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Is Leaving Home for Boarding School Better for At-Risk Students? Yes and No.

Can academic boarding schools remove the environmental barriers to achievement for disadvantaged students? Yes—and no—finds a new study of French schools.

In the working paperĀ "Ready for Boarding? The Effects of a Boarding School for Disadvantaged Students," economists from the University of Warwick and the Paris School of Economics followed 258 low-income students who won lotteries to the "internats d'excellence," or "boarding schools of excellence," in Paris, which offer free tuition to students in poverty.

The researchers matched those students by demographic background and performance on a standardized mathematics test with 137 8th to 10th grade students who applied but did not win a place in the lotteries in September 2009 and 2010.

The researchers found disadvantaged students who won the lottery had roughly similar educational outcomes and experienced lower reported levels of well-being after their first year in the boarding school. Yet by the end of the second year, they were performing 20 percent of a standard deviation higher on a standardized math test than students who had entered but not won the lottery.

But there's a catch: The improvement was weighted heavily by the students who had initially scored at the upper third of math performance. These initially higher-achieving students improved half of a standard deviation more for each year in the boarding school than did students in the control group.

By contrast, students who were struggling before they left home had a rougher transition to boarding school, and two years out, they still hadn't caught up.

"Overall, our results suggest that boarding is a disruptive form of schooling for students," the authors said. "Once they have managed to adjust to their new environment, strong students make very substantial academic progress. On the other hand, this type of school does not seem well suited to weaker students: Even after two years, we do not observe any test scores gains among them."

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