Grading on a curve

Kevin Lewis

September 23, 2019

The Distribution of School Quality: Do Schools Serving Mostly White and High-SES Children Produce the Most Learning?
Douglas Downey, David Quinn & Melissa Alcaraz
Sociology of Education, October 2019, Pages 386-403

What is schools’ role in the stratification system? One view is that schools are an important mechanism for perpetuating inequality because children from advantaged backgrounds (white and high socioeconomic) enjoy better school learning environments than their disadvantaged peers. But it is difficult to know this with confidence because children’s development is a product of both school and nonschool factors, making it a challenge to isolate school’s role. A novel approach for isolating school effects is to estimate the difference in learning when school is in versus out, what is called impact. Scholars employing this strategy have come to a remarkable conclusion — that schools serving disadvantaged children produce as much learning as those serving advantaged children. The empirical basis for this position is modest, however, and so we address several shortcomings of the previous research by analyzing a nationally representative sample of about 3,500 children in 270 schools from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort of 2011. With more comprehensive data and better scales, we also find no difference in impact on reading scores across schools serving poor or black children versus those serving nonpoor or white children. These patterns challenge the view that differences in school quality play an important role shaping achievement gaps and prompt us to reconsider theoretical positions regarding schools and inequality.

Legacy and Athlete Preferences at Harvard
Peter Arcidiacono, Josh Kinsler & Tyler Ransom
Duke University Working Paper, September 2019

The lawsuit Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard University provided an unprecedented look at how an elite school makes admissions decisions. Using publicly released reports, we examine the preferences Harvard gives for recruited athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff (ALDCs). Among white admits, over 43% are ALDC. Among admits who are African American, Asian American, and Hispanic, the share is less than 16% each. Our model of admissions shows that roughly three quarters of white ALDC admits would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs. Removing preferences for athletes and legacies would significantly alter the racial distribution of admitted students, with the share of white admits falling and all other groups rising or remaining unchanged.

The Effect of Large-scale Performance-Based Funding in Higher Education
Jason Ward & Ben Ost
Education Finance and Policy, forthcoming

The use of performance-based funding that ties state higher education appropriations to performance metrics has increased dramatically in recent years, but most programs place a small percent of overall funding at stake. We analyze the effect of two notable exceptions — Ohio and Tennessee — where nearly all state funding is tied to performance measures. Using a difference-in-differences identification strategy along with a synthetic control approach, we find no evidence that these programs improve key academic outcomes.

Head Start and the distribution of long term education and labor market outcomes
Monique De Haan & Edwin Leuven
Journal of Labor Economics, forthcoming

We investigate the effect of Head Start on education and wage income for individuals in their 30s in the NLSY79. We contribute to the existing literature by examining effects across the outcome distributions, using an approach that relies on two weak stochastic dominance assumptions that can be checked using pre-Head Start cohorts. We find that Head Start has positive and statistically significant effects on years of education and wage income. We also uncover important heterogeneity in the effectiveness of the program; the effects are concentrated at the lower end of the distribution, and the effects are strongest for women, blacks and Hispanics.

The Moderating Effect of Neighborhood Poverty on Preschool Effectiveness: Evidence From the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Experiment
Francis Pearman
American Educational Research Journal, forthcoming

This study drew data from a randomized trial of a statewide prekindergarten program in Tennessee and presents new evidence on the impacts of preK on third-grade achievement using administrative data on children’s neighborhood environments. Results indicate that preK had no measurable impact on children’s third-grade math achievement regardless of children’s neighborhood conditions. However, preK significantly improved third-grade reading achievement for children living in high-poverty neighborhoods. The treatment effects on reading achievement were substantial: Among children living in high-poverty neighborhoods, those who took up an experimental assignment to attend preK scored over half a standard deviation higher on average than the control group in third grade. In contrast, preK enrollment had, if anything, a negative effect on third-grade reading achievement among children living in low-poverty neighborhoods. These differential effects were partially explained by alternative childcare options and contextual risk factors.

Artificial Intelligence, Human Capital, and Innovation
Michael Gofman & Zhao Jin
University of Rochester Working Paper, August 2019

Human capital is essential to AI-driven innovation. The scarcity of the human capital needed for AI R&D created an unprecedented brain drain of AI professors from North American universities into the industry between 2004 and 2018. We provide a causal evidence that AI faculty departures from universities reduced the creation of startups by students who then graduated from these universities. On the intensive margin, these departures also reduce the early-stage funding graduates’ startups receive. The disruption in the knowledge transfer from professors to students emerges as the main channel for the negative effect of the human capital reallocation for innovation.

Free tuition and college enrollment: Evidence from New York’s Excelsior program
Hieu Nguyen
Education Economics, forthcoming

Since the fall of 2017, New York has offered free tuition to eligible residents attending its state-funded two-year and four-year colleges under its unique Excelsior Scholarship program. We use the difference-in-differences and generalized synthetic control estimators to document that institution-level enrollment effects are negligible. Our study provides the first evidence of enrollment responses to a state-wide promise program within the four-year sector and adds new results to the fast-growing free-college literature. We propose competing channels to rationalize the obtained findings and compare Excelsior with other prominent initiatives to shed light on both design and implementation.

Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom
Louis Deslauriers et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming

We compared students’ self-reported perception of learning with their actual learning under controlled conditions in large-enrollment introductory college physics courses taught using 1) active instruction (following best practices in the discipline) and 2) passive instruction (lectures by experienced and highly rated instructors). Both groups received identical class content and handouts, students were randomly assigned, and the instructor made no effort to persuade students of the benefit of either method. Students in active classrooms learned more (as would be expected based on prior research), but their perception of learning, while positive, was lower than that of their peers in passive environments. This suggests that attempts to evaluate instruction based on students’ perceptions of learning could inadvertently promote inferior (passive) pedagogical methods. For instance, a superstar lecturer could create such a positive feeling of learning that students would choose those lectures over active learning. Most importantly, these results suggest that when students experience the increased cognitive effort associated with active learning, they initially take that effort to signify poorer learning. That disconnect may have a detrimental effect on students’ motivation, engagement, and ability to self-regulate their own learning. Although students can, on their own, discover the increased value of being actively engaged during a semester-long course, their learning may be impaired during the initial part of the course. We discuss strategies that instructors can use, early in the semester, to improve students’ response to being actively engaged in the classroom.

Effect of Inquiry and Problem Based Pedagogy on Learning: Evidence from 10 Field Experiments in Four Countries
Rosangela Bando, Emma Näslund-Hadley & Paul Gertler
NBER Working Paper, September 2019

This paper uses data from 10 at-scale field experiments in four countries to estimate the effect of inquiry- and problem-based pedagogy (IPP) on students’ mathematics and science test scores. IPP creates active problem-solving opportunities in settings that provide meaning to the child. Students learn by collaboratively solving real-life problems, developing explanations, and communicating ideas. Using individual-level data on 17,006 students, the analysis finds that after seven months IPP increased mathematics and science scores by 0.18 and 0.14 standard deviations, respectively, and by 0.39 and 0.23 standard deviations, respectively, after four years. We also identify important gender learning gaps with boys benefiting substantially more than girls. Our approach not only provides strong causal evidence, but also high external validity. These 10 experiments in four countries allow us to examine the effects of IPP across a wide set of geographic, socioeconomic, teacher background, and age/grade contexts (i.e., preschool and third and fourth grades). The results prove to be robust across these different contexts.

The Effect of Student Loan Debt on Spending: The Role of Repayment Format
Yi Zhang, Ronald Wilcox & Amar Cheema
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, forthcoming

Across three studies, the authors investigate the effect of student loan debt on spending. Evidence from consumer finance data and experimental scenarios reveals that borrowers with moderate student loan debt are less likely to spend than people with low (or no) debt. However, borrowers with high debt are more likely to spend relative to those with moderate debt. The latter effect is consistent with goal disengagement, as paying off high student loan debt seems difficult. Importantly, the spending propensity associated with high student loan debt is attenuated by presenting the debt in a monthly payment (vs. lump-sum) format, which reduces perceived payoff difficulty. From a public policy perspective, the authors recommend that estimated monthly payments be included in all student loan disclosures.

The Effect of Chess on Standardized Test Score Gains
David Poston & Kathryn Vandenkieboom
SAGE Open, August 2019

The study compares the standardized test performance of “chess kids” versus their peers. The comparison of score gains to non-chess peers (same grade and same academic percentile) attempts to eliminate the chicken-and-egg issue that often muddles this topic, that is, does chess make kids smarter or do smart kids simply prefer chess. The data indeed confirm that chess players are generally of higher academic standing (chess kids are smart), but more importantly it statistically shows that learning chess increases a student’s academic performance (chess makes them smarter). The evaluation then digs deeper, by comparing kids who have learned perhaps a little chess (coming to chess club only) versus those that are more serious and play in U.S. Chess Federation (USCF)-rated tournaments. A variety of comparisons are made which show that the benefits of chess are strongly tied to “learning” the game; the more you learn, the more you benefit. Kids who come only to chess club receive a small (5%-10%) benefit in Math, whereas kids who play in rated tournaments gain substantially in Math (30%-50%) and significantly in Reading (10%-20%). The benefits also continue to grow as kids play more tournaments and/or increase their USCF chess rating.

Private Universities and NCAA D-III Athletics as a General Recruiting Tool
Jonathan Willner
International Advances in Economic Research, August 2019, Pages 293–307

Most economic research on university athletics programs examines National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I universities with some consideration of universities in Division II. Division III universities are very different than Division I, consequently that which holds for athletics might be different. In this paper the relationship between athletics and the number of applications received per existing student is examined using a balanced panel of private Division-III universities from 2003 to 2014. Controlling for numerous common recruiting variables, the results indicate that a larger share of athletes on campus is positively associated with more applications per existing full time equivalent undergraduate students. The presence of football, a large, almost exclusively male set of athletes, is neutral in its relationship with total applications, though positive for male and negative for female applicants. Among Division-III universities with football programs, winning football programs have a neutral effect on applications


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.