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K-12 Education

David M. Houston, Matthew P. Steinberg.

In spring 2020, nearly every public school in the U.S. closed at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Existing evidence suggests that initial decisions to re-open schools for in-person instruction were generally unrelated to Covid case and death rates. Instead, local political partisanship and teachers union strength were better predictors of school re-opening status in fall 2020. We replicate and extend these analyses using data collected over the entire 2020-21 academic year. We demonstrate that Covid case and death rates were, in fact, meaningfully related to initial rates of in-person instruction. We also show that all three of these factors—Covid, partisanship, and teachers unions—became less predictive of in-person instruction as the school year continued. Conversely, the relationship between prior student achievement and the rate of in-person instruction increased in salience. We then leverage data from two nationally representative surveys of Americans’ attitudes toward education and identify an as-yet-undiscussed factor that predicts in-person instruction: pre-pandemic public support for increasing teacher salaries. We speculate that education leaders were better able to manage the logistical and political complexities of school reopenings in communities with greater support for educators.

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Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Olivia L. Chi, Alexis Orellana.

The unprecedented challenges of teaching during COVID-19 prompted fears of a mass exodus from the profession. We examine the extent to which these fears were realized using administrative records of Massachusetts teachers between 2015-16 and 2021-22. Relative to pre-pandemic levels, average turnover rates were similar going into the fall of 2020 but increased by 17 percent going into the fall of 2021. The fall 2021 increases were particularly high among newly hired teachers (31 percent increase), but were lower among Black and Hispanic/Latinx teachers (5 percent increases among both groups). Ethnoracial diversity of new hires increased during the pandemic, in part due to reduced professional licensure requirements. Together, these changes led to small increases in the overall ethnoracial diversity of Massachusetts teachers, but improvements to early-career retention will be needed to ensure long-term stability and diversity within the workforce.

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David Blazar, Doug McNamara, Genine Blue.

Instructional coaching is an attractive alternative to one-size-fits-all teacher training and development in part because it is purposefully differentiated: programming is aligned to individual teachers’ needs and implemented by an individual coach. But, how much of the benefit of coaching as an instructional improvement model depends on the specific coach with whom a teacher works? Collaborating with a national teacher training and development organization, TNTP, we find substantial variability in effectiveness across coaches in terms of changes in teachers’ classroom practice (0.43 standard deviations). The magnitude of coach effectiveness heterogeneity is close to average coaching program effects identified in other research. These findings suggest that identifying, recruiting, and supporting highly skilled coaches will be key to scaling instructional coaching programs.

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Sarah Guthery, Lauren P. Bailes.

Texas reduced new teacher preparation requirements in 2001 to allow more alternate paths to licensure. Within five years, this policy change resulted in over half the state’s new teachers being alternatively licensed. Using a series of first difference models, this study examines the relationship between the increased supply of new teachers in Texas and new teacher salaries prior to the policy change and in the fifteen years thereafter. We find that the policy change did increase the supply of new teachers via alternative licensing, but pay for new EC-6 teachers declined by 2 to 13 percent with differential effects based on the rate at which districts hired alternatively licensed teachers.

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Vladimir Kogan.

How do adult "culture wars" in education affect student learning in the classroom? I explore this question by combining information on nearly 500 school district political controversies with data on state test scores. Leveraging variation in the location and timing of these events as the basis for a difference-in-differences design, I show that student achievement declines in the wake of adult political battles. The effects are concentrated in math achievement -- the equivalent of approximately 10 days of lost learning -- and persist for at least four years. The declines are particularly pronounced for controversies surrounding racial issues and the teaching of evolution. These results suggest that well-intentioned education advocacy efforts focused on salient social justice issues may backfire, producing in unintended negative impacts on student achievement, and raise new questions about the adequacy of local democratic processes for the governance of public schools.

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Matthew A. Kraft, John A. List, Jeffrey A. Livingston, Sally Sadoff.

