Recent Book Reads: Econ of Ed and Race, Spring 2019

Here are some things I’ve read or am reading recently (somewhat) related to my research topic, that I have really enjoyed. I’m calling it Econ of Ed even though these are all written by sociologists (and one journalist), but this just speaks to the point that if economists really want to understand inequality behind the numbers, read sociology!

The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students by Anthony Abraham Jack

What an informative, critical, and cathartic read for me (as a #firstgen). Jack follows a group of students at an elite college coming from distinctly different backgrounds and educational experiences: the upper-income students, lower-income students who attended a private or elite high school, and lower-income students from less resourced schooling backgrounds (the “doubly disadvantaged”). For anyone wanting to understand the transmission of inequality, even in the empirical “best” of circumstances”, this is a must-read and illuminates so many flaws in our higher ed system. Read Jack’s take on the admissions scandal as well.

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy  by Tressie McMillan Cottom

I can’t rave about this book, this author, and her writing enough. Tressie McMillan Cottom is a force. I actually read this when it first came out a year or so ago. McMillan Cottom shows us how for-profit institutions exacerbate inequality by preying on the marginalized. A lot of the findings of this book also speak to issues of credentialization outlined in this Roosevelt Institute report on student debt. On a personal note, I felt very validated as a budding economist reading this book, since a few years ago I recall noting in the NCES data the startling racial and gender segmentation in the for-profit sector (think trade schools vs. cosmetology and nursing assistants).

Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side by Eve L. Ewing

Again, a force of a writer! In the depths of my imposter syndrome, I often forget why studying public schools is important. Not just important, but should be at the forefront of any progressive research agenda. Ewing reminds me in discussing why it matters to study Chicago’s school closings: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home.” (155-6) Alongside preserving history, family, community, and home, schools are a massive and formative interaction that we all have with the state, and one we still feel ownership over. Schools hold the possibility of a space of progressive transformation.

The Warm of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

I’m still only a small bit through this one, but it goes beyond “epic”. Here are some reviews from NYTimes and the New Yorker. I really look forward to finishing this one.

Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Okay, this isn’t really economics or dissertation related at all, but everyone should read this if you want to understand racism, inequality, capitalism, patriarchy, and so on and so on. Here’s an emotional and painful excerpt on her experience with medical racism.

That’s all for now. What else should I read?

New Studies on Schools and Policing: At what cost?

My dissertation explores some of the negative spillover effects of the “school-to-prison pipeline” dynamic- a trend encompassing increasing use and severity of school discipline, increased interaction with the criminal justice system in schools, zero-tolerance policies, and public schools that look more like prisons than educational facilities. I’m interested in understanding how these measures impact students, both those students directly impacted by discipline but also those exposed to these “carceral” school environments. One specific area to look at is how police in and around schools impact student outcomes. Do cops in schools make students safer, or are there negative spillover effects of creating a more carceral school environment?

A few new publications begin to explore the relationship between policing, schools, and student outcome. Owens (2015) uses administrative data on school resource officers and federal hiring grants to show that the placement of law enforcement officers in schools gives officers more information on crime in schools and increases the likelihood of arrests for those crimes. The study also shows that these additional hires aid in drug chargers both on and of school campuses and increase crime reporting in neighborhoods. Owens’ study however does not interrogate what the impacts on student outcomes are associated with increased SRO hiring, and if anything, illuminates the effectiveness of school policing in creating “school-to-prison pipeline” dynamics. Weisburst (2019) uses data on federal grants for Community Oriented Policing Services in Texas, to show that the increasing placement of police officers in schools associated with these grants increases middle school discipline rates by 6 percent, with Black students experiencing the largest increases. These grants are also associated with a 2.5 percent decrease in high school graduation rates and a 4 percent decrease in college enrollment. Legewie and Fagan (2019) use innovative data on policing surges associated with Operation Impact in New York City to show how these surges impact educational outcomes for students. Using administrative data, they show that exposure to these surges reduces test scores for Black boys, and the effect increases with age.

These studies begin to shed light on some of the distinctly negative impacts that school policing may have for educational outcomes. Specifically, these dynamics negatively impact Black students (often boys) more so than other groups, contributing to racial inequality and stratification. 

