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Research digest

Evidence-based policy has become somewhat of a catchphrase in politics. Everybody's for it and nobody's against it. But there's evidence and there's evidence. Education policy has long been guided by research with poor quality, which in turn has contributed to the confusion regarding what works and what doesn't work in education. Anybody can find a study proving their point. But not everyone can find good studies that prove their point.

Since the Spring of 2014, we've been producing an (almost) monthly Research Digest, intended to give interested parties a direct view of what the rigorous economic research suggests works in education, both from a macro-policy perspective as well as from the point of view of teachers and head teachers who are looking for more effective classroom strategies. The digest provides abstracts and snippets of such research, with comment and analysis of selected studies that are especially interesting from the point of view of educators and policymakers.

In December 2015 we published our first Annual Research Digest, with contributions from a number of influential researchers considering important pieces of research they think should be acknowledged and discussed in education policy circles.

The 2016-17 Annual Digest, considering recent evidence on uses of technology in education, was published on 6th July 2017. You can download a free .pdf copy here.

The latest issue of the digest (October 2017) may be downloaded here

Back issues of the monthly digest may be downloaded below.

Back issues:

September 2017 issue.

This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a paper by Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das, and Asim Ijaz Khwaja, published in the June issue of the American Economic Review under the title ‘Report Cards: The Impact of Providing School and Child Test Scores on Educational Markets’. The study considers the impact of information provision at the market level by scrutinising the results of an experiment that increased information provision randomly in 56 out of 112 villages in Pakistan via report cards with school- and pupil-level test scores covering all schools in each village. The findings support the idea that information interventions, which are generally inexpensive compared to other interventions, can improve the functioning of education markets in a very cost-effective way - resulting in improved test scores and more competitive pricing. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren analyses the outcomes.

May 2017 issue.

This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on an NBER working paper published this month, 'Management and Student Achievement: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment', by Roland G. Fryer, Jr. The study considers the role of leadership and management in school improvement. Previous research has suggested that management practices play an important role in human capital formation, but the author provides the first randomised experiment on the impact of headteacher management training on pupil outcomes. The experiment encompassed 58 schools in Houston, Texas and randomly assigned 29 of these to receive intensive headteacher management training. The results display that providing management training to headteachers and implementing the programme in schools have quite a substantial payoff in terms of pupil achievement in the first year, but tail off in the second year and beyond. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren considers possible reasons for the drop off and what we may conclude from this.

April 2017 issue.

This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a paper published in the June 2017 issue of the Economics of Education Review, 'Putting dollars before scholars? Evidence from for-profit charter schools in Florida', by John D. Singleton. Using data from detailed annual independent financial audits and accountability reports since 2005, the author analyses the impact of for-profit, state-funded charter schools in Florida, whose enrolment shares have increased by about 80 per cent in this period. Looking at differences in spending patterns, pupil composition, and pupil performance among schools with different ownership structures, he finds a number of intriguing differences. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren analyses the findings and finds them remarkably consistent with what we know from other research - suggesting that for-profit schools at least perform on par with non-profit schools, and often provide more choice for disadvantaged parents, while at the same time injecting more private funding into the state system.


March 2017 issue.

This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a paper soon to be published in the Economic Journal, 'Paid Parental Leave and Children’s Schooling Outcomes', by Natalia Danzer and Victor Lavy. The authors analyse data enabling them to capture the impact of increasing the time mothers spend with children on the latter’s performance in PISA tests at age 15. They do so by exploiting a reform in Austria that increased the maximum duration of paid paternal leave by one year for all mothers who gave birth from 1 July 1990 onward. The reform was announced shortly before coming into effect, thus giving no time for parents to change their fertility plans to take advantage of the new policy. This means that it can be utilised as a natural experiment to study the effects of paid parental leave on those children who were born just after the cut-off date, and as a result spent more time with their mothers than those who were born just before it. The results showed heterogeneous effects depending on children’s background, advantaging children from relatively well-off families, while having no overall impact for attainment. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren analyses these findings.


January 2017 issue.

This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a paper recently published in the Economic Journal (October 2016), ‘Early, Late or Never? When Does Parental Education Impact Child Outcomes?’, by Matt Dickson, Paul Gregg, and Harriet Robinson. Using data from from Avon, England, the authors study the causal impact of higher parental education levels on pupil outcomes. The authors find that increasing the parental educational level by one year on average raises the performance of children at the age of 4. The impact continues to be visible up to and including KS4 examinations with an effect size that corresponds to about 10 PISA points per parent (about a fourth of an academic year’s worth of learning). Gabriel Heller Sahlgren analyses the findings.

November 2016 issue.

