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Using Data from Natural Experiments, Researcher Documents Social Returns from Educational Investments

Emily Rauscher, PhD

Want to narrow the achievement gap? Try investing in education. Build a new school or a new wing. Or make other capital improvements, like fixing the HVAC.

It will take about six years, explains Emily Rauscher, an associate professor of sociology at Brown University; but in that time, school districts that passed bond measures for capital improvements by and large saw a roughly one-third reduction in the achievement gap between students from well-to-do backgrounds and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

She suspects these facility improvements help schools retain experienced teachers and provide space for smaller class sizes. “There is some evidence teachers prefer to work in nicer school buildings,” said Rauscher, a recipient of the 2021 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award. She was nominated by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and delivered an award lecture at the 2021 AERA Annual Meeting earlier this April.

“It will take about six years, but in that time, school districts that passed bond measures for capital improvements by and large saw a roughly one-third reduction in the achievement gap between students from well-to-do backgrounds and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Rauscher defines her K-12 research broadly, looking at social returns and the benefits of education that extend beyond the individual ― a focus she believes hails from her upbringing in a rural New York town where neighbors loved and cared for one another ― and lots of teenagers were parents.

Rauscher then graduated at the top of her class in 1994 and headed off to Wesleyan University, determined to revisit the issues faced by the folk in her New York neighborhood. In an early study, she gathered data on the age at which states allowed teenagers to work. She compared those numbers with teenage pregnancies and confirmed that states, like hers, where the working age was closer to 16 had higher teen fertility rates than states that set the age at 18.

She has learned how education shapes opportunity. “Once states started passing compulsory schooling laws in the mid-1800s, the distribution of jobs became less farm-based and more professional,” she explains. Education can likewise shape marriage patterns, as she had revealed using similar data. Teenagers required to go to school tended to marry later and were more likely to choose a partner from a different race and level of education. “This very early investment in schooling increased equality on the marriage market and delayed marriage on average,” she says.

Rauscher’s work on capital improvements and their impacts on the achievement gap comes from 1995 to 2013 administrative data from the California Department of Education. She evaluated the results of ballot questions concerning capital improvements for school facilities among more than 600 school districts and where the measure either passed or failed by no more than 10 percentage points.

It’s a lot of number crunching, but Rauscher was drawn to it. “I love finding and using natural experiments,” she says. You can’t randomly assign students to attend less rigorous schools, she explains. “I try to find natural experiments where some valuable school investment is nearly random.”

She intends to continue working in education, possibly looking next at the impacts of district elections to increase operational funding, such as hiring additional teachers. She is not done with capital improvements. She ponders, could a new gym, for example, help teenagers get fit?

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