So Much to Learn

Kevin Lewis

January 11, 2021

When the Great Equalizer Shuts Down: Schools, Peers, and Parents in Pandemic Times
Francesco Agostinelli et al.
NBER Working Paper, December 2020


What are the effects of school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic on children's education? Online education is an imperfect substitute for in-person learning, particularly for children from low-income families. Peer effects also change: schools allow children from different socio-economic backgrounds to mix together, and this effect is lost when schools are closed. Another factor is the response of parents, some of whom compensate for the changed environment through their own efforts, while others are unable to do so. We examine the interaction of these factors with the aid of a structural model of skill formation. We find that school closures have a large and persistent effect on educational outcomes that is highly unequal. High school students from poor neighborhoods suffer a learning loss of 0.4 standard deviations, whereas children from rich neighborhoods remain unscathed. The channels operating through schools, peers, and parents all contribute to growing educational inequality during the pandemic.

The Fast Track intervention's impact on behaviors of despair in adolescence and young adulthood
Jennifer Godwin et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 15 December 2020, Pages 31748-31753


How to mitigate the dramatic increase in the number of self-inflicted deaths from suicide, alcohol-related liver disease, and drug overdose among young adults has become a critical public health question. A promising area of study looks at interventions designed to address risk factors for the behaviors that precede these - often denoted - "deaths of despair." This paper examines whether a childhood intervention can have persistent positive effects by reducing adolescent and young adulthood (age 25) behaviors that precede these deaths, including suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, hazardous drinking, and opioid use. These analyses test the impact and mechanisms of action of Fast Track (FT), a comprehensive childhood intervention designed to decrease aggression and delinquency in at-risk kindergarteners. We find that random assignment to FT significantly decreases the probability of exhibiting any behavior of despair in adolescence and young adulthood. In addition, the intervention decreases the probability of suicidal ideation and hazardous drinking in adolescence and young adulthood as well as opioid use in young adulthood. Additional analyses indicate that FT's improvements to children's interpersonal (e.g., prosocial behavior, authority acceptance), intrapersonal (e.g., emotional recognition and regulation, social problem solving), and academic skills in elementary and middle school partially mediate the intervention effect on adolescent and young adult behaviors of despair and self-destruction. FT's improvements to interpersonal skills emerge as the strongest indirect pathway to reduce these harmful behaviors. This study provides evidence that childhood interventions designed to improve these skills can decrease the behaviors associated with premature mortality.

Reducing Adolescent Psychopathology in Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Children With a Preschool Intervention: A Randomized Controlled Trial
Karen Bierman et al.
American Journal of Psychiatry, forthcoming

Methods: The Head Start REDI (Research-Based, Developmentally Informed) intervention was used to enrich preschool classrooms serving children from low-income families with an evidence-based social-emotional learning (SEL) program and a coordinated interactive reading program. Centers were randomly assigned to the intervention or usual practice, and 356 4-year-olds (58% White, 25% Black, 17% Latino; 54% female) were followed into early adolescence. Hierarchical linear models were used to evaluate intervention effects on teacher-rated psychopathology symptoms using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire in grade 7 (ages 12-13) and grade 9 (ages 14-15), 8-10 years after the end of the intervention.

Results: Statistically significant intervention-related reductions were observed in conduct problems and emotional symptoms in the intervention group. In addition, the proportion of youths with clinically significant levels of conduct problems, emotional symptoms, and peer problems was reduced in the intervention group, with rates one-third of those in the control group.

Prep School for Poor Kids: The Long-Run Impacts of Head Start on Human Capital and Economic Self-Sufficiency
Martha Bailey, Brenden Timpe & Shuqiao Sun
NBER Working Paper, December 2020


This paper evaluates the long-run effects of Head Start using large-scale, restricted 2000-2018 Census-ACS data linked to the SSA's Numident file, which contains exact date and county of birth. Using the county rollout of Head Start between 1965 and 1980 and age-eligibility cutoffs for school entry, we find that Head Start generated large increases in adult human capital and economic self-sufficiency, including a 0.65-year increase in schooling, a 2.7-percent increase in high-school completion, an 8.5-percent increase in college enrollment, and a 39-percent increase in college completion. These estimates imply sizable, long-term returns to public investments in large-scale preschool programs.

Uniform Admissions, Unequal Access: Did the Top 10% Plan Increase Access to Selective Flagship Institutions?
Kalena Cortes & Daniel Klasik
NBER Working Paper, December 2020


The Top 10% Plan admissions policy has now been in place in Texas for over two decades. We analyze 18 years of post-Top 10% Plan data to look for evidence of increased access to the selective Texas flagship campuses among all Texas high schools. We provide a detailed description of changes in enrollment patterns at the flagship campuses from Texas high schools after the implementation of the Top 10% Plan, focusing on whether the policy resulted in new sending patterns from high schools that did not have a history of sending students to the flagship campuses. Our analysis reveals an increase in the likelihood that high schools in non-suburban areas sent students to the flagship campuses, but ultimately little to no equity-producing effects of the Top 10% Plan over this 18-year period. In fact, the representation of traditional, always-sending, feeder high schools on the flagship campuses continued to dwarf the population of students from other high schools. Thus, the purported high school representation benefits of the policy appear to be overstated and may not go as far as advocates might have hoped in terms of generating equity of access to the flagship campuses in the state.