This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a paper recently published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (Summer 2016), ‘Charter High Schools’ Effects on Long-Term Attainment and Earnings’, by Tim R. Sass, Ron W. Zimmer, Brian P. Gill, and T. Kevin Booker. Using data from Florida, the authors confirm previous research showing that charter high school attendance increases the likelihood of graduation and subsequent college enrollment. They then go on to break new ground in estimating charter schools’ effects on college persistence and earnings in adulthood. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren analyses the findings.
This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a recently issued NBER Working Paper (No. 22502), ‘Charter Schools and Labour Market Outcomes’ by Will S. Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer, Jr. The paper looks at the impact of charter schools on early-life labour market outcomes using administrative data from Texas. The authors find that, at the mean, charter schools have no impact on test scores and a negative impact on earnings. 'No Excuses' charter schools do increase test scores and four-year college enrollment, but have a small and statistically insignificant impact on earnings, while other types of charter schools decrease test scores, four-year college enrollment, and earnings. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren analyses the findings.

July 2016 issue.

This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a recently issued NBER Working Paper (No. 22165), ‘The Causes and Consequences of Test Score Manipulation: Evidence from the New York Regents Examinations’ by Thomas S. Dee, Will Dobbie, Brian A. Jacob, and Jonah Rockoff. The paper looks at the causes and consequences of allowing teachers to mark the Regents Examinations in New York State – high-stakes tests measuring performance in accordance with the state’s secondary-school curricula. The authors examine what happened after internal marking was discontinued between 2010 and 2012, finding clear evidence that teachers inflated scores in the period when it was possible to do so. The authors analyse the causal impact of manipulation on future outcomes, discerning negative effects on pupil motivation and thereby educational equity. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren analyses the findings.

May 2016 issue.

This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a recently issued NBER Working Paper (No. 22226), ‘What Do Test Scores Miss? The Importance of Teacher Effects on Non-Test Score Outcomes’ by C. Kirabo Jackson. The paper looks at the importance of teachers for improving non-cognitive outcomes – an issue on which to date has received surprisingly little research attention. Exploiting administrative data from secondary-school pupils in North Carolina, Kirabo Jackson uses a number of behavioural outcomes as proxies for pupils’ non-cognitive skills – suspensions, absences, course marks in ninth grade, and whether they enrolled in tenth grade on time. The variation in these measures that is unrelated to test scores gives him a teacher-effectiveness index that solely measures non-cognitive outcomes. Comparison with a regular value-added metric based on test scores shows only a weak correlation, suggesting that they do indeed capture different skills. He finds that teacher effectiveness in respect of non-cognitive skills as measured by the first metric is positive for the likelihood of graduation,  sitting the SAT university admissions test, for their high-school GPA, and their self-proclaimed plans to attend four-year colleges. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren analyses the findings.


April 2016 issue.

This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a forthcoming paper for the Quarterly Journal of Economics, ‘Wealth, Health, and Child Development: Evidence from Administrative Data on Swedish Lottery Players’ by David Cesarini, Erik Lindqvist, Robert Östling, and Björn Wallace. The paper analyses a range of outcomes that followed winning the lottery in Sweden, including health among both adults and children, and education outcomes. The authors find that the widely cited correlation between family income and pupil outcomes does not hold under these circumstances, and indeed is marginally negative. In other words, the correlations generally observed must be due to ‘unseen’ variables that generate both higher family income and pupil outcomes. This is a startling finding for advocates of income redistribution and other social policy interventions aimed at improving pupil outcomes. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren analyses the findings.

March 2016 issue.

