Summer Education Research Roundup

School is out for summer. Legislative sessions have wrapped up. It is a slow time for the education policy beat.

But a lack of action in schools and state capitols leaves time to do some deep reading. I’ve happened across three studies recently that piqued my interest and think might be worth checking out if you have a few hours on a lazy summer day.

Paper #1: When Does School Autonomy Improve Student Outcomes?

In a new working paper, Northwestern economist Kirabo Jackson examines the effects of the Chicago Independent School Program, an initiative by the Chicago Public Schools to give some school principals more autonomy over the operation of their schools. He found that granting more autonomy to high-quality principals and to principals of schools with atypical needs (like bilingual education or a population of students with special needs) increased student test scores. He also found that more autonomy led to less principal turnover.

People are generally unaware of just how little control principals often have over their schools. In many places, hiring is done centrally by the school district. Calendars and schedules are set by the district as well. Curriculum, textbooks, and technology purchases, can all be decided by someone other than the principal.

The benefits found were not huge, but given that the cost was next to zero, it is something worth thinking about. It is also a helpful reminder that there are few blanket policies that are good for all schools, all principals, all teachers, or all students. While autonomy could be good for a high-quality principal, it could be terrible for a low-quality one.

Paper #2: Teacher Autonomy: Good for pupils? Good for teachers?

Since we’re on the topic of autonomy, let’s include a paper about teacher autonomy.

Three researchers from University College London used data from the OECD’s Teacher and Learning International Survey (TALIS), which collected data on approximately 700 math teachers in Chile, China, Colombia, England, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and Spain, to link measures of teacher autonomy to student performance. As part of the survey, teachers were asked about their autonomy in choosing learning materials, determining course content, disciplining students, and more and scored on a scale created by the researchers.

To cut to the chase, the researchers did not find a relationship between teacher autonomy and student performance. They did not find a relationship with other data collected on student personal interest in math or student feelings of self-efficacy, either. They did find some correlation between reports of autonomy and job satisfaction, with more autonomous teachers reporting that they are more satisfied. This was particularly true for teachers when it came to student behavior and the materials they used in class.

The data are not perfect, and the researchers admirably admit the limitations, but nevertheless this paper does provide some interesting evidence that it might not be the worst thing to limit teacher autonomy in some areas. There is debate around how we teach reading in America, and it appears that the “Science of Reading” folks have the facts on their side when it comes to optimal reading instruction. It might make sense for a school to tell teachers how they want reading taught. Notwithstanding some of the teacher satisfaction results with respect to student discipline, it might make sense for schools to set schoolwide discipline policies and procedures that dictate how teachers should respond to incidents of student misbehavior. It might be a headache for teachers to have to individually select the content of their classes and the materials to convey that content. By making those decisions for teachers, the school or a department within the school would limit the autonomy of teachers but perhaps in ways that are ultimately helpful for them.

Paper #3: A Denial A Day Keeps the Doctor Away

This paper, recently accepted by the Quarterly Journal of Economics, does not directly pertain to education, but its findings have implications for education policy.

The paper studies healthcare billing and finds the alarmingly large result that physicians lose 18% of their Medicaid revenue due to billing problems. This compares to a loss of 4.7% for Medicare patients and 2.4% for privately insured patients. Not surprisingly, doctors respond to these problems by refusing to accept Medicaid patients.

And here is a particularly interesting insight from their data:

“Physicians appear to treat higher CIP [Cost of Incomplete Payments] just like they do lower fees: a loss in expected revenue that makes them reluctant to treat lower-income Americans. This is true both qualitatively and quantitatively—their behavioral responses to a given percentage change in net revenue are similar whether the change comes through fees or CIP.”

In the past, many have argued that it is the rate at which the government pays physicians that shapes who chooses to participate in the program. This paper argues that administrative hurdles are just as big a determinant.

This has implications for the growing set of school choice programs proliferating around the country. It is important to not only think about the levels of per-student support that the programs offer, but also the administrative burden they create. It might be that policymakers can get more schools to participate without having to spend more money by simply easing the administrative burden.

Alright, now back to the sunshine!

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