Leigh Wedenoja
leigh.wedenoja[at] rock[dot] suny [dot] edu

The main goal of my research is to apply economic insights and econometric modeling tools to better understand, evaluate, and design education policy. Much of my work lies at the intersection of behavioral and labor economics and I strive to incorporate the insights of education practitioners, policy makers, and other areas of education research to improve the way economists and quantitative education researchers approach models of education production and student learning. I use under-utilized and novel sources of data, such as district and state administrative records, to expand existing models of human capital investment and the education production function. 

Recently my work has focused on studying how student-teacher relationships develop over time and contribute to student cognitive and non-cognitive achievement. This provides complimentary evidence on the dynamic nature of student engagement in school to previous work of mine on the dynamics of within-year attendance and modeling high school dropout as a process rather than a decision. 

Additionally, I work with John Papay and Matthew Kraft to understand the human capital development of teachers and how hiring structures, teacher mobility, and in-subject experience contribute to teacher effectiveness and the returns to teacher experience.

Working Papers:


Teachers a have profound and long lasting impact on their students' cognitive and non-cognitive skills and the quality of the student-teacher match plays an important role in a teacher's effectiveness. In this paper I examine the dynamic effects of the student-teacher match and how it develops over time through an increasingly common but poorly understood aspect of classroom assignment policy: the effect of having a teacher for more than one year. Using precisely matched student-teacher data from Tennessee, I find that having a repeat teacher improves test scores across all grades and subjects and improves the non-cognitive skill behaviors of attendance, truancy, and discipline in high school and discipline in elementary and middle school. These results are robust to controls for teacher and student sorting across schools and classrooms. Additionally, I find that the effect of having a repeat teacher varies by measured teacher ability, teacher experience, within-test teacher experience, and the fraction of a teacher's students that repeat with that teacher.

Hiring Reforms to Improve Teacher Diversity, Effectiveness, and Retention (with Matthew A. Kraft, John P. Papay, and Nathan Jones; Presented at AERA 2018 and APPAM 2018)


Teacher hiring in urban districts has long been characterized as “late, rushed and information poor.” In this paper, we study one district’s efforts to move up the timing of open postings for external candidates and provide school leaders with increased autonomy over the hiring process. We begin by documenting the negative impacts of late teacher hiring on student achievement. We then leverage differences in hiring autonomies across school types within the district to estimate the effect of hiring reforms on teacher and student outcomes in a difference-in-differences framework. We find that early-hiring and mutual-consent reforms reduced the rate of late hiring by almost 50 percent and decreased turnover among new external hires by 25 percent. Results also suggest the reforms increased the diversity and effectiveness of new external hires to a meaningful degree although these findings are estimated imprecisely.

The Dynamics of High School Dropout [2016 Job Market Paper]


Despite large measured returns to completing a high school diploma, the US has a dropout rate among the highest in the industrialized world and, while there are many studies of dropout, the causal evidence of effective dropout prevention strategies is sparse. The decision to leave high school prematurely, especially close to graduation, is hard to explain using standard economic theory. I endeavor to help fill this gap in the literature by modeling dropout as the outcome of a series of small investment decisions, specifically the decision of a student to attend school or be truant on a given day, rather than dropout as a one-time decision. Students' daily attendance decisions not only affect their ability to graduate, but also the costs they face on future days and the quality of the diploma they can earn. I use a novel dataset of daily level student attendance data for multiple cohorts of ninth graders in a Large Urban School District (LUSD) to follow individual students' attendance decisions through their high school career. I find that, once students are subject to the plausibly exogenous timing of an opportunity cost increase, they are truant more frequently and the accumulation of truancies occurs at a faster rate. A student who barely misses the school cut off age is 12% more likely to be truant in 12th grade, and a student with existing attendance problems is up to 69% more likely to be truant after only 3 months of increased schooling cost. Students with higher levels of truancy each year, especially truancies late in the school year, are less likely to return to school the following fall and if they do return are more likely to transfer into a non-traditional diploma program. These results help explain the persistence of the US's high dropout rate and suggest that policies to reduce the daily attendance costs faced by students, even late in high school, may be most effective at dropout prevention.

This paper provides the first detailed description of the daily patterns of high school attendance. Using a novel dataset of daily level administrative data, the paper examines how measures of attendance intensity, aggregate attendance, and attendance type evolve over the course of the school year and their relationship to student achievement. I find that, even given a total number of absences, the number of truant absences is the most predictive of negative educational outcomes. Truant absences become more frequent over the course of the school year, more persistent, and students spend longer spells outside of school. These patterns are more intense for students in lower performing high schools and who have lower grades and test scores. Truancy predicts dropout and low test scores as early as the first month of high school and can serve as a valuable early warning indicator for school administrators. These patterns also provide suggestive evidence that attendance is an input into the education production function and insight into the dynamics of high school disengagement before students dropout.

How Does Access to Health Care Affect Teen Fertility and High School Dropout Rates? Evidence from School-based Health Centers? (With Michael Lovenheim and Randall Reback) NBER Working Paper No. 22030, February 2016. Revise and Resubmit at The Review of Economic Studies

Children from low-income families face persistent barriers to accessing high-quality health care services. Previous research studies have examined the importance of expanding children's health insurance coverage, but there is little prior evidence concerning the impacts of directly expanding primary health care access to this population. We address this gap in the literature by exploring whether teenagers' access to primary health care influences their fertility and educational attainment. We study how the significant expansion of school-based health centers (SBHCs) in the United States since the early 1990's has affected teen fertility and high school dropout rates. Our results indicate that school-based health centers have a negative effect on teen birth rates: adding services equivalent to the average SBHC reduces the 15-18 year old birth rate by 5%. The effects are largest among younger teens and among African Americans and Hispanics. However, primary care health services do not reduce high school dropout rates by very much despite the sizable reductions in teen birth rates

There is a death of information on the effect of minimum wages in developing and middle-income countries that takes into account the importance of non-compliance with labor standards and high levels of informal employment. It is even unclear what type of theoretical model applies to these types of labor markets. This paper fills that gap by providing new empirical evidence on the impact of minimum wages in Chile on the wage distribution, unemployment, and type of employment. Using Chilean nationally representative household survey data, I find that minimum wages increase wages for both formal and informal employees at the bottom of the wage distribution but that the increase is larger for formal employees. I also find that an increase in the minimum wage increases the likelihood that a person is informally employed and decreases in the probability that he is formally employed. I test my results against the predictions made by both one and two sector models of informality and find that two sector models better explain the employment and wage effects.


Labor Law Violations in Chile  (With Ravi Kanbur and Lucas Ronconi) International Labour Review, 2013, 152(3-4) 

This empirical contribution to the quantification of labour law violation uses micro survey data to examine compliance with workers' statutory entitlements to a minimum wage, working time limits, a written contract, and pension coverage over the period 1990–2009. One-third of workers were denied at least one of these entitlements, albeit with significant variations in the incidence of violations over time, across laws and by worker and firm characteristics. The authors' econometric analysis shows that compliance rates are lower for female, foreign-born, indigenous and less educated workers, and in smaller firms and agricultural regions. Further research, they argue, should focus on enforcement.

Works in Progress:

Teacher Mobility and Task-Specific Human Capital: Evidence from Statewide Teacher Transfer (with John P. Papay and Matthew A. Kraft)

When do Students Transfer Schools and Where do they go? Evidence from In-district and Out-district transfers.