Short Abstract for “Carceral Schools & College Expectations: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Survey School Crime Supplement”

This study examines the impact of attending a “carceral school”- that is a school with metal detectors, locker checks, police or security staff, required identification badges, locked doors, and surveillance cameras- has on individual students’ expectations that they will attend college in the future. Using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey: School Crime Supplement 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015, I show that visible and intrusive security measures negatively impact students’ expectations of their future educational attainment. Using  a probit model, I estimate that metal detectors and locker checks are associated respectively with a significant -0.026 and -0.017 marginal effect on a student’s expectation of graduating from a four-year college in the future, while controlling for achievement, race and ethnicity, gender, age, private or public school, household income level, and time. I then survey the literature on the school-to-prison pipeline, school security, and racial identity and schooling to theorize that three channels contribute to this negative effect: the crowding out of college preparatory resources, internalized negative feedback and stereotype threat, and developing perceptions of injustice with regards to school security. This finding illustrates an important negative spillover effect of increasing school security in regards to student’s expectations of educational attainment.

Morning Read: New Orleans Public Schools now to be all charters

“Thursday night, New Orleans public schools as we knew them ended. With a 5-2 vote by the Orleans Parish School Board, the last remaining public high school in New Orleans became its latest charter school.” This article on Charter Schools and Race in New Orleans interviews community members at the meeting where New Orleans became the first city to have its school system entirely run by charter (called InspireNOLA).

This quote in particular struck me as describing the logic of the school privatization push, not just in New Orleans, but across public schools in the United States:

“You are teaching our children to serve. While the other schools are teaching theirs to lead. I have a definite problem with that-you gonna look like me. How can you do that? …”

This is a shocking decisions for a number of reasons, including the lack of communication with parents and children, the lack of choice by not having high quality traditional public schools as a fallback for students, and the increasing evidence that charter schools exacerbate inequality and do not meet the needs of all children (here is a very new paper explaining exactly that point).

I have a few questions: who is funding and lobbying for InspireNOLA? What are the interests at hand?

The School Security Paradox: What are the costs?

My dissertation research broadly focuses on the impacts of the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” dynamic in United States public schools. To me, this issue is at the crux of some of the country’s most important social issues: gun violence, racism, under-resourcing of public schools, privatization of schools, the military-industrial complex, and mass incarceration. What I am calling the “school security paradox” emerges out of the intersection of two issues shaping our public school environments: gun violence and mass shooting events most often perpetrated by lone white males, and the unfair and disproportionate use of school discipline, school security, and the juvenile criminal justice system against minority- mainly Black- students.

Most of the literature on the emergence of the school-to-prison pipeline names the 1980s War on Drugs, the Columbine shooting, and the 1994 Gun Free Schools Act as main catalysts for changes in school policies and environments. These changes include increasing reliance on school security such as metal detectors, zero-tolerance discipline policies, and the outsourcing of discipline to the juvenile criminal justice system. These reasons though beg the question: if preventing another Columbine was the motivation for creating “safer” schools via discipline and security, why is it that these policies target largely high-poverty, urban, majority non-white schools instead of the schools actually more likely to experience a mass shooting event, according to the dominate narrative?

Contending Narratives, Disparate Costs 

A quick response is to say that the high security environments of urban schools prevents mass shooting from happening there in the first place, but this argument lacks causal evidence. City Lab borrows data from a Mother Jones compiled data on mass shooting events to show that, more or less, these events are likely to occur in any town– urban to rural, poor to rich, and across racial and ethnic groups. Mass shooting events though are perpetrated by mostly white males. Gun violence occurs in urban school neighborhoods as well and the Washington Post explains how students at urban schools experience this violence at and near school, and their feelings of frustration and solidarity following Parkland.

But, these facts illuminate two contending narratives about school violence and safety.  On one hand, the lone white male perpetrator. On the other hand, mostly non-white urban schools experiencing violence from interpersonal and gang-related conflict.

