Eight lessons we learned from education research in 2019

Education research is hard to keep up with, and often enough, it’s hard to even understand. It seems like there are more caveats than clear conclusions, findings are “mixed,” and one finding contradicts the previous one. Meanwhile, all sides of a debate claim to have The Research on their side.

That’s why we at Chalkbeat follow research developments closely — highlighting the most important new information about what is and isn’t working to improve schools and presenting the limitations of that research, too.

Here, we’ve gathered several key lessons we’re taking away from this year of research coverage. It’s become something of an annual tradition — here are our round-ups from 2018 and 2017.

1. School segregation affects whether black students are identified as having a disability.

Are black students identified as having a disability too often or not often enough? This question has led to debates among researchers, policymakers, and civil rights groups. This year, two studies offered a compelling answer: it depends on the degree of a school’s racial segregation.

A Florida study found that black students in predominantly non-white schools too rarely get categorized as having a disability, and thus miss out on receiving special education services. But black students in predominantly white schools seem to get labeled as disabled too often, at least relative to similar white students. More than 20% of black students were categorized as disabled in largely white schools in the state — compared to just 13% of black students in largely black and Hispanic schools.

“Schools are either more likely to notice actual disabilities or tend to incorrectly apply disabilities to normal behaviors in students who are racially distinct in comparison to the student body as a whole,” the researchers said.

2. Students of color really benefit from working with adults of color.

Schools often struggle to effectively serve students of color. That’s not news, but two studies offer ideas to reduce dropout rates and increase college enrollment.

One paper takes us to Oakland, where the district created a class specifically tailored to black high school boys. The class is taught by black male instructors, uses a curriculum focusing on black history and culture, and offers personalized career and college guidance. The program reduced the dropout rate for black boys from 8.5% to 4.9% — and may have lowered dropout rates among black girls too, even though they didn’t participate directly.

“What those studies have really underscored for me is the promise of educational strategies that focus on affirming students, making them feel belonging, making them feel critically engaged in the classroom,” said Stanford researcher Tom Dee, whose prior research in San Francisco showed that an ethnic studies course improved student attendance and grades.

A separate study in Massachusetts found that students of color were nearly 4 percentage points more likely to enroll in college as a result of having a counselor of color in high school. This aligns with research showing the benefits for students of color of having teachers of color.

3. Publicizing information on student “growth” could encourage school integration.

A good school is one with high test scores; a bad school has low scores. Right?

The connection seems logical, but it’s often misleading. Studies show that some of the top-ranked high schools in Boston, Chicago, and New York City provide little if any unique academic benefit to students who enroll, for example — even as they are highly coveted for their perceived performance and social cachet. The schools look good because they enroll students who are already high-achieving.

This conflation of “good schools” and schools with high-scoring students has real consequences, including potentially exacerbating existing patterns of racial and socioeconomic segregation. We found that school ratings from the popular GreatSchools website are strongly correlated with race and class, which has the consequence of pushing families toward schools with more white, affluent students.

One recent experiment found that, in a hypothetical scenario, white, affluent parents would be more likely to move to a less-white school district when given information about academic growth in the district as opposed to student proficiency. This would have the effect of reducing residential and school segregation. The experiment didn’t involve parents making real decisions for their children, so the findings should be interpreted cautiously, but they are worth considering.

“Our results suggest some reason for optimism for an approach that could steer families towards high quality educational options that serve a wider range of students,” wrote researcher David Houston.

4. Police inside and outside of schools can depress student learning.

As fears of school shootings increase, many districts have ramped up security measures, hiring armed guards, employing pricey security devices, and conducting active shooter drills. (It’s important to note that children are exceedingly unlikely to be killed in school, and evidence suggests that overall violence in schools has been going down.)

Two studies this year highlighted how security efforts can affect academics in a harmful way. In one paper, researchers found that hiring more police in Texas schools led to declines in high school graduation rates and college attendance. Another found that more police in New York City neighborhoods reduced test scores and attendance rates for black boys in middle school.

“The results of both those studies, for us, put numbers to what we already know and what the experiences of young people are,” said Maria Fernandez of the Advancement Project, which pushes for less punitive discipline in schools.

5. Efforts to supplement traditional college advising aren’t making much of a difference.

Sending low-income, high-achieving high schoolers packets of information about college is relatively cheap and easy. Best of all, an initial study found it prompted students to apply to and attend more selective colleges where their chances of graduating were likely higher. But when The College Board brought this idea to many more students, it was a flop. The information didn’t change students’ college decision-making. And a handful of other college-focused studies this year showed that other kinds of low-cost “nudges” didn’t move the needle much, either.

Meanwhile, three recent studies examined another approach: virtual advisors, often recent college graduates, tasked with helping low- and middle-income students through the college application process using video, emails, and texts.

None found that the virtual advisors led to increased rates of college enrollment. One study did show that students were slightly more likely to enroll in schools with graduation rates above 70%. Overall, the impact of the program was modest, though it’s too early to tell whether they will affect college graduation rates.

One idea did produce clear benefits: sending high-achieving, low-income Michigan students letters offering them a full ride to the University of Michigan. Those students would likely have been eligible for generous financial aid regardless, but the letter made this clear and meant students didn’t need to fill out financial aid forms. Ultimately, this substantially increased students’ chances of enrolling and persisting in college.

6. District schools feel the pain of charter schools financially, but not academically.

It’s an issue at the heart of opposition to charter schools: how does their expansion affect nearby district schools and the students who attend them?

A number of studies we reviewed this year illustrate how students moving to charter schools strains district finances. Fixed costs, like buildings and certain staff positions, can’t be shed quickly, and long-term changes like staff reductions and school closures can be painful.

On the other hand, two recent studies found some evidence that the arrival of charter schools actually improves the net performance of public school students in an area. One of those studies has drawn questions about its methods (and some overstated claims used to promote it). Still, most research shows that charter expansion does not hurt — and may slightly boost — test scores in district schools.

7. Restorative justice can come with risks as well as rewards.

Restorative justice, or responding to misbehavior with discussion and an intent to repair harm, has rapidly spread as schools re-think more punitive suspension and discipline policies, which have been disproportionately meted out on black students. But its effects on student outcomes hadn’t been rigorously studied. That’s why it was a big deal when a random-assignment study on such an initiative was released earlier this year.

The paper, which focused on two dozen schools in Pittsburgh, found that adopting restorative justice policies decreased suspension rates, particularly for black students. It also found that teachers felt more positive about their school climate as a result of the program.

But the bad news was that restorative justice led to a decline in students’ math test scores in grades 3 through 8, and the drop was particularly steep for black students. The initiative also caused an increase in students saying their teachers struggled to manage classroom behavior.

A separate study, released earlier this year, found that restorative justice policies in an anonymous city school district pushed suspension rates down overall. But white students saw their suspensions fall dramatically, while black students’ rate barely budged. That meant the program effectively widened racial disparities.

This is the opposite of what was seen in Pittsburgh, and there is still little research on restorative justice in schools.

8. More education dollars help students.

This time last year, we took note of a lot of research showing that students do better when schools have more money to spend. The evidence has continued to pile up.

Four new studies found that more education spending benefited low-income students. In one Texas study, for instance, an extra $1,000 in per-pupil spending over the course of a student’s schooling caused high school dropout rates to fall by 2 percentage points and college graduation rates to increase by 4 points. Gains were generally larger for students in predominantly low-income, Hispanic school districts.

One notable exception to this trend: Another study in Texas found that an oil boom led to more funds for schools, but a decline in student achievement. That’s likely thanks to increased teacher turnover as other jobs in the area became more appealing.