Do computers have a negative effect on children’s social development?

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports the findings from a large-scale randomised controlled trial that explores whether owning a home computer has a negative effect on children’s social development.

The study included 1,123 students in grades 6-10 (Years 7-11) in 15 different schools across California. Students were eligible to take part in the trial only if they did not already have a computer at home. Half were then randomly selected to receive free computers, while the other half served as the control group. Surveys were conducted with the students and schools at the start of the school year to collect data on child and household characteristics and school participation. Follow-up surveys were then administered at the end of the school year, and the data compared to establish any causal evidence.

As predicted, Robert W Fairlie and Ariel Kalil found that having computers at home did increase the amount of time that children spent on social networking sites and email as well as for games and other entertainment. However, rather than being socially isolating, children in the treatment group communicated with 1.57 more friends per week than children in the control group, and spent 0.72 more hours with their friends in person. They also found no evidence that the children who received a computer were less likely to participate in sports teams or after-school clubs, or spend any less time in these activities.

Source: The effects of computers on children’s social development and school participation: evidence from a randomized control experiment (December 2016), NBER Working Paper No. 22907, The National Bureau of Economic Research

Specialist teachers in primary schools

Would primary schools be more successful if, like secondary schools, they used specialist teachers for particular classes?

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports on an experiment that tried to establish just that. In Houston, Texas, 50 elementary schools were randomised into treatment or control groups. Treatment schools altered their timetables to have teachers specialise in subjects such as maths, science, social studies, and reading based on each teacher’s strengths (assessed by the school principal). A class might be taught by one teacher for maths and science, and another for reading and social studies. Other classes had one teacher for maths, another for reading, and a third for science and social studies.

The results were negative. In the first year, schools with specialist teachers saw an effect size of -0.07 on maths and reading achievement. Over the first two years, the effect size was -0.05 for maths and -0.04 for reading, with the maths result statistically significant. For children in special education, the results were even worse, with an impact of -0.15 for reading and -0.20 for maths.

A teacher survey measured views on lesson planning, teacher relationships with students, enjoyment of teaching, and teaching strategies. Teachers in treatment schools were significantly less likely to report providing tailored instruction for their students. All other survey outcomes on teaching strategy were statistically identical between treatment and control.

Source: The ‘Pupil’ Factory: Specialization and the Production of Human Capital in Schools, National Bureau of Economic Research (2016)

Is professional development better than being dismissed?

The last issue of Best Evidence in Brief reported on a study in which low-performing teachers were dismissed. A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports on an experiment where low-performing teachers were provided with coaching from higher-performing peers.

The experiment took place in Tennessee in 14 elementary and middle schools. Tennessee teachers are observed in the classroom many times each year, and scored on 19 specific skills (eg, questioning, lesson structure and pacing, and managing student behaviour). Schools were randomly assigned to a treatment condition or business-as-usual control group. In the treatment schools, low-performing “target” teachers were matched with high-performing teachers, based on the outcomes of their classroom observations. The high-performing teachers were chosen based on their high scores in skills for which the low-performing teachers had received a low score. The pairs were encouraged to work together on these skills, as well as more generally on observing each other’s teaching, discussing strategies for improvement, and following up on each other’s commitments throughout the year.

After a year, students in treatment schools (whether taught by target or non-target teachers) showed a small improvement (effect size +0.06) on maths and English tests, when compared with students in control schools. Gains by students taught by target teachers were higher (+0.12). These improvements persisted and grew. In the following year, the effect for target teachers was a marginally significant +0.25.

Source: Learning Job Skills from Colleagues at Work: Evidence from a Field Experiment Using Teacher Performance Data (2016), The National Bureau of Economic Research.

Can teacher turnover improve student achievement?

