How Much Difference Does an Education Program Make?

When you use Consumer Reports car repair ratings to choose a reliable car, you are doing something a lot like what evidence-based reform in education is proposing. You look at the evidence and take it into account, but it does not drive you to a particular choice. There are other factors you’d also consider. For example, Consumer Reports might point you to reliable cars you can’t afford, or ones that are too large or too small or too ugly for your purposes and tastes, or ones with dealerships that are too far away. In the same way, there are many factors that school staffs or educational leaders might consider beyond effect size.

An effect size, or statistical significance, is only a starting point for estimating the impact a program or set of programs might have. I’d propose the term “potential impact” to subsume the following factors that a principal or staff might consider beyond effect size or statistical significance in adopting a program to improve education outcomes:

  • Cost-effectiveness
  • Evidence from similar schools
  • Immediate and long-term payoffs
  • Sustainability
  • Breadth of impact
  • Low-hanging fruit
  • Comprehensiveness

Cost-EffectivenessEconomists’ favorite criterion of effectiveness is cost-effectiveness. Cost-effectiveness is simple in concept (how much gain did the program cause at what cost?), but in fact there are two big elements of cost-effectiveness that are very difficult to determine:

1. Cost
2. Effectiveness

Cost should be easy, right? A school buys some service or technology and pays something for it. Well, it’s almost never so clear. When a school uses a given innovation, there are usually costs beyond the purchase price. For example, imagine that a school purchases digital devices for all students, loaded with all the software they will need. Easy, right? Wrong. Should you count in the cost of the time the teachers spend in professional development? The cost of tech support? Insurance? Security costs? The additional electricity required? Space for storage? Additional loaner units to replace lost or broken units? The opportunity costs for whatever else the school might have chosen to do?

Here is an even more difficult example. Imagine a school starts a tutoring program for struggling readers using paraprofessionals as tutors. Easy, right? Wrong. There is the cost for the paraprofessionals’ time, of course, but what if the paraprofessionals were already on the schools’ staff? If so, then a tutoring program may be very inexpensive, but if additional people must be hired as tutors, then tutoring is a far more expensive proposition. Also, if paraprofessionals already in the school are no longer doing what they used to do, might this diminish student outcomes? Then there is the problem with outcomes. As I explained in a recent blog, the meaning of effect sizes depends on the nature of the studies that produced them, so comparing apples to apples may be difficult. A principal might look at effect sizes for two programs and decide they look very similar. Yet one effect size might be from large-scale randomized experiments, which tend to produce smaller (and more meaningful) effect sizes, while the other might be from less rigorous studies.

Nevertheless, issues of cost and effectiveness do need to be considered. Somehow.

Evidence from Similar Schools
Clearly, a school staff would want to know that a given program has been successful in schools like theirs. For example, schools serving many English learners, or schools in rural areas, or schools in inner-city locations, might be particularly interested in data from similar schools. At a minimum, they should want to know that the developers have worked in schools like theirs, even if the evidence only exists from less similar schools.

Immediate and Long-Term Payoffs
Another factor in program impacts is the likelihood that a program will solve a very serious problem that may ultimately have a big effect on individual students and perhaps save a lot of money over time. For example, it may be that a very expensive parent training program may make a big difference for students with serious behavior problems. If this program produces lasting effects (documented in the research), its high cost might be justified, especially if it might reduce the need for even more expensive interventions, such as special education placement, expulsion, or incarceration.

Sustainability
Programs that either produce lasting impacts, or those that can be readily maintained over time, are clearly preferable to those that have short-term impacts only. In education, long-term impacts are not typically measured, but sustainability can be determined by the cost, effort, and other elements required to maintain an intervention. Most programs get a lot cheaper after the first year, so sustainability can usually be assumed. This means that even programs with modest effect sizes could bring about major changes over time.

Breadth of Impact
Some educational interventions with modest effect sizes might be justified because they apply across entire schools and for many years. For example, effective coaching for principals might have a small effect overall, but if that effect is seen across thousands of students over a period of years, it might be more than worthwhile. Similarly, training teachers in methods that become part of their permanent repertoire, such as cooperative learning, teaching metacognitive skills, or classroom management, might affect hundreds of students per teacher over time.

Low-Hanging Fruit
Some interventions may have either modest impacts on students in general, or strong outcomes for only a subset of students, but be so inexpensive or easy to adopt and implement that it would be foolish not to do so. One example might be making sure that disadvantaged students who need eyeglasses are assessed and given glasses. Not everyone needs glasses, but for those who do this makes a big difference at low cost. Another example might be implementing a whole-school behavior management approach like Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS), a low-cost, proven approach any school can implement.

Comprehensiveness
Schools have to solve many quite different problems, and they usually do this by pulling various solutions off of various shelves. The problem is that this approach can be uncoordinated and inefficient. The different elements may not link up well with each other, may compete for the time and attention of the staff, and may cost a lot more than a unified, comprehensive solution that addresses many objectives in a planful way. A comprehensive approach is likely to have a coherent plan for professional development, materials, software, and assessment across all program elements. It is likely to have a plan for sustaining its effects over time and extending into additional parts of the school or additional schools.

Potential Impact
Potential impact is the sum of all the factors that make a given program or a coordinated set of programs effective in the short and long term, broad in its impact, focused on preventing serious problems, and cost-effective. There is no numerical standard for potential impact, but the concept is just intended to give educators making important choices for their kids a set of things to consider, beyond effect size and statistical significance alone.

Sorry. I wish this were simple. But kids are complex, organizations are complex, and systems are complex. It’s always a good idea for education leaders to start with the evidence but then think through how programs can be used as tools to transform their particular schools.

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