Teachers, Schools, and Student Performance

By Jacob, Brian A. | NBER Reporter, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Teachers, Schools, and Student Performance


Jacob, Brian A., NBER Reporter


Economists have long realized the importance of education for the well-being of individuals and the productivity of society. Over the past few decades, the economic returns to education have risen dramatically, increasing the importance of this issue. Yet researchers have made only limited progress in understanding how various policies can influence educational outcomes. My research in education economics has focused on three areas: standards and accountability, teacher policies, and measurement of individual ability.

Standards and Accountability

One approach to school reform involves holding schools accountable for student performance. In 2002, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which dramatically expanded federal influence over the nation's public schools. NCLB is arguably the most far-reaching education policy initiative in the past four decades. The legislation compelled states to conduct annual student assessments, calculate and report the fraction of students deemed at least proficient in key subjects, and institute an increasingly severe set of sanctions for schools that did not show sufficient progress toward having all students proficient.

In a series of papers, Thomas Dee and I study how NCLB affects school practices and student outcomes. We identify the impact of NCLB by comparing changes across states that already had school accountability policies in place prior to NCLB and those that did not. To examine student achievement, we utilize a state-year panel of student achievement scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a common metric that was low-stakes for schools. (1) Our results indicate that NCLB generated substantial increases in the average math performance of elementary students [Figure 1]. Moreover, we find evidence of improvement at both the top and bottom of the performance distribution, suggesting that the benefits were not limited to students near the proficiency threshold. There is also evidence of improvements in eighth-grade math achievement, particularly among traditionally low-achieving groups and at the lower percentiles. In contrast, we find no evidence of any effects on reading performance.

We also use a similar design to examine the impact of NCLB on education policies and practices. (2) Our results indicate that NCLB increased per-pupil spending by nearly $600, which was funded primarily through increased state and local revenue. We find that NCLB increased teacher compensation and the share of elementary school teachers with advanced degrees but had no effect on class size. We also find that NCLB did not influence overall instructional time in core academic subjects, but did lead schools to reallocate time away from science and social studies and toward the tested subject of reading.

As states have implemented school accountability systems, they have also raised standards. Since the 1970s, states have slowly increased high school graduation requirements. Recently, some have begun requiring students to pass rigorous college preparatory classes. Michigan was among the first states to do so when it began requiring students in the high school class of 2011 to pass geometry, algebra 2, biology, and chemistry/physics.

My colleagues and I use several non-experimental strategies to study the impact of this policy. (3) Our analyses suggest that the higher expectations embodied in the Michigan Merit Curriculum have had little impact on student outcomes. Looking at student performance on the ACT, the only clear evidence of a change in academic performance is in science. While our estimates for high school completion are sensitive to the sample and methodology, the weight of the evidence suggests that the policy had a small negative impact on high school graduation for students who entered high school with the weakest academic preparation.

The Teacher Labor Market

A second area of my research focuses on teachers. …

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