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What Makes Sally Learn

In the drive to improve the quality of U.S. education, it's often assumed that shifting to tougher grading standards can enhance learning, and that "tracking"--putting high achievers in separate classes--hurts disadvantaged students. A pair of recent National Bureau of Economic Research studies, however, suggest that only one of these beliefs is borne out by the evidence.

In the first study, David Figlio of the University of Florida and Maurice E. Lucas of the Alachua County (Fla.) school board analyzed data on teachers, classes, report cards, and the annual statewide test scores of all third- to fifth-graders in the Gainesville school district from the mid- to late 1990s.

They were thus able to identify students in classes taught by "easy" graders and those taught by teachers with tougher standards more in line with objective test scores. They were also able to see how moving from a lenient teacher in one year to a tough grader the next affected such scores.

The study indicates that shifting to a class with high grading standards significantly improves learning. And shifting from a tough teacher to an easy grader retards learning by a similar amount. The results hold up regardless of students' relative achievement levels and racial or economic backgrounds.

The second study, by Figlio and Marianne E. Page of the University of California, Davis, reassesses the benefits of tracking, which is still practiced at many schools. Tracking advocates claim it allows teachers to fine-tune their instruction, challenging the best students and ensuring that poorer students get appropriate attention. But critics argue that it harms low-aptitude students by limiting their contact with high-achieving peers, and that less-capable teachers are often assigned to the lower tracks.

Previous studies have generally concluded the critics are correct. Figlio and Page argue, however, that such studies have "bias selection" problems--that is, the results are affected by the likelihood that tracking attracts better students in the first place. They get around this problem by looking at how a national sample of comparable students in schools that track and don't track fared on math achievement tests as they progressed from the 8th to 10th grade.

Their surprising findings: There's no evidence that tracking hurts disadvantaged and low-ability students, and strong signs that it often helps them. While the reasons for this aren't clear, the authors observe that schools that track tend to attract higher-income students--whose presence may result in greater school spending and other resources benefiting all students. Government jobs have slipped as a share of total employment, down to 16% in 2000 from 17% in 1990. That's largely because the federal workforce was trimmed by more than 300,000 employees in the 1990s. State and local payrolls continued to grow throughout the decade--by nearly 18%, or 2.7 million workers, according to the Labor Dept.

New Census Dept. data highlight state and local hiring trends. Education posted a 20%-plus job gain between 1990 and 2000, as did police protection. But hospital jobs fell 13%, reflecting a shift from inpatient care to outpatient services.

As the current economic slowdown forces many states and localities to weigh cutbacks in hiring, there's good news for taxpayers on the education front, which accounts for more than half of total nonfederal government employment: Public school enrollments, which expanded 13% during the 1990s, are projected to rise only about 3% between 2000 and 2010. College students are among the canniest, most price-sensitive and computer-literate shoppers around. Yet a new study suggests they haven't been seizing the opportunity to save big bucks by shopping online for products for which they shell out many hundreds of dollars a year--college textbooks. An even more curious economic puzzle is the existence of wide discrepancies in the online prices of these goods.

These price discrepancies, report Karen B. Clay and Choon Hong Tay of Carnegie Mellon University, occur between U.S. online bookstores and those overseas. In a recent survey of the prices of some 95 English-language textbooks, the researchers found identical textbooks were substantially cheaper in major foreign online bookstores than in major U.S. online bookstores.

Based on prevailing currency exchange rates, the difference between the least expensive U.S. bookstore in the sample and the least expensive foreign bookstores came to 42% of list for a single book, using standard shipping (which means waiting an added week for delivery). Indeed, by simply buying a package of five books with a list price of $500 from Inc. in Britain rather than Amazon in the U.S., a student could have saved $151, even with expedited shipping of one to three days.

Why do such large discrepancies exist? One possible reason cited by industry sources, say the authors, is that textbook publishers themselves engage in differential pricing by country. Another is that most comparison-shopping engines in the U.S. initially search only U.S. online bookstores--unless students go to the trouble of clicking on to other links. Moreover, many students may be unaware that textbook purchases are generally duty-free.

If more students cotton on to the potential savings from overseas online purchases, however, the price picture will change. Economic theory predicts that the gaps between U.S. and foreign textbook prices will inevitably narrow.

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