Removing low-performing teachers can improve outcomes for students, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study looked at the effect of IMPACT, a performance assessment and incentive system introduced in schools in Washington, DC. IMPACT evaluates all teachers every year based on multiple measures of effectiveness (eg, clearly described standards, several teacher observations by different observers, and student outcomes). Teachers receive one of four ratings – highly effective, effective, minimally effective, or ineffective. Those rated ineffective (or minimally effective two years running) were dismissed. Total teacher turnover rates in the schools were higher (18% per year) than in similar non-participating schools (8-17%). Turnover rates among low-performing teachers (minimally effective or ineffective) were 46%, and for high-performing teachers (effective or highly effective) 13%.

The study found that there was a small increase in student achievement in mathematics (effect size of +0.079) that was statistically significant, and a smaller increase for reading (+0.046) which was not statistically significant. Turnover of high-performing teachers had a negative but not statistically significant effect on student achievement in mathematics (-0.055). Turnover of low-performing teachers improved student performance in mathematics (+0.21) and reading (+0.14).

The authors conclude that under a robust system of performance assessment, turnover of low-performing teachers can generate meaningful gains in student outcomes, particularly for the most disadvantaged students.

Source: Teacher Turnover, Teacher Quality, and Student Achievement in DCPS (2016), The National Bureau of Economic Research.

Disadvantaged children let down by school voucher scheme

New research from the US National Bureau of Economic Research evaluates a prominent and rapidly expanding school voucher plan, the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), and found that participation in the scheme substantially reduced academic achievement, probably because of the quality of the schools involved.

LSP provides public funds for disadvantaged pupils at low-performing Louisiana public (state) schools, enabling them to attend a private school of their choice. Pupils can apply, and then vouchers are allocated by random lottery.

The authors found that after one year, pupils attending an LSP-eligible private school through the voucher scheme saw their maths scores reduced by 0.4 standard deviations, and the effects for reading, science, and social studies were also negative and large. The negative impacts of vouchers were consistent across income groups, geographic areas, and private school characteristics, and were larger for younger children.

Private schools must apply for eligibility to take part in the LSP scheme, and the authors found that these schools had often experienced rapid declines in enrolment before applying. They suggest that LSP may therefore attract a set of private schools that are struggling to maintain enrolment. They also found that tuition at LSP-eligible private schools was typically well below public per-pupil spending.

The authors conclude that the private schools involved in the scheme are providing lower educational quality, and suggest caution in the design of voucher systems aimed at expanding school choice for disadvantaged pupils.

Source: School Vouchers and Student Achievement: First-Year Evidence from the Louisiana Scholarship Program (2015), NBER.

Unearned cash provides more than a financial boost

A new working paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research examines the effect of changes in unearned household income on children’s personality traits and mental health, and concludes that increases in unearned money have a significant positive effect on children’s social and emotional well-being.

The authors used data from The Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth (GSMS), a longitudinal survey of 1,420 North Carolina children who were aged 9, 11, and 13 at the start of the study. Children and parents were interviewed separately each year until the child was 16. The young people were then also interviewed at 19 and 21. The GSMS was specifically created to assess mental health and well-being in children.

The initial survey contained 1,070 non-Indian children, and 350 American Indian children from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who were over sampled. The survey began in 1993, and after the fourth year, a casino opened on the Eastern Cherokee reservation. The casino is owned by the Eastern Cherokee tribal government, and a portion of the profits (approximately $4,000 per year) is distributed twice a year to all adult tribal members.

The authors found large beneficial effects of improved household finances on children’s emotional and behavioural health and positive personality trait development, especially for children who were lagging behind their peers in these measures before the intervention.

They suggest this could be due to improved parental outlook, mental health, and happiness, and note that parental relationships with children and with their spouses/partners also improved. They also found that households that received the casino payments were more likely to move to slightly better areas (in terms of median household income), and suggest that at least some of the improvement in the child behavioural and personality traits could be explained by better community amenities in higher income areas.

Source: How Does Household Income Affect Child Personality Traits and Behaviors? (2015), NBER.