Federal Opinion

Harnessing Penny Power to Learn What Works

By Robert Balfanz — September 23, 2014 4 min read
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Teachers and principals are always looking for ways to better teach and support students—including searching for reliable information about interventions that have been proven to work in classrooms similar to their own. Unfortunately, these searches often come up empty, and education policy discussions on how to invest limited taxpayer dollars are too often driven by inadequate, incomplete, or biased information as a result of the lack of data on what works, when, where, and for whom.

What if Congress took a different approach? What if the federal government used one penny of every dollar it now spends on K-12 education—which I estimate to be about $40 billion—to develop evidence and knowledge so that the rest of that dollar could be spent wisely? This would free up approximately $400 million annually, which could enable a game-changing approach to how we spend federal education dollars.

Recently, I published a report with the group Results for America, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, to show how this could be done. If Congress set aside a bit more of the money it already spends on education for evaluations, the U.S. Department of Education could figure out how to better invest the rest by launching a comprehensive and responsive knowledge-building effort to determine what is working in federally funded education programs. It could also help solve some common problems of practice that educators face every day—problems like how to help more children get ready for kindergarten, how to improve academic literacy for adolescents, and how to help 9th graders stay on track to high school graduation and college readiness.

What if the federal government used one penny of every dollar it now spends on K-12 education ... to develop evidence and knowledge?"

The result of such an effort would determine how existing federal education programs could and should be improved to maximize their impact and return on taxpayer investment. More importantly, it would help millions more students succeed in school and life.

Setting aside 1 percent of its funding for rigorous, independent, third-party research and evaluations would enable the Education Department to:

• Evaluate diverse interventions with a range of evaluation methodologies;

• Build a cumulative evidence base about which interventions are most effective and why, for whom, and under what circumstances;

• Conduct studies of new policy ideas before they receive substantial funding, continuously improve programs, and over time build enough of a knowledge base to support standards of practice as they exist in medicine; and

• Allow funds to be driven toward those interventions and efforts that result in the most success and the highest return on taxpayer investment.

To make this work, Congress would need to give the Education Department direction to set aside the money, the opportunity to spend the pennies wisely, and the flexibility to strategically use evaluation funds across programs in partnership with independent, third-party institutions to ensure that studies were designed and implemented effectively.

This approach would yield the most actionable and reliable data possible and would build a better evidence base, while also driving continuous program improvements. This investment would also provide Congress and the president’s administration with reliable information to make future budget and policy decisions based on actual results, not guesses.

The Institute of Education Sciences, or IES, the research arm of the Education Department, has taken some important steps in this direction. The IES has built up knowledge on reading achievement in the early grades, accelerated the time frame for releasing evaluation results, and created new alliances of practitioners and policymakers to ensure that its research is relevant to the field. The department’s office of innovation and improvement has also been at the forefront of the evidence-building movement within the federal government.

However, federal education officials could do much more with additional flexibility and support to take a more comprehensive approach and apply it to building the knowledge base of what works among the eight major programs that consume most of the department’s budget. For example, evaluations are currently required for many small federally funded education programs, while larger ones—such as teacher-preparation and professional development programs under Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—have no funding for evaluations at all. Congress should allow the IES and the department to pool evaluation funds so that they can get better answers about what is effective.

Investing in evaluations of federally funded programs is a concept with strong bipartisan support. President George W. Bush’s administration put a priority on improving the performance of federal programs and encouraged more rigorous evaluations to assess their effectiveness. President Barack Obama’s administration has built upon this effort by supporting an increasing number of evidence-and evaluation-based policies and programs over the past several years.

To meet the educational challenges of the 21st century, we will have to become both smarter and wiser. We’ll need a better evidence-based approach to making decisions, from the Capitol to the classroom, if our children are going to thrive in school and in life. By investing just a penny of every dollar, Congress and the Department of Education can build a robust and rigorous system of program evaluation focused on and able to improve outcomes for our entire nation’s children.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2014 edition of Education Week as Harnessing the Power of a Penny to Learn What Works


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