Top schools

Kevin Lewis

September 25, 2017

Perceptions of Institutional Quality: Evidence of Limited Attention to Higher Education Rankings
Andrew Meyer, Andrew Hanson & Daniel Hickman
Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, forthcoming


Rankings of colleges and universities provide information about quality and potentially affect where prospective students send applications for admission. We find evidence of limited attention to the popular U.S. News and World Report rankings of America’s Best Colleges. We estimate that applications discontinuously drop by 2% to 6% when the rank moves from inside the top 50 to outside the top 50 whereas there is no evidence of a corresponding discontinuous drop in in institutional quality. Notably, the ranking of 50 corresponds to the first page cutoff of the printed U.S. News guides. The choice of college is typically a one-time decision with potentially large repercussions, so students’ limited attention to rankings likely represents an irrational bias that negatively affects welfare.

No Contractual Obligation to Improve Education: School Boards and Their Superintendents
Robert Maranto et al.
Politics & Policy, forthcoming


Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, public schools have felt pressure to emphasize equitable academic outcomes. We investigate whether contracts agreed to by school boards and the superintendents they employ include academic and equity criteria to judge the performance of superintendents. Data come from the universe of 2013-14 school superintendent contracts in North Carolina. Only nine of the 115 contracts include academic goals of any kind, and none include equity-related criteria. Similarly, the universe of model superintendent contracts provided by state school boards associations (N = 20) rarely mention such criteria. Findings suggest that one reason for the relatively static equity and achievement outcomes in American public schools since the national introduction of accountability-oriented reforms is that local school boards refuse to use academic and equity criteria to evaluate superintendents. The political science literature on elections and accountability suggests possible explanations.

Later school start times in the U.S.: An economic analysis
Marco Hafner, Martin Stepanek & Wendy Troxel
RAND Working Paper, August 2017


Numerous studies have shown that later school start times (SST) are associated with positive student outcomes, including improvements in academic performance, mental and physical health, and public safety. While the benefits of later SST are very well documented in the literature, in practice there is opposition against delaying SST. A major argument against later SST is the claim that delaying SST will result in significant additional costs for schools due to changes in school bus transportation strategies. However, to date, there has only been one published study that has quantified some of the potential economic benefits of later SST in relation to potential costs. The present study investigates the economic implications of later SST by examining a policy experiment of a statewide shift in school start times to 8:30 a.m. and its subsequent economic effects. Using a novel macroeconomic modeling approach, the study estimates changes in the economic performance of 47 U.S. states following a delayed SST, which includes the economic benefits of higher academic performance of students and reduced car crash rates. The benefit–cost projections of this study suggest that delaying school start times is a cost-effective, population-level strategy that could have a significant impact on public health and the U.S. economy. From a policy perspective, these findings are crucial as they demonstrate that significant economic gains resulting from the delay in SST accrue over a relatively short period of time following the adoption of the policy shift.

The Impact of the Great Recession on Student Achievement: Evidence from Population Data
Kenneth Shores & Matthew Steinberg
University of Pennsylvania Working Paper, August 2017


The Great Recession was the most severe economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression. Using newly available population-level achievement data from the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), we estimate the impact of the Great Recession on the math and English language arts (ELA) achievement of all grade 3-8 students in the United States. Employing a difference-in-differences strategy that leverages both cross-district variation in the economic shock of the recession and within-district, cross-cohort variation in school-age years of exposure to the recession, we find that the onset of the Great Recession significantly reduced student math and ELA achievement. Moreover, the recessionary effect on student achievement was concentrated among school districts serving more economically disadvantaged and minority students, indicating that the adverse effects of the recession were not distributed equally among the population of U.S. students. We also find that the academic impact of the recession was more severe for students who were older at the time of first exposure to the recession, compared to their younger counterparts. Finally, the recession’s effects on student achievement were concentrated in districts with the largest reductions in teacher personnel, providing evidence that the effects we observe are driven, in part, by the recession’s negative effects on school resources. We discuss the implications of and potential policy responses to economic shocks that adversely affect student achievement and widen educational inequality.

Will Public Pre-K Really Close Achievement Gaps? Gaps in Prekindergarten Quality Between Students and Across States
Rachel Valentino
American Educational Research Journal, forthcoming


Publicly funded pre-K is often touted as a means to narrow achievement gaps, but this goal is less likely to be achieved if poor and/or minority children do not, at a minimum, attend equal quality pre-K as their non-poor, non-minority peers. In this paper, I find large “quality gaps” in public pre-K between poor, minority students and non-poor, non-minority students, ranging from 0.3 to 0.7 SD on a range of classroom observational measures. I also find that even after adjusting for several classroom characteristics, significant and sizable quality gaps remain. Finally, I find much between-state variation in gap magnitudes and that state-level quality gaps are related to state-level residential segregation. These findings are particularly troubling if a goal of public pre-K is to minimize inequality.