These two narratives are both based in reality, but poorer urban mostly non-white schools are those most likely to actually implement zero-tolerance discipline policies alongside carceral school security measures. A meta-analysis of the impact of metal detectors in schools notes that “Although metal detectors may hold an appeal because they are viewed as a quick and visible solution to school violence, schools must also weigh evidence of effectiveness and cost when determining which youth violence prevention strategies to employ. Given the lack of clear evidence of the effectiveness of metal detectors in preventing violence as well as the significant cost, schools may wish to either incorporate metal detectors as one component of a comprehensive program, or explore alternate strategies.” (Hankin et al. 2011)

Quick, and visible. Effective at preventing violence? Unclear. What we do know however is that carceral school environments negatively impact students perceptions of themselves, including internalizing messages of criminality, and of their schools. Metal detectors are also expensive, and students may perceive this as a misallocation of resources. Unequal City documents both reaction in Chicago Public Schools.  Internalizing messages of criminality, perceptions of injustice, mistrust in school authority, and so on: these are costs imposed on students attending schools with carceral environments, all of which can negatively impact students’ long-term educational trajectory, and therefore their economic and social outcomes. Exploring “alternate strategies” would be a better approach, including investment in counseling, neighborhood resources, trauma-informed practices, and restorative justice programs for students to feel safe, cared for, and secure in their schools and communities.

Abstract of My First Dissertation Essay: How Carceral Schools Impact College Expectations

Title: The Impact of “Carceral Schools” on Student Expectations of Going to College: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Survey School Crime Supplement

This essay examines the impact that “carceral schools”- which are public high schools in the United States with prison-like environments- have on student expectations of going to and completing college in the future. A carceral school is defined as a school that takes on prison-like characteristics including police or security in schools, the use of metal detectors, and the use of other forms of electronic surveillance and monitoring of students. These schools have emerged in the United States alongside the “school-to-prison pipeline” trend, embodied by increasing use of school security measures, zero-tolerance discipline policies, and reliance on the juvenile criminal justice system for school discipline. The impacts of these trends are distinctly racialized, and disproportionately impact minority students in higher-poverty, urban schools. In this essay, I ask whether carceral school security measures negatively influence students’ expectations of whether or not they will continue onto higher education after high school. Using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey: School Crime Supplement, I investigate how attending a school that embodies the “universal carceral apparatus” negatively impacts student expectations that they will go to college, illuminating an important negative spillover effect of carceral school security measures. In my preliminary research, I show that visible and intrusive carceral security measures- such as metal detectors and locker checks- have a notable negative impact on students’ expectations of achieving higher education, and I explore mechanisms for why this may be the case such as internalizing messages of criminality, holding perceptions of injustice, and resource crowding out within schools.

Taxing College Endowments

Here in Massachusetts, Democratic candidate for governor Jay Gonzalez proposed taxing college and university endowments exceeding $1 billion. This position is brewing backlash from many in higher education who see the proposal as unfair to schools who use these endowments for financial aid and scholarships.

Indeed, many elite colleges and universities are able to use their wealth to nearly eliminate reliance on student debt for their students, however they serve a much smaller number of students, especially in-state students. My own research on student debt found that Massachusetts’s public college and university students, which educate the majority of in-state students, are in fact much more likely to have student debt than their counterparts at wealth, elite institutions (it should be noted that while Massachusetts is home to some of the wealthiest private institutions, the private institution landscape also has vast inequality between wealth, elite schools and those with very limited wealth, high price-tags, and heavy reliance on student debt).

Data Source: Delta Cost Project Database.

Average Percentage of Students with Debt
Academic Year MA Public Colleges MA Private Colleges
2000 59.00 61.33
2001 54.20 62.67
2002 53.00 47.50
2003 54.00 52.50
2004 59.18 53.00
2005 61.64 44.50
2006 61.80 43.00
2007 64.50 55.00
2008 64.90 60.00
2009 71.56 91.00
2010 73.10 66.00

In this research, I had also found a pretty clear correlation between high-debt and in-state enrollment. A fairer tax on endowment wealth could help redistribute that wealth to aid in-state students, and reduce debt loads.


For this reason, public higher education advocates in the state support the Endowment Tax idea as a good start to more equitable funding for public higher education.