Author Archives: Cara Jackson

The Logic Behind School Choice — And Three Ways To Strengthen It

In recent weeks, Democratic presidential candidates’ views on education, specifically on school choice and charters, have come under scrutiny. And a recent EdNext poll indicates that Democrats are deeply divided on school choice topics. 

The usual debate on school choice asks “does it work,” but rarely do I hear discussion about how it’s intended to work in the first place.

Some people view school choice as a public good in and of itself, in that it provides options for families. For this group, evidence of student achievement, educational attainment, and other outcomes is secondary. It is the availability of and access to educational options — on their own — which validate the need for and merit of school choice.  

Others, myself included, view school choice as a potential means to an end: a way to improve educational opportunities not just for the students whose families are willing and able to choose, but for those students who remain in their traditional public schools as well. In theory, competition pressures schools to improve quality in order to retain their “customers,” i.e., students.

In order to get from point A (offering school choice) to point B (improved outcomes), what has to happen? The logic model below outlines the theory behind my perspective:  Continue reading

#DemDebates: Another Nothingburger on Education?

Two members of Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team, Cara Jackson and Beth Tek, watched Wednesday’s debates for any mention of education. They didn’t get what they were looking for, but there’s still plenty to discuss. 

Beth Tek: I have to say, while I was disappointed about the lack of education-related talk during the Democratic debate last night, I’m also not surprised.

Cara Jackson: Yup, I’m guessing no one got education bingo. But several candidates did discuss social supports that impact children, such as child care, paid maternity leave, and housing.

stack of empty burger buns, photo by Marco Verch

Photo by Marco Verch

Beth: That’s true. Elizabeth Warren talked about childcare, universal pre-K, and the exploitative wages of childcare workers. And Andrew Yang mentioned the fact that close to 75% of school outcomes are determined by what happens to children at home.

Cara: Yes, we know that out-of-school factors explain much of the variation in student achievement. This has been demonstrated since the 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity report by James Coleman and colleagues, and by more recent work too. 

And candidates rightly addressed housing policy, which directly impacts education policy! Tom Steyer commented that housing determines where your kids go to school. Warren noted that her housing plan includes 3.2 million new housing units for lower-income families and middle-class renters in communities with severe housing supply shortages. She aims to mitigate the long-term impacts of redlining, the segregation created by refusing loans to black families, which continues to impact neighborhoods, and by extension schools, to this day.  

There’s also evidence of long-term academic benefits for children from low-income families who attend universal pre-kindergarten programs, so the debate certainly had implications for education.

Beth: And it’s not like these candidates don’t have education plans! I would have liked to hear Warren talk about her proposed infusion of Title I funding. Schools could use that money to provide more wraparound supports for America’s students, which would go a long way to educate the “whole child.” We know that Millennials (approximately ages 24 to 38) and Generation Zers (currently in K-12 and early adulthood) are reporting the highest percentages of anxiety and depression of any age group. And schools are trying to do more to address and support mental health.

Cara: Yes! I’d love to see some of that additional funding used to ensure students have access to supportive, high-quality school counselors. We know that these supports could improve high school graduation and college attendance. Or we could provide incentives to push back high school start times, in keeping with research that suggests doing so would improve academic outcomes.

Beth: Exactly Cara! Let’s take what we know works and provide the resources needed to implement it. In addition to later start times for high schoolers, how about free breakfast and lunch for all students? Students who come from food insecure homes have a hard time focusing in school, and this leads to poor behavioral and academic outcomes. Free breakfast and lunch would remove this obstacle from their education.

Cara: I hope we’ll hear more about education in the December debate. Stay tuned!

When It Makes Sense to Experiment on Students — or “The Zone of RCTs”

The Nobel Prize was recently awarded to economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT and Michael Kremer of Harvard. NPR described the researchers’ work as “applying the scientific method to an enterprise that, until recently, was largely based on gut instincts.”

An enterprise based on gut instincts? That sounds like education! The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the arm of the U.S. Department of Education charged with providing reliable information about the effectiveness of education programs, is not even old enough to vote. It was not until 2015 that evidence was given much attention in federal education law, and state plans submitted under the Every Student Succeeds Act “mostly ignored research on what works,” according to Pemberton Research founder Mark Dynarski.

But attention to experimental evidence has been growing. The Nobel Prize press release specifically mentioned the use of Randomized Control Trial (RCT) experiments to inform social policy intended to alleviate poverty. RCTs are studies that randomly assign individuals to an intervention group or to a control group in order to measure the effects of the intervention (for a visual, see here). RCTs are considered the strongest form of evidence by IES and under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Examples of RCTs in the education field include some of the Nobel prize winners’ work in India, and IES’s What Works Clearinghouse, which catalogues the evidence base for education interventions. 