A substantial body of experimental evidence demonstrates that in-person tutoring programs can have large impacts on K-12 student achievement. However, such programs typically are costly and constrained by a limited local supply of tutors. In partnership with CovEducation (CovEd), we conduct a pilot program that has potential to ease both of these concerns. We conduct an experiment where volunteer tutors from all over the country meet 1-on-1 with middle school students online during the school day. We find that the program produces consistently positive (0.07σ for math and 0.04σ for reading) but statistically insignificant effects on student achievement. While these estimates are notably smaller than those found in many higher-dosage in-person tutoring programs, they are from a significantly lower-cost program that was delivered within the challenging context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We provide evidence that is consistent with a dosage model of tutoring where additional hours result in larger effects.

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Matthew A. Kraft, Joshua Bleiberg.

Economic downturns can cause major funding shortfalls for U.S. public schools, often forcing districts to make difficult budget cuts including teacher layoffs. In this brief, we synthesize the empirical literature on the widespread teacher layoffs caused by the Great Recession. Studies find that teacher layoffs harmed student achievement and were inequitably distributed across schools, teachers, and students. Research suggests that specific elements of the layoff process can exacerbate these negative effects. Seniority-based policies disproportionately concentrate layoffs among teachers of color who are more likely to be early career teachers. These “last-in first-out” policies also disproportionately affect disadvantaged students because these students are more likely to be taught by early career teachers. The common practice of widely distributing pink slips warning about a potential job loss also appears to increase teacher churn and negatively impact teacher performance. Drawing on this evidence, we outline a set of policy recommendations to minimize the need for teacher layoffs during economic downturns and ensure that the burden of any unavoidable job cuts does not continue to be borne by students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

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Stephen B. Holt, Katie Vinopal, Heasun Choi, Lucy C. Sorensen.

While a growing body of literature has documented the negative impacts of exclusionary punishments, such as suspensions, on academic outcomes, less is known about how teachers vary in disciplinary behaviors and the attendant impacts on students. We use administrative data from North Carolina elementary schools to examine the extent to which teachers vary in their use of referrals and investigate the impact of more punitive teachers on student attendance and achievement. We also estimate the effect of teachers' racial bias in the use of referrals on student outcomes. We find more punitive teachers increase student absenteeism and reduce student achievement. Moreover, more punitive teachers negatively affect the achievement of students who do not receive disciplinary sanctions from the teacher. Similarly, while teachers with a racial bias in the use of referrals do not negatively affect academic outcomes for White students, they significantly increase absenteeism and reduce achievement for Black students. The results suggest punitive disciplinary measures do not aid teachers in productively managing classrooms; rather, teachers taking more punitive stances may undermine student engagement and learning. Moreover, bias in teachers' referral usage contributes to inequities in student outcomes.

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Jing Liu, Monica Lee, Xiaoxue Zhou.

Student absenteeism is often conceptualized and quantified in a static, uniform manner, providing an incomplete understanding of this important phenomenon. Applying growth curve models to detailed class-attendance data, we document that secondary school students' unexcused absences grow steadily throughout a school year and over grades, while the growth of excused absences remain essentially unchanged. Importantly, students starting the school year with a high number of unexcused absences, Black and Hispanic students, and low-income students accumulate unexcused absences at a significantly faster rate than their counterparts. Lastly, students with higher growth rates in unexcused absences consistently report lower perceptions of all aspects of school culture than their peers. Interventions targeting unexcused absences and/or improving school culture can be crucial to mitigating disengagement.

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Christine Mulhern, Isaac M. Opper.

There is an emerging consensus that teachers impact multiple student outcomes, but it remains unclear how to measure and summarize the multiple dimensions of teacher effectiveness into simple metrics for research or personnel decisions. We present a multidimensional empirical Bayes framework and illustrate how to use noisy estimates of teacher effectiveness to assess the dimensionality and predictive power of teachers' true effects. We find that it is possible to efficiently summarize many dimensions of effectiveness and most summary measures lead to similar teacher rankings; however, focusing on any one specific measure alone misses important dimensions of teacher quality.

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