In the past decade, rapid growth in the number of charter schools and school district choice systems has provided education researchers with exciting opportunities to use naturally occurring pockets of randomization to rigorously study the effects of policy-relevant education reforms that are already in place, often on a large scale. What’s more, this work can often be done quickly and relatively cheaply, relying solely on preexisting administrative records. Finally, when done retrospectively, the design allows for long-term follow-up of student outcomes within a short time frame.
What is a naturally occurring school lottery?
When a lottery is used to decide which students receive the opportunity to attend a school, it can create the conditions for a natural experiment. Because students’ school assignment is random, there should be no measurable or unmeasurable differences between the students who win and those who lose the opportunity to attend the school.
The simplest version of a school lottery occurs when a school independently manages its own assignment process and students (or their parents) submit applications to the school. If more students apply than there are seats available, within its priority groups, the school uses a lottery to randomly choose which students will be offered a seat.
Centrally managed admissions
Alternatively, a school district may centrally manage all school admissions, and students apply to one or more schools through a district-run process.
For work involving centrally managed admissions, a fundamental step is to engage with the district and listen to the staff to gain a clear understanding of the assignment rules. Afterward, researchers must carefully check that understanding with patterns in the assignment data. Once they are certain they understand the process, researchers can deduce where pockets of randomization have occurred.
Read the full article about naturally occurring school lotteries by Rebecca Unterman at MDRC.
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