Is the U.S. Department of Education Relying on Sound Information to Guide Economically Hard-Pressed School Districts?

Contact:  Jamie Horwitz,202-549-4921, jhdcpr@starpower.net

Bruce D. Baker (732) 932-7496, x8232, bruce.baker@gse.rutgers.edu

Is the U.S. Department of Education Relying on Sound Information to Guide Economically Hard-Pressed School Districts?

BOULDER, CO (December 15, 2011)– A federal project designed to help schools “do more with less” relies overwhelmingly on speculative theorizing and other work that falls far short of the high-quality research available in the field, according to a new policy brief published today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder. The brief, entitled Productivity Research, the U.S. Department of Education, and High-Quality Evidence, concludes that although the current federal effort is fatally flawed, a well-done project of this type could be helpful. The brief offers recommendations for how the Department could move forward.

The brief’s authors are Bruce Baker, an NEPC fellow and a professor at Rutgers University, and Kevin Welner, NEPC’s director and a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. They explain the types of analysisthat should typically be conducted when attempting to draw conclusions regarding cost-effective strategies. They then examine seven documents that the Department of Education promotes on its website as resources for school districts to live within a so-called “New Normal” for public education—an environment of tight budgets for years to come, combined with new and more stringent demands, all of which will require schools to “do more with less.”

Baker and Welner’s examination found  “…that neither the materials listed nor the recommendations found in those materials are backed by substantive analyses of cost effectiveness or efficiency of public schools, of practices within public schools, of broader policies pertaining to public schools, or of resource allocation strategies.” This is particularly troubling, they note, “becausehigh-quality research in this area is available that would provide the sort of policy guidance the Department is ostensibly seeking.”

The brief provides a close look at two of the documents. One, called Curing Baumol’s Disease, takes its metaphorical title from the alleged “tendency of labor-intensive organizations to become more expensive over time but not any more productive.” But the Baumol’s Disease document relies, Baker and Welner write, on a series of questionable assumptions and misreading of evidence to not only demonstrate that claim but to then offer a “long list of cures [that] are no more thoroughly tested than the disease.”

The second document, Stretching the School Dollar, presents “a laundry list of strategies by which school districts and states can supposedly increase their productivity while cutting expenses,” Baker and Welner continue—yet it lacks “any type of rigorous cost-effectiveness, cost-benefit or relative-efficiency analysis of the proffered proposals.”

The Baker and Welner brief concludes with the contention that the Department of Education “does students, educators and the public a disservice when it identifies non-rigorous resources of this type as ‘Key Readings on Educational Productivity,’” and the authors recommend a research agenda for the Department that would aid in providing more thoughtful information on improving educational efficiency.

Baker and Welner contend that the Department should approach such inquiries “systematically and rigorously, with no unrealistic expectations that facile solutions will miraculously emerge.” This could be accomplished by convening the nation’s education-focused productivity and efficiency experts to work with policy leaders and practitioners and to establish an agenda for analyzing cost effectiveness, costs versus benefits, and the relative efficiency of alternative education proposals.

The result, they conclude, could be an agenda that uses high-quality, existing research to improve empirical methods and data; rigorously evaluates education reform models and disseminates the results of those evaluations; increases the understanding of education stakeholders—parents, taxpayers, teachers, administrators, and policymakers—in how to properly evaluate policies for cost-effectiveness and efficiency; and support the training of current and future scholars.

FindProductivity Research, the U.S. Department of Education, and High-Quality Evidence, by Bruce D. Baker and Kevin G. Welner, on the web at:

http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/productivity-research.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on NEPC, please visit http://nepc.colorado.edu/.