The Play's the Thing: Experimentally Examining the Social and Cognitive Effects of School Field Trips to Live Theater Performances
Jay Greene et al.
University of Arkansas Working Paper, August 2017


Field trips to see theater performances are a long-standing educational practice, however, there is little systematic evidence demonstrating educational benefits. This article describes the results of five random assignment experiments spanning two years where school groups were assigned by lottery to attend a live theater performance, or for some groups, watch a movie-version of the same story. We find significant educational benefits from seeing live theater, including higher levels of tolerance, social perspective taking, and stronger command of the plot and vocabulary of those plays. Students randomly assigned to watch a movie did not experience these benefits. Our findings also suggest that theater field trips may cultivate the desire among students to frequent the theater in the future.

The Rhode to Turnaround: The Impact of Waivers to No Child Left Behind on School Performance
Shaun Dougherty & Jennie Weiner
Educational Policy, forthcoming


Using data from Rhode Island, and deploying a fuzzy regression-discontinuity design, this study capitalizes on a natural experiment in which schools, in accordance with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers, were sorted into performance categories based on a continuous performance measure. The lowest performing schools were then mandated to implement interventions. We find that schools implementing fewer interventions perform no differently than comparable schools without such requirements. Additionally, schools just required to implement more interventions performed worse than comparable schools implementing fewer. Finally, we find differences in the probability of student mobility from lower performing schools.

School Turnaround in North Carolina: A Regression Discontinuity Analysis
Jennifer Heissel & Helen Ladd
Economics of Education Review, forthcoming


This paper examines the effect of a federally supported school turnaround program in North Carolina elementary and middle schools. Using a regression discontinuity design, we find that the turnaround program did not improve, and may have reduced, average school-level passing rates in math and reading. One potential contributor to that disappointing finding appears to be that the program increased the concentration of low-income students in treated schools. Based on teacher survey data, we find that, as was intended, treated schools brought in new principals and increased the time teachers devoted to professional development. At the same time, the program increased administrative burdens and distracted teachers, potentially reducing time available for instruction, and increased teacher turnover after the first full year of implementation. Overall, we find little evidence of success for North Carolina's efforts to turn around low-performing schools under its federally funded Race to the Top grant.

School Starting Age and Cognitive Development
Elizabeth Dhuey et al.
NBER Working Paper, August 2017


We present evidence of a positive relationship between school starting age and children’s cognitive development from age 6 to 15 using a regression discontinuity design and large-scale population-level birth and school data from the state of Florida. We estimate effects of being relatively old for grade (being born in September versus August) that are remarkably stable – always just around 0.2 SD difference in test scores – across a wide range of heterogeneous groups, based on maternal education, poverty at birth, race/ethnicity, birth weight, gestational age, and school quality. While the September-August difference in kindergarten readiness is dramatically different by subgroup, by the time students take their first exams, the heterogeneity in estimated effects effectively disappears. We document substantial variation in compensatory behaviors targeted towards young for grade children. While the more affluent families tend to redshirt their children, young for grade children from less affluent families are more likely to be retained in grades prior to testing. School district practices regarding retention and redshirting are correlated with improved outcomes for the groups less likely to use those remediation approaches (i.e., retention in the case of more-affluent families and redshirting in the case of less-affluent families.) We also study college and juvenile detention outcomes using administrative data from a large Florida school district, and show that being an older age at school entry increases children’s college attainment and reduces the likelihood of being incarcerated for juvenile crime.

University Selectivity, Initial Job Quality, and Longer-Run Salary
Russell Weinstein
University of Illinois Working Paper, July 2017


Using Baccalaureate and Beyond data, I study whether university quality, both absolute and relative to other universities in the region, affects earnings one and ten years after graduation, controlling for the individual's SAT score. One year after graduation, high SAT score students earn 12% less if their university's regional rank is worse by 35 places, conditional on absolute university quality. This effect disappears ten years after graduation. The results suggest initial job quality does not have long-run career effects. The results also confirm the initial importance of a university's regional rank, an often overlooked dimension of university quality.

The Effects of Tulsa's Pre-K Program on Middle School Student Performance
William Gormley, Deborah Phillips & Sara Anderson
Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, forthcoming


As states have upgraded their commitment to pre-K education over the past two decades, questions have arisen. Critics argue that program effects are likely to fade out or disappear over time, while supporters contend that program effects are likely to persist under certain conditions. Using data from Tulsa Public Schools, three neighboring school districts, and the state of Oklahoma, and propensity score weighting, we estimate the effects of Tulsa's universal, school-based pre-K program on multiple measures of academic progress for middle school students. We find enduring effects on math achievement test scores, enrollment in honors courses, and grade retention for students as a whole, and similar effects for certain subgroups. We conclude that some positive effects of a high-quality pre-K program are discernible as late as middle school.

