Gold-Standard Program Evaluations, on a Shoestring Budget

Note: This is a guest post by Jon Baron, President of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, and Chairman of the National Board for Education Sciences

In today’s tough economic climate, quality evaluations of education reforms – to determine which are truly effective in improving student achievement, graduation rates, and other key outcomes – are especially important. They enable us to focus our limited resources on strategies that have been proven to work.

Well-conducted randomized controlled trials are generally recognized as the most reliable method (the “gold standard”) for evaluating a program’s effectiveness. However, widespread misconceptions about what such studies involve – including their cost – have often limited their use by education officials.

In plain language: Randomized controlled trials in education are studies that randomly assign a sample of students, teachers, or schools to a group that participates in the program (“the program group”) or to a group that does not (“the control group”). With a sufficiently large sample, this process helps ensure that the two groups are equivalent, so that any difference in their outcomes over time – such as student achievement – can be attributed to the program, and not to other factors.

Such studies are often perceived as being too costly and administratively burdensome to be practical in most educational settings. In fact, however, it is often possible to conduct such a study at low cost and burden if the study can measure outcomes using state test scores or other administrative data that are already collected for other purposes. Costs are reduced by eliminating what is typically the study’s most labor-intensive and costly component: locating the individual sample members at various points in time after program completion, and administering tests or interviews to obtain their outcome data. In some cases, the only remaining cost is the researcher’s time to analyze the data.

For example, the following are two recent randomized trials that were conducted at low cost, yet produced findings of policy and practical importance:

Roland Fryer, recent winner of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, conducted an evaluation of New York City’s $75 million Teacher Incentive Program in which 396 of the city’s lowest-performing public schools were randomly assigned to an incentive group, which could receive an annual bonus of up to $3000 per teacher if the school increased student achievement and other key outcomes, or a control group. Three years after random assignment, the study found that the incentives had no effect on student achievement, attendance, graduation rates, behavior, GPA, or other outcomes. Based in part on these results, the city recently ended the program, freeing up resources for other efforts to improve student outcomes.

The study’s cost: Approximately $50,000. The low cost was possible because the study measured all outcomes using state test scores and other administrative records already collected for other purposes.
Eric Bettinger and Rachel Baker conducted an evaluation of InsideTrack college coaching – a widely-implemented mentoring program for college students designed to prevent them from dropping out of school. This was a well-conducted trial, which randomized more than 13,000 students at eight colleges. The study found that the program produced a 14 percent increase in college persistence for at least two years, and a 13 percent increase in likelihood of graduating college.

The study’s cost: Less than $20,000. The low cost was possible because the study measured its key outcomes using administrative data that the colleges already collected for other purposes – i.e., their enrollment and graduation records – rather than by collecting new data through individual surveys.
In recent years, federal and state policy, as well as improvements in information technology, have greatly increased the availability of high-quality administrative data on student achievement and other key educational outcomes. Thus, it has become more feasible than ever before to conduct gold-standard randomized evaluations on a shoestring budget. Equipped with reliable evidence, education officials can have much greater confidence that their spending decisions will produce important improvements in student outcomes.

-Jon Baron

The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose mission is to increase government effectiveness through the use of rigorous evidence about “what works.”

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Education Innovation: What It Is and Why We Need More of It

NOTE: This is a guest post from Jim Shelton, Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.

Whether for reasons of economic growth, competitiveness, social justice or return on tax-payer investment, there is little rational argument over the need for significant improvement in U.S. educational outcomes. Further, it is irrefutable that the country has made limited improvement on most educational outcomes over the last several decades, especially when considered in the context of the increased investment over the same period. In fact, the total cost of producing each successful high school and college graduate has increased substantially over time instead of decreasing – creating what some argue is an inverted learning curve.

This analysis stands in stark contrast to the many anecdotes of teachers, schools and occasionally whole systems “beating the odds” by producing educational outcomes well beyond “reasonable” expectations. And, therein lies the challenge and the rationale for a very specific definition of educational innovation.

Education not only needs new ideas and inventions that shatter the performance expectations of today’s status quo; to make a meaningful impact, these new solutions must also “scale”, that is grow large enough, to serve millions of students and teachers or large portions of specific under-served populations. True educational innovations are those products, processes, strategies and approaches that improve significantly upon the status quo and reach scale.

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Systems and programs at the local, state and national level, in their quest to improve, should be in the business of identifying and scaling what works. Yet, we traditionally have lacked the discipline, infrastructure, and incentives to systematically identify breakthroughs, vet them and support their broad adoption – a process referred to as field scans. Programs like the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) are designed as field scans; but i3 is tiny in comparison to both the need and the opportunity. To achieve our objectives, larger funding streams will need to drive the identification, evaluation, and adoption of effective educational innovations.

Field scans are only one of three connected pathways to education innovation, and they build on the most recognized pathway – basic and applied research. The time to produce usable tools and resources from this pathway can be long – just as in medicine where development and approval of new drugs and devices can take 12-15 years – but, with more and better leveraged resources, more focus, and more discipline, this pathway can accelerate our understanding of teaching and learning and production of performance enhancing practices and tools.

The third pathway focuses specifically on accelerating transformational breakthroughs, which require a different approach – directed development. Directed development processes identify cutting edge research and technology (technology generically, not specifically referring to software or hardware) and use a uniquely focused approach to accelerate the pace at which specific game changing innovations reach learners and teachers. Directed development within the federal government is most associated with DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which used this unique and aggressive model of R&D to produce technologies that underlie the Internet, GPS, and the unmanned aircraft (drone). Education presents numerous opportunities for such work. For example: (1) providing teachers with tools that identify each student’s needs and interests and match them to the optimal instructional resources or (2) cost-effectively achieving the 2 standard deviations of improvement that one-to-one human tutors generate. In 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended the creation of an ARPA for Education to pursue directed development in these and other areas of critical need and opportunity.

Each of these pathways -the field scan, basic and applied research and directed development – will be essential to improving and ultimately transforming learning from cradle through career. If done well, we will redefine “the possible” and reclaim American educational leadership while addressing inequity at home and abroad. At that point, we may be able to rely on a simpler definition of innovation:

“An innovation is one of those things that society looks at and says, if we make this part of the way we live and work, it will change the way we live and work.”

-Dean Kamen

-Jim Shelton

Note: The Office of Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education administers more than 25 discretionary grant programs, including the Investing in Innovation Program, Charter Schools Program, and Technology in Education.