“Schooling and the Production of Mental Health”
Abstract: We use a randomized design to assess the impact of two models of middle school education on low income students’ mental health dynamics in Uruguay. One of the models is based on extended instructional time, differentiating learning, family involvement, high academic expectations on students, and staff aligned to institutional goals, a series of characteristics that have been found on charter schools in the US. The second model involves traditional public schools with single shift schedules, high rates of teacher absenteeism, lack of student follow-up, and low expectations on students. Many studies have analyzed the effectiveness of charter schools in the US on students’ academic trajectories, learning, and labor market outcomes. Much less focus has been placed on students’ mental health status and well-being. While charter schools tend to offer socioemotional containment and support, they can also impose burdens on students by demanding high academic standards and breaking with prior cultural models. Stress and mental health struggles may be of particular concern during adolescence and could have long-lasting impacts on socio-emotional skills and academic trajectories. We evaluate the impact of three charter schools in Uruguay by using an RCT design, exploiting the fact that schools define entry by lottery due to oversubscription. We follow up lottery winners and losers at 3-months, 1 year and 3 years after middle school initiation. Non-winners end up attending traditional public schools. In each wave, we measure depression symptoms, life satisfaction, and socioemotional health (self-reported by students) and in wave 3 we ask parents to complete a questionnaire about their children’s externalizing and internalizing behaviors (the parent form of the Child Behavior Checklist or CBCL). We estimate panel data models of mental health outcomes on treatment assignment and find that charter school initiation results in an increase in students’ depression symptoms and in a higher fraction of students at risk of depression (3-month follow-up). This dip in mental health tends to persist at 1 year follow-up and is accompanied by a decrease in life satisfaction, a lower sense of class belonging, and perceptions of lower ability to comply with academic duties and to persevere over time (grit). These effects, however, revert by year 3, and do not show medium term effects on academic trajectories or learning. After the third year, self-reported depression symptoms decrease and life satisfaction increases to the levels of the control group. Furthermore, parents of treated subjects report that their children show less internalizing and externalizing behaviors than parents of control subjects. These improvements in mental health coincide with students’ better sense of school and class belonging, better perceptions of the academic climate and improved academic behaviors. In addition to underscoring the mental health medium term benefits of schools more aligned to students’ interests, our results have implications for the evaluation of school schemes when a broader set of outcomes is considered. Relying on self-reported measures of mental health and socioemotional skills may provide distorted evidence of the school’s medium term value added.
Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas UC
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