The Effect of School Choice on Student Outcomes: Evidence from Randomized Lotteries

November 2003
Brian Jacob, Julie Berry Cullen, Steven Levitt

School choice has become an increasingly prominent strategy for enhancing academic achievement. Evaluating the impact of such programs is complicated by the fact that a highly select sample of students takes advantage of these programs. To overcome this difficulty, we exploit randomized lotteries that determine high school admission in the Chicago Public Schools. Compared to those losing lotteries, students who win attend better high schools along a number of dimensions, including higher peer achievement levels, higher peer graduation rates, and lower levels of poverty. Nonetheless, we find little evidence that winning a lottery provides any benefit on a wide variety of traditional academic measures such as graduation, standardized test scores, attendance rates, course-taking, and credit accumulation. Lottery winners do, however, experience improvements on a subset of non-traditional outcome measures, such as self-reported disciplinary incidences and arrest rates.

We would like to thank John Dinardo, Gary Solon, and numerous seminar participants for useful comments and suggestions. We are grateful to John Easton, Joseph Hahn, Dan Bugler, Jack Harnedy, Frank Spoto and John Quane for assistance in collecting the data, and to Patrick Walsh and Sara Lalumia for excellent research assistance. The National Science Foundation provided partial funding of this research. Portions of this paper were written while Levitt was a fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, CA. Addresses: Julie Cullen, Department of Economics, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 48109-1220,; Brian Jacob, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138,; Steven Levitt, Department of Economics, University of Chicago, 1126 East 59th Street, Chicago, IL 60637, All remaining errors are our own. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the National Bureau of Economic Research.