In the three decades from 1910 to 1940, the fraction of U.S. youths enrolled in public and private secondary schools increased from 18 to 71 percent and the fraction graduating soared from 9 to 51 percent. At the same time, state compulsory education and child labor legislation became more stringent and potentially constrained secondary-school aged youths. It might appear from the timing and the specifics of this history that the laws caused the increase in education rates. We evaluate the possibility that state compulsory schooling and child labor laws caused the increase in education rates by using contemporaneous evidence on enrollments. We also use micro-data from the 1960 census to examine the effect of the laws on overall educational attainment. Our estimation approach exploits cross-state differences in the timing of changes in state laws. We find that the expansion of state compulsory schooling and child labor laws from 1910 to 1939 can, at best, account for 5 percent of the increase in high school enrollments and can account for about the same portion of the increase in the eventual educational attainment for the affected cohorts over the period.
Why the United States Led in Education: Lessons from Secondary School Expansion, 1910 to 1940. In: Human Capital and Institutions. Cambridge University Press ; 2009..
Mass Secondary Schooling and the State: The Role of State Compulsion in the High School Movement. In: Understanding Long-Run Economic Growth: Geography, Institutions, and the Knowledge Economy. University of Chicago Press and NBER ; 2011. pp. 275-310. WebsiteAbstract.