Where to Think

Kevin Lewis

November 20, 2023

Interscholastic Policy Debate Promotes Critical Thinking and College-Going: Evidence From Boston Public Schools
Beth Schueler & Katherine Larned
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, forthcoming 


Few interventions reduce inequality in reading achievement, let alone higher-order thinking skills, among adolescents. We study policy debate -- an extracurricular activity focused on improving middle and high schoolers' critical thinking, argumentation, and policy analysis skills -- in Boston schools serving large concentrations of economically disadvantaged students of color. Student fixed effects estimates show debate had positive impacts on English Language Arts (ELA) test scores of 0.13 SD, equivalent to 68% of a full year of average ninth-grade learning. Gains were concentrated on analytical more than rote subskills. We find no harm to math, attendance, or disciplinary records, and evidence of positive effects on high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment. Impacts were largest among students who were lowest achieving prior to joining debate.

Student Demand and the Supply of College Courses
Jacob Light
Stanford Working Paper, November 2023 


In an era of rapid technological and social change, do universities adapt enough to play their important role in creating knowledge? To examine university adaptation, I extracted the information contained in the course catalogs of over 450 US universities spanning two decades (2000-2023). When there are changes in student demand, universities respond inelastically, both in terms of course quantity and content. Supply inelasticity is especially pronounced in fields experiencing declining demand and is more pronounced at public universities. Using Natural Language Processing, I further show that while the content of existing courses remains largely unchanged, newly-created courses incorporate topics related to current events and job skills. Notably, at selective institutions, new content focuses on societal issues, while at less selective institutions, new content emphasizes job-relevant skills. This study contributes uniquely to our understanding of the supply-side factors that affect how universities adapt to the rapidly evolving landscape.

Effects of Maturing Private School Choice Programs on Public School Students
David Figlio, Cassandra Hart & Krzysztof Karbownik
American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, November 2023, Pages 255-294 


Using a rich dataset that merges student-level school records with birth records, and leveraging a student fixed effects design, we explore how a Florida private school choice program affected public school students' outcomes as the program matured and scaled up. We observe growing benefits (higher standardized test scores and lower absenteeism and suspension rates) to students attending public schools with more preprogram private school options as the program matured. Effects are particularly pronounced for lower-income students, but results are positive for more affluent students as well. Local and district-wide private school competition are both independently related to student outcomes.

Showing high-achieving college applicants past admissions outcomes increases undermatching
Sabina Tomkins et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 7 November 2023 


More than 40% of US high school students have access to Naviance, a proprietary tool designed to guide college search and application decisions. The tool displays, for individual colleges, the standardized test scores, grade-point averages, and admissions outcomes of past applicants from a student's high school, so long as a sufficient number of students from previous cohorts applied to a given college. This information is intended to help students focus their efforts on applying to the most suitable colleges, but it may also influence application decisions in undesirable ways. Using data on 70,000 college applicants across 220 public high schools, we assess the effects of access to Naviance on application undermatch, or applying only to schools for which a candidate is academically overqualified. By leveraging variation in the year that high schools adopted the tool, we estimate that Naviance increased application undermatching by more than 50% among 17,000 high-achieving students in our dataset. This phenomenon may be due to increased conservatism: Students may be less likely to apply to colleges when they know their academic qualifications fall below the average of admitted students from their high school. These results illustrate how information on college competitiveness, when not appropriately presented and contextualized, can lead to unintended consequences.

How Early Morning Classes Change Academic Trajectories: Evidence from a Natural Experiment
Anthony LokTing Yim
BYU Working Paper, November 2023 


Using a natural experiment which randomized class times to students, this study reveals that enrolling in early morning classes lowers students' course grades and the likelihood of future STEM course enrollment. There is a 79% reduction in pursuing the corresponding major and a 26% rise in choosing a lower-earning major, predominantly influenced by early morning STEM classes. To understand the mechanism, I conducted a survey of undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory course, some of whom were assigned to a 7:30 AM section. I find evidence of a decrease in human capital accumulation and learning quality for early morning sections.