Shaping Income Segregation in Schools: The Role of School Attendance Zone Geography
Salvatore Saporito
American Educational Research Journal, forthcoming


This study investigates how much the geographic shapes of school attendance zones contributes to their levels of income segregation while holding constant levels of income segregation across residential areas. Income segregation across attendance zones is measured with the rank ordered information theory index. Income segregation across residential areas is measured using a spatial variant of segregation (newly developed to predict income segregation in school attendance zones). Findings indicate income segregation across residential areas is highly correlated with income segregation across attendance zones. Still, school districts with the most irregularly shaped zones have less income segregation than school districts with compact zones — net of residential income segregation.

The Impact of Price Caps and Spending Cuts on U.S. Postsecondary Attainment
David Deming & Christopher Walters
NBER Working Paper, August 2017


Increasing the postsecondary attainment rate of college-age youth is an important economic priority in the U.S. and in other developed countries. Yet little is known about whether different forms of public subsidy can increase degree completion. In this paper, we compare the impact of the marginal taxpayer dollar on postsecondary attainment when it is spent on lowering tuition prices versus increasing the quality of the college experience. We do so by estimating the causal impact of changes in tuition and spending on enrollment and degree completion in U.S. public postsecondary institutions between 1990 and 2013. We estimate these impacts using a newly assembled data set of legislative tuition caps and freezes, combined with variation in exposure to state budget shocks that is driven by differences in historical reliance on state appropriations. We find large impacts of spending on enrollment and degree completion. In contrast, we find no impact of price changes. Our estimates suggest that spending increases are more effective per-dollar than price cuts as a means of increasing postsecondary attainment.

Null effects of boot camps and short-format training for PhD students in life sciences
David Feldon et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 12 September 2017, Pages 9854–9858


Many PhD programs incorporate boot camps and summer bridge programs to accelerate the development of doctoral students’ research skills and acculturation into their respective disciplines. These brief, high-intensity experiences span no more than several weeks and are typically designed to expose graduate students to data analysis techniques, to develop scientific writing skills, and to better embed incoming students into the scholarly community. However, there is no previous study that directly measures the outcomes of PhD students who participate in such programs and compares them to the outcomes of students who did not participate. Likewise, no previous study has used a longitudinal design to assess these outcomes over time. Here we show that participation in such programs is not associated with detectable benefits related to skill development, socialization into the academic community, or scholarly productivity for students in our sample. Analyzing data from 294 PhD students in the life sciences from 53 US institutions, we found no statistically significant differences in outcomes between participants and nonparticipants across 115 variables. These results stand in contrast to prior studies presenting boot camps as effective interventions based on participant satisfaction and perceived value. Many universities and government agencies (e.g., National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation) invest substantial resources in boot camp and summer bridge activities in the hopes of better supporting scientific workforce development. Our findings do not reveal any measurable benefits to students, indicating that an allocation of limited resources to alternative strategies with stronger empirical foundations warrants consideration.

Status Spillovers: The Effect of Status-conferring Prizes on the Allocation of Attention
Brian Reschke, Pierre Azoulay & Toby Stuart
Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming


We investigate the effect of a status-enhancing prize on the attention that a recipient’s “neighbors” subsequently receive. Do neighbors — individuals who work in economic, intellectual, or artistic domains that are proximate to prize winners — bask in the reflected glory of the ascendant actor and therefore gain as well? Or does competition for attention ensue, attenuating the recognition neighbors would otherwise have garnered? We study the spillover effects of status shocks using life sciences research articles published from 1984 through 2003. Exploiting expert-assigned article keywords, we identify papers that are topically related to publications of future appointees to the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). In difference-in-difference specifications, we find that these scientific neighbor articles experience substantial declines in citation rates after HHMI appointments are announced. That is, neighboring articles attract less attention when authors of papers near them receive a prestigious prize. This pattern reflects more than the trivial transfer of attention from non-winners to winners: once prizes are announced, actors cede scientific territory to prize winners and pursue other opportunities. These negative spillover effects are moderated or even reversed by scientists’ social connections and by the novelty and stature of scientific domains.

Do Economics Departments Improve After They Appoint a Top Scholar as Chairperson?
Amanda Goodall, John McDowell & Larry Singell
Kyklos, forthcoming


There has been almost no research into what makes an effective chairperson in a university department. This paper constructs a historical longitudinal dataset on economics departments in 58 US research universities. It documents evidence that a department's research output tends to improve substantially when the incoming department Chair is himself or herself an outstanding scholar (in particular, is highly cited). The analysis adjusts for a set of other possible influences, including the standing of the department, university resources, the previous Chair, the trend in the department's productivity, and time-lags. Possible interpretations, and implications for future research, are discussed.

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