This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a report published in February by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, 'The Effects of the New Orleans Post-Katrina School Reforms on Student Academic Outcomes' by Douglas N. Harris and Matthew F. Larsen of Tulane University. The paper reports on the impact of probably the most radical, literally ground up, redesign of a market- and government-accountability system ever undertaken in America. Using several difference-in-difference strategies – and a matched comparison group that were subjected to Katrina but not the school reforms (allowing them to take into account disruption due to the hurricane) – the authors find strong positive effects of the post-2005 reforms. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren analyses their findings.
This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on a recently published NBER Working Paper (No. 21839), ‘School Vouchers and Student Achievement: First-Year Evidence from the Louisiana Scholarship Program’ by Atik Abdulkadiroglu, Parag A. Pathak, and Christopher R. Walters. The paper reports on a study of a lotterised voucher programme geared towards low income households allowing participants to use vouchers toward tuition fees in private schools. Such studies have generally found no or small positive effects on test scores, but larger positive effects on graduation rates and college enrolment. This is the first such research to have found strongly negative effects.
This issue's editorial offers extended commentary on research by Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine analysing the impact of Sesame Street on early childhood education outcomes. Little research exists on indirect interventions outside the formal education system, so these are important findings for assessment of the potential of today’s MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The authors were able to draw causal inference by exploiting limitations in TV technology at the time of the show’s introduction relative to the location of the nearest television towers transmitting at the required frequency for access to the show, which were erected years before. They find that Sesame Street had positive effects on ‘grade-for-age’ status (an indicator of whether children progress at a normal pace through school without grade retention), as well as in relation to a range of other long-term indicators.
This issue's editorial returns to the vexed question of the proper role of teachers in the classroom, following the publication of new research by Professor Victor Lavy. Lavy undertakes quasi-experimental analysis of longitudinal pupil-level data to assess the impact of different teacher practices on outcomes in mathematics, science, Hebrew, and English. The findings provide important nuances regarding the value of different teaching practices. While overall, traditional teaching with a focus on instilment of knowledge and enhancement of comprehension, via memorisation and homework etc., has the strongest positive effect of four different techniques in terms of absolute effect size, the effect of teachers’ instilment of analytical and critical skills (a modern pedagogical feature) is also positive for pupil attainment.
This issue offers extended commentary on a methodologically ground-breaking study of a large-scale randomised voucher experiment in the Indian state of Andhra Pradeshby - 'The Aggregate Effect of School Choice: Evidence from a Two-stage Experiment in India'. Economists Karthik Muralidharan and Venkatesh Sundararaman designed an experiment whereby a voucher was provided to finance pupils to attend low-cost private primary schools. Applicants were encouraged to apply, and receipt of a voucher was determined by lotteries. But going further than previous voucher experiments, it also randomised the villages in which the programme would be conducted – allowing the authors to analyse potential spill-over effects of the voucher programme on pupils in the state sector. Overall, Muralidharan and Sundararaman find a positive, albeit relatively small, effect of private school attendance, but one that is achieved on a considerable tighter budget: state schools spending on average more than three times as much per pupil as private schools in this region.
This issue offers extended commentary on a new NBER Working Paper (No. 20983), ‘Teachers’ pay for performance in the long-run: effects on students’ educational and labor market outcomes in adulthood’, by Victor Lavy. Lavy investigates a performance pay experiment he designed in Israel, and its effects on long-term outcomes, including university attainment and earnings. The main feature of the programme was an individual-level bonus for teachers based on pupil achievement in matriculation examinations. His research finds large positive effects for likelihood of university attendance and earnings, and a reduction in the share of pupils receiving unemployment and disability benefits.
This issue offers extended commentary on a new NBER Working Paper (No. 20843), ‘Long Run Effects of Free School Choice: College Attainment, Employment, Earnings, and Social Outcomes at Adulthood’, by Victor Lavy. Lavy analyses a school choice experiment at the secondary level in Tel-Aviv, Israel, which started in 1994. His research finds that the Israeli government decision to end its policy of compulsory integration via bussing and introduce school choice, in addition to impacting positively on test scores, has had important positive effects on a range of longer-term outcomes also.
This issue offers extended commentary on a new NBER Working Paper (No. 20645), 'The Evolution of Charter School Quality' by economists Patrick L. Baude, Marcus Casey, Eric A. Hanushek, and Steven G. Rivkin addressed to consideration of maturation effects in Texas, a state with one of the highest proportions of charter schools across the US. The find evidence of significant quality improvement relative to public schools between 2001 and 2011. The authors attribute this to exits from the sector, improvement of exisiting charter schools, and positive selection of charter management organisations that open additional schools.
This issue offers extended commentary on a new NBER Working Paper (No. 20511), 'The Impact of No Child Left Behind's Accountability Sanctions on School Performance: Regression Discontinuity Evidence from North Carolina', by economists Thomas Ahn and Jacob Vigdor. The authors analyse the impact of different threats and sanctions on pupil performance. Comparisons of schools that barely meet or miss criteria for adequate yearly progress (AYP) reveal that some sanctions built into the No Child Left Behind accountability regime exert positive impacts on students. Estimates indicate that the strongest positive effects associate with the ultimate sanction: leadership and management changes associated with school restructuring.
This issue offers extended commentary on a paper published in the journal Labour Economics (Volume 30, October 2014), by economist Jan Bietenback considering the relationship between different teaching practices and cognitive skills. The research analyses data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and finds that traditional and modern teaching practices promote different cognitive skills in students.
This issue offers extended commentary on NBER Working Paper No. 20118, ‘The Effects of School Finance Reforms on the Distribution of Spending, Academic Achievement, and Adult Outcomes’ by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson, and Claudia Persico. The paper analyses the effects of the US reforms of the 1970s and 80s on spending and educational and economic outcomes. In respect of the latter, the authors find effects of sufficient magnitude to eliminate between two-thirds and all of the gaps in these adult outcomes between those raised in poor families and those raised in non-poor families.