protocols), accounting for the age and living arrangements of students and teachers. The risks of in-person schooling to teachers are comparable to the risks of commuting by automobile. Valued at a VSL of $10 million, the average daily fatality cost ranges from $0.01 for an unvaccinated young teacher living alone to as much as $29 for an elderly and unvaccinated teacher living with an elderly and unvaccinated spouse. COVID-19 risk avoidance may also be more amenable to Bayesian updating and selective protection than automobile fatalities are. The results suggest that economic behaviors can sometimes invert epidemiological patterns when it comes to the spread of infectious diseases in human populations.

Incidence and Secondary Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 Infections in Schools
Kanecia Zimmerman et al.
Pediatrics, April 2021

Background: In an effort to mitigate the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), North Carolina closed prekindergarten through grade 12 public schools to in-person instruction on March 14, 2020. On July 15, 2020, North Carolina’s governor announced schools could open via remote learning or a hybrid model that combined in-person and remote instruction. In August 2020, 56 of 115 North Carolina school districts joined The ABC Science Collaborative (ABCs) to implement public health measures to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission and share lessons learned. We describe secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2 within participating school districts during the first 9 weeks of in-person instruction in the 2020–2021 academic year.

Methods: From August 15, 2020 to October 23, 2020, 11 of 56 school districts participating in ABCs were open for in-person instruction for all 9 weeks of the first quarter and agreed to track incidence and secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Local health department staff adjudicated secondary transmission. Superintendents met weekly with ABCs faculty to share lessons learned and develop prevention methods.

Results: Over 9 weeks, 11 participating school districts had >90 000 students and staff attend school in person. Among these students and staff, 773 community-acquired SARS-CoV-2 infections were documented by molecular testing. Through contact tracing, health department staff determined an additional 32 infections were acquired within schools. No instances of child-to-adult transmission of SARS-CoV-2 were reported within schools.

Conclusions: In the first 9 weeks of in-person instruction in North Carolina schools, we found extremely limited within-school secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2, as determined by contact tracing.

Does Free Community College Improve Student Outcomes? Evidence From a Regression Discontinuity Design
Elizabeth Bell
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, forthcoming


In this article, I utilize a regression discontinuity design to estimate the effects of Tulsa Achieves — a prevalent and understudied type of tuition-free college program. In contrast to concerns regarding tuition-free community college suppressing bachelor’s degree attainment, I find that Tulsa Achieves increased the likelihood of transferring to 4-year colleges by 13 to 14 percentage points and increased bachelor’s degree attainment by approximately 2 percentage points. The estimates for shorter outcomes are underpowered to detect policy relevant effects, but suggest Tulsa Achieves increased college GPA and had a null impact on credit accumulation, retention, and graduation from Tulsa Community College.

Attention to Exploration: The Effect of Academic Entrepreneurship on the Production of Scientific Knowledge
Riccardo Fini, Markus Perkmann & Jan Michael Ross
Organization Science, forthcoming


We study how becoming an entrepreneur affects academic scientists’ research. We propose that entrepreneurship will shift scientists’ attention away from intradisciplinary research questions and toward new bodies of knowledge relevant for downstream technology development. This will propel scientists to engage in exploration, meaning they work on topics new to them. In turn, this shift toward exploration will enhance the impact of the entrepreneurial scientist’s subsequent research, as concepts and models from other bodies of knowledge are combined in novel ways. Entrepreneurship leads to more impactful research, mediated by exploration. Using panel data on the full population of scientists at a large research university, we find support for this argument. Our study is novel in that it identifies a shift of attention as the mechanism underpinning the beneficial spillover effects from founding a venture on the production of public science. A key implication of our study is that commercial work by academics can drive fundamental advances in science.

Socioeconomic Roots of Academic Faculty
Allison Morgan et al.
University of Colorado Working Paper, March 2021


Tenure-track faculty play a special role in society: they train future researchers, and they produce much of the scholarship that drives scientific, technological, and social innovation. However, the professoriate has never been demographically representative of the general population it serves. For example in the United States, Black and Hispanic scholars are underrepresented across the tenure-track, and while women’s representation has increased over time, they remain a minority in many academic fields. Here we investigate the representativeness of faculty childhood socioeconomic status and whether it may implicitly limit efforts to diversify the professoriate in terms of race, gender, and geography. Using a survey of 7218 professors in PhD-granting departments in the United States across eight disciplines in STEM, social sciences, and the humanities, we find that the estimated median childhood household income among faculty is 23.7% higher than the general public, and faculty are 25 times more likely to have a parent with a PhD. Moreover, the proportion of faculty with PhD parents nearly doubles at more prestigious universities and is stable across the past 50 years. Our results suggest that the professoriate is, and has remained, accessible mainly to the socioeconomically privileged. This lack of socioeconomic diversity is likely to deeply shape the type of scholarship and scholars that faculty produce and train.

