Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Does Raising the School Leaving Age Reduce Teacher Effort? Evidence from a Policy Experiment

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Does Raising the School Leaving Age Reduce Teacher Effort? Evidence from a Policy Experiment

Article excerpt


Raising the compulsory school leaving age (henceforth RoSLA) is a key policy instrument used to increase minimum educational attainment levels. Moreover, there is an ongoing debate in a number of countries, such as the United Kingdom and Spain, regarding further increases in the minimum high school leaving age. In addition, RoSLA has been widely used in the literature on returns to education as a source of exogenous variation in years of schooling/educational levels (see for instance, Harmon and Walker 1995 for the United Kingdom; Pischke and von Wachter 2008 for Germany; Pons and Gonzalo 2002 and Arrazola et al. 2003 who use the 1970 RoSLA in Spain).

However, teachers who take classes in the "affected" years of schooling are unlikely to be indifferent to this policy change. (1) Increasing the compulsory schooling age increases the number of students in those years, but also changes the distribution of ability and motivation of students that teachers have to instruct. For instance, teachers at the latter part of compulsory secondary school will now have lower ability students and/or those with less interest in formal schooling in their class, along with those students who would have voluntarily chosen post-compulsory schooling in the absence of the legislative change. Teaching (and managing) these students is likely to be more difficult. In the absence of compensating differentials, it is difficult to imagine that this will not affect teacher motivation and effort. (2)

This paper is the first to our knowledge that investigates this motivational effect of compulsory schooling laws on teachers. Specifically, we examine the impact of the increase in the school leaving age that occurred in Spain in the academic year 1998-1999 on one element of high school teacher behavior, absenteeism. Employing Spanish Labor Force Survey (SLFS) data that covers the relevant policy reform period, we estimate Difference-in-Difference models of absenteeism using count data approaches. We demonstrate that raising the compulsory schooling age led to an increase in teacher absenteeism. This is a matter of concern as previous research has demonstrated a negative causal effect of teacher absence on student achievement (Duflo, Hanna, and Ryan 2005; Miller, Murnane, and Willett 2007, 2008), and one that is more severe for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor 2009). This may be the result of absent teachers being replaced by less qualified substitutes and/or the disruption inherent in the use of replacement teachers.

This leads to a concern that increasing the compulsory school leaving age may decrease the quality of educational provision in the affected years. Furthermore, this has implications for estimation of the returns to education that rely upon RoSLA reforms as an instrumental variable. Namely, that if the education treatment because of RoSLA is of lower quality, then the local average treatment effect of education on wages will be biased downward.


The policy reform examined consisted of an extension of free, compulsory, and comprehensive education from 14 to 16 years. The reform was the General Regulation of the Education System passed in 1990. (3) Because of the economic crisis of the 1990s in Spain, the change in compulsory schooling was delayed until the last quarter of 1998. Primary and high school curriculum standardization across Spain was another part of this reform. Primary and early secondary school standardization occurred before the changing of the compulsory school leaving age. While curriculum standardization for 15- to 16-year-old students occurred at the same time, the compulsory leaving age was raised. This could influence high school teacher behavior if, for instance, this adjustment was onerous and/or disruptive. Hence, any RoSLA policy effect could include an adjustment effect as a result of curriculum change. …

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