Questions on causality — that is, when we want to know if some policy or program causes some outcome — are best served by experiments, at least for narrowly defined research questions. Yet the idea of experimenting on students (especially low-income or low-achieving students) can make people feel queasy, and so it is worth asking in what circumstances it makes sense to conduct an experimental study.

An experiment might make sense if we believe a policy or practice has some positive impact on people, but we’re not sure about the size of the impact. Researchers should not experiment if they have reason to believe a policy or practice to be harmful, because the students in the “treatment” group would be harmed. Nor should researchers experiment if they are fairly confident that it is beneficial; in that case, students who were assigned to the “control” group would be harmed by being deprived of the treatment. See my simple graphic explanation below:

Inspired by a tweet from Vinay Prasad, Associate Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University

Continue reading

Teacher Residencies Can Translate Into a More Diverse Workforce, But Who Will Bear the Expenses?

A growing number of studies have documented the benefits of teacher diversity, as my colleagues have previously discussed (see here and here). And research drawing on data from the Measures of Effective Teaching project found that all students preferred teachers of color. Yet despite the value of diversifying the teaching workforce, Black teachers remain underrepresented. They made up around 7 to 8 percent of all teachers between school years 1999-2000 and 2015-2016, while Black students accounted for between 16 to 17 percent of all students in the same time period. The proportion of Hispanic public elementary and secondary school teachers appeared to be increasing slightly, but not nearly as fast as the proportion of Hispanic students, as seen in the figure below.

Proportion of Hispanic students and teachers over time

As my colleague Katrina has noted, a number of barriers to diversifying the teacher workforce exist, including the considerable cost to become a teacher. Traditional preparation programs have high out-of-pocket and opportunity costs (i.e., limited income while enrolled in a program). As Ashley LiBetti and Justin Trinidad describe in their recent report, these costs limit the pool of teacher candidates:  

In the traditional model, candidates must invest more than $24,000 and 1,500 hours to become a teacher…This upfront financial and opportunity cost limits the pool of candidates to those who can afford the risk, effectively cutting out nontraditional candidates, low- and lower-middle-income candidates, and career-changers.

Given well-documented racial disparities in wealth, the high cost of becoming a teacher is likely to have a disproportionate impact on the career decisions of people of color. Alternate routes to teaching may be an attractive option for prospective teachers who are sensitive to costs. As seen below, teachers from alternate routes tend to be more racially diverse than teachers from traditional teacher preparation programs. 

Racial/ethnic diversity for tradition route and alternate route teachers

Yet alternate routes have proven controversial, even when evidence suggests that alternatively certified teachers are equally or more effective at increasing student achievement on standardized tests, relative to their counterparts. In Houston, for example, school district trustees recently voted to end the district’s contract with Teach For America, citing concerns about teacher turnover. 

Teacher residency programs have emerged as perhaps a more politically viable alternative certification route than “fast-track” programs, by emphasizing on-the-job training prior to becoming a teacher of record. Because residents are typically paid a stipend during their apprenticeship period, entering teaching through a residency tends to cost less than entering through a traditional route. However, residencies typically pay a stipend that is less than what a teacher of record would earn. As a result, the cost of entering the profession through a residency program is higher than the cost of entering through a fast-track alternative certification program.  Continue reading

Correlation is Not Causation and Other Boring but Important Cautions for Interpreting Education Research

Journalists, as a general rule, use accessible language. Researchers, as a general rule, do not. So journalists who write about academic research and scholarship, like the reporters at Chalkbeat who cover school spending studies, can help disseminate research to education leaders since they write more plainly.

But the danger is that it’s easy for research to get lost in translation. Researchers may use language that appears to imply some practice or policy causes an outcome. Journalists can be misled when terms like “effect size” are used to describe the strength of the association even though they are not always causal effects.

To help journalists make sense of research findings, the Education Writers Association recently put together several excellent resources for journalists exploring education research, including 12 questions to ask about studies. For journalists (as well as practitioners) reading studies that imply that some program or policy causes the outcomes described, I would add one important consideration (a variation on question 3 from this post): if a study compares two groups, how were people assigned to the groups? This question gets at the heart of what makes it possible to say whether a program or policy caused the outcomes examined, as opposed to simply being correlated with those outcomes.

Randomly assigning people creates a strong research design for examining whether a policy or program causes certain outcomes. Random assignment minimizes pre-existing differences among the groups, so that differences in the outcomes can be attributed to the treatment (program or policy) instead of different characteristics of the people in the groups. In the image below, random assignment results in having similar-looking treatment and control groups. Continue reading