Who Benefits From Attending Effective Schools? Examining Heterogeneity in High School Impacts
Kirabo Jackson et al.
NBER Working Paper, December 2020


We estimate the longer-run effects of attending an effective high school (one that improves a combination of test scores, survey measures of socio-emotional development and behaviours in 9th-grade) for students who are more versus less educationally advantaged (i.e., likely to attain more years of education based on 8th-grade characteristics). All students benefit from attending effective schools. However, the least advantaged students experience the largest improvements in high-school graduation, college-going, and school-based arrests. These patterns are driven by the least advantaged students benefiting the most from school impacts on the non-test-score dimensions of school quality. However, while there is considerable overlap in the effectiveness of schools attended by more and less advantaged students, it is the most advantaged students that are most likely to attend highly effective schools. These patterns underscore the importance of quality schools, and the non-test score components of quality schools, for improving the longer-run outcomes for less advantaged students.

A National Study of School Spending and House Prices
Patrick Bayer, Peter Blair & Kenneth Whaley
NBER Working Paper, December 2020


We conduct the first national study of the causal impact of school spending and local taxes on housing prices by pairing variation induced by school finance reforms with 25 years of national data on housing prices. Our analysis speaks to two classic questions in economics: whether school spending matters and whether it is provided at efficient levels. The results indicate that households highly value school spending and, in particular, spending on the salaries of teachers and staff. Moreover, we find that salary spending is provided at inefficiently low levels throughout much of the United States, as increases in salary spending within a school district funded entirely by local taxes would generally raise house prices. Our analysis points to both the hiring of more teachers and increasing teacher pay as mechanisms for improving the efficiency of the provision of public schooling in the United States.

Social networks and college performance: Evidence from dining data
Darius Martin, Adam Wright & John Krieg
Economics of Education Review, forthcoming


We investigate the effect of friends in class on academic performance in college using unique data on dining card swipes at a medium-sized public university. We define friendships by academic quarter as repeated meetings among students in the same dining hall. To identify the impact of having a friend in class, we employ models with student- and class-level fixed effects and find having a friend in class has large and positive effects on grades. Our analysis of heterogeneous friend effects reveals that the positive friend effect exists across all types of friend characteristics, suggesting the unconditional importance of social connections.

Why Does the U.S. Have the Best Research Universities? Incentives, Resources, and Virtuous Circles
Bentley MacLeod & Miguel Urquiola
NBER Working Paper, December 2020


Around 1875 the U.S. had none of the world's leading research universities; today, it accounts for the majority of the top-ranked. Many observers cite events surrounding World War II as the source of this reversal. We present evidence that U.S. research universities had surpassed most countries' decades before WWII. An explanation of their dominance must therefore begin earlier. The one we offer highlights reforms that began after the Civil War and enhanced the incentives and resources the system directs at research. Our story is not one of success by design, but rather of competition leading American colleges to begin to care about research. We draw on agency theory to argue that this led to increasing academic specialization, and in turn, to more precise measures of professors' research output. Combined with sorting dynamics that concentrated talent and resources at some schools - and the emergence of tenure - this enhanced research performance.

Child bodyweight and human capital: Test scores, teacher assessments and noncognitive skills
Kathryn Rouse & Brooke Hunziker
Economics of Education Review, forthcoming


This papers adds to the literature on child bodyweight and human capital using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey Kindergarten Class of 2010-2011. We examine how bodyweight is related to both children's test scores and teacher assessment of ability. We find bodyweight has little effect on math or reading for girls, but is negatively related to test scores and teacher assessments in science. Obese boys are found to have lower test scores in math and are assessed more negatively by teachers in all three academic areas. We also examine bodyweight and noncognitive skills, finding negative relationships for both girls and boys. Obesity-related differences in these skills mitigate observed disparities for boys between teacher assessment and test scores in the areas of reading and math but not science. Finally, we explore whether bodyweight differentially affects teacher and parent-assessment of children's noncognitive traits, finding a more negative effect on teacher-assessed skills.

The Effect of Occupational Licensing Stringency on the Teacher Quality Distribution
Bradley Larsen et al.
NBER Working Paper, December 2020


Concerned about the low academic ability of public school teachers, in the 1990s and 2000s, some states increased licensing stringency to weed out low-quality candidates, while others decreased restrictions to attract high-quality candidates. We offer a theoretical model justifying both reactions. Using data from 1991-2007 on licensing requirements and teacher quality - as measured by the selectivity of teachers' undergraduate institutions - we find that stricter licensing requirements, especially those emphasizing academic coursework, increase the left tail of the quality distribution for secondary school teachers without significantly decreasing quality for high-minority or high-poverty districts.


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