Disaggregating the Effects of STEM Education and Apprenticeships on Economic Mobility: Evidence From the LaunchCode Program
Jason Jabbari et al.
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, forthcoming 


We conduct an impact analysis on a unique technology certificate and apprenticeship program offered by LaunchCode. We merge administrative data containing entrance exam scores with survey data for individuals that were (a) not accepted, (b) accepted but did not complete the course, (c) completed the course but not the apprenticeship, and (d) completed the course and the apprenticeship. By using entrance exam scores as an instrumental variable, we conduct an intent-to-treat model, finding that program acceptance was significantly associated with increased earnings and probabilities of working in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) profession. Then, by using machine learning-generated multinomial propensity score weights, we conduct a treatment-on-treated analysis, finding that these increases appear to be primarily driven by the apprenticeship component.

Helping or Hurting: The Effects of Retention in the Third Grade on Student Outcomes
NaYoung Hwang & Cory Koedel
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, forthcoming 


We evaluate the effects of grade retention on students' academic, attendance, and disciplinary outcomes in Indiana. Using a regression discontinuity design, we show that third-grade retention increases achievement in English Language Arts (ELA) and math immediately and substantially, and the effects persist into middle school. We find no evidence of grade retention effects on student attendance or disciplinary incidents, again into middle school. Our findings combine to show that Indiana's third-grade retention policy improves achievement for retained students without adverse impacts along (measured) nonacademic dimensions.

Interdisciplinary college curriculum and its labor market implications
Siqi Han et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 24 October 2023 


This article sheds light on how to capture knowledge integration dynamics in college course content, improves and enriches the definition and measurement of interdisciplinarity, and expands the scope of research on the benefits of interdisciplinarity to postcollege outcomes. We distinguish between what higher education institutions claim regarding interdisciplinarity and what they appear to actually do. We focus on the core academic element of student experience -- the courses they take, develop a text-based semantic measure of interdisciplinarity in college curriculum, and test its relationship to average earnings of graduates from different types of schools of higher education. We observe that greater exposure to interdisciplinarity -- especially for science majors -- is associated with increased earnings after college graduation.

Beyond Teachers: Estimating Individual School Counselors' Effects on Educational Attainment
Christine Mulhern
American Economic Review, November 2023, Pages 2846-2893 


Counselors are a common school resource for students navigating complicated and consequential education choices. I estimate counselors' causal effects using quasi-random assignment policies in Massachusetts. Counselors vary substantially in their effectiveness at increasing high school graduation and college attendance, selectivity, and persistence. Counselor effects on educational attainment are similar in magnitude to teacher effects, but they flow through improved information and assistance more than cognitive or noncognitive skill development. Counselor effectiveness is most important for low-income and low-achieving students, so improving access to effective counseling may be a promising way to increase educational attainment and close socioeconomic gaps in education.

Collegiate Sports Participation, Academic Achievement, and Bachelor's Degree Completion
James Tompsett, Oded Mcdossi & Vincent Roscigno
Sociological Forum, forthcoming 


Popular attention to the multi-million-dollar enterprise of collegiate sports often centers on the extent to which student athletes are academically engaged. In this article, we draw on a national sample of approximately 5,000 college-goers, employ key comparisons (i.e., high-visibility student athletes, nonrevenue student athletes, and nonathletes), and consider background disadvantages and collegiate division levels relative to achievement (i.e., grade point average) and bachelor's degree completion. Analyses show that once background attributes and division levels are accounted for, there is little difference in achievement and attainment between high-visibility student athletes and their nonathlete peers. There is, however, a dual advantage in 4-year degree completion for those playing other collegiate sports -- an advantage tied to their more privileged family and educational backgrounds and their participation in intercollegiate athletics itself. Our results in these regards are robust to several restrictive and analytically rigorous modeling strategies. We conclude by highlighting the implications for higher education research and its attention to inequality, educational representation, institutional processes, and student success.


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