Spaced Mathematics Practice Improves Test Scores and Reduces Overconfidence
William Emeny, Marissa Hartwig & Doug Rohrer
Applied Cognitive Psychology, forthcoming


The practice assignments in a mathematics textbook or course can be arranged so that most of the problems relating to any particular concept are massed together in a single assignment, or these related problems can be distributed across many assignments – a format known as spaced practice. Here we report the results of two classroom experiments that assessed the effects of mathematics spacing on both test scores and students’ predictions of their test scores. In each experiment, students in Year 7 (11‐12 years of age) either massed their practice into a single session or divided their practice across three sessions spaced one week apart, followed one month later by a test. In both experiments, spaced practice produced higher test scores than did massed practice, and test score predictions were relatively accurate after spaced practice yet grossly overconfident after massed practice.

Do Teacher Assistants Improve Student Outcomes? Evidence From School Funding Cutbacks in North Carolina
Steven Hemelt, Helen Ladd & Calen Clifton
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, forthcoming


This article examines the influence of teacher assistants and other personnel on outcomes for elementary school students during a period of recession-induced cutbacks in teacher assistants. Using panel data from North Carolina, we exploit the state’s unique system of financing its local public schools to identify the causal effects of teacher assistants, controlling for other staff, on measures of student achievement. We find consistent evidence of positive effects of teacher assistants, an understudied staffing category, on student performance in reading and math. We also find larger positive effects of teacher assistants on achievement outcomes for students of color and students in high-poverty schools than for White students and students in more affluent schools. We conclude that teacher assistants are a cost-effective means of raising student achievement, especially in reading.

Locked Out of College: When Admissions Bureaucrats Do and Do Not Discriminate
Jacob Brown & Hanno Hilbig
British Journal of Political Science, forthcoming


How does an individual's criminal record shape interactions with the state and society? This article presents evidence from a nationwide field experiment in the United States, which shows that prospective applicants with criminal records are about 5 percentage points less likely to receive information from college admission offices. However, this bias does not extend to race: there is no difference in response rates to Black and White applicants. The authors further show that bias is all but absent in public bureaucracies, as discrimination against formerly incarcerated applicants is driven by private schools. Examining why bias is stronger for private colleges, the study demonstrates that the private–public difference persists even after accounting for college selectivity, socio-economic composition and school finances. Moving beyond the measurement of bias, an intervention designed to reduce discrimination is evaluated: whether an email from an advocate mitigates bias associated with a criminal record. No evidence is found that advocate endorsements decrease bureaucratic bias.

Did Gainful Employment Regulations Result in College and Program Closures?
Robert Kelchen & Zhuoyao Liu
Education Finance and Policy, forthcoming


For decades, the federal government has expected vocationally-focused programs in higher education, especially among for-profit colleges, to lead to gainful employment in a profession. In the mid-2010s, the U.S. Department of Education developed gainful employment (GE) regulations that sought to tie a program's federal financial aid eligibility to graduates’ debt-to-earnings ratios. We use a regression discontinuity design to examine whether for-profit programs’ performance on GE was associated with the likelihood of closing the program or college. Although the regulations were repealed before any program lost federal funding, we find that passing GE was associated with a lower likelihood of program and college closures.

The Effect of Serving “Breakfast After-the-Bell” Meals on School Absenteeism: Comparing Results From Regression Discontinuity Designs
Jacob Kirksey & Michael Gottfried
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, forthcoming


With the rise in the availability of absenteeism data, it is clear that students are missing a staggering amount of school. Policymakers have focused efforts on identifying school programs that might reduce absenteeism. This study examined whether implementing the program “Breakfast After-the-Bell” (BAB) might reduce school absenteeism. Exploring longitudinal statewide datasets (Colorado and Nevada) containing school breakfast information linked to national data on chronic absenteeism rates, we used sharp and fuzzy regression discontinuity designs to examine the effects of BAB. Our findings suggest that schools serving BAB experienced declines in chronic absenteeism. The strongest effects were experienced by high schools, schools with higher rates of breakfast participation, schools serving universally free meals, and suburban schools. Implications are discussed.

How College Credit in High School Impacts Postsecondary Course-Taking: The Role of Advanced Placement Exams
Oded Gurantz
Education Finance and Policy, forthcoming


This paper uses Advanced Placement (AP) exams to examine how receiving college credit in high school alters students’ subsequent human capital investment. Using data from one large state, I link high school students to postsecondary transcripts from in-state, public institutions. I estimate causal impacts using a regression discontinuity that compares students with essentially identical AP performance but who receive different offers of college credit. I find that female students who earn credit from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) exams take higher-level STEM courses, significantly increasing their depth of study, with no observed impacts for male students. As a result, the male–female gap in STEM courses taken shrinks by roughly one third to two thirds, depending on the outcome studied. Earning non-STEM AP credit increases overall coursework in non-STEM courses and increases the breadth of study across departments. Early credit policies help assist colleges to produce graduates whose skills aligns with commonly cited social or economic priorities, such as developing STEM graduates with stronger skills, particularly among traditionally underrepresented groups.


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