The Power of a Penny

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By Robert Balfanz, Center for Social Organization of Schools – Johns Hopkins School of Education

The federal government spends less than one-tenth of a penny, out of every dollar invested in education programs, to evaluate those programs. That ratio is far lower than other fields, and it means that policymakers often lack basic evidence on how to spend taxpayer resources wisely to improve education.

This paper outlines why and how the U.S. Department of Education should leverage a 1% investment in evaluation—a penny on the dollar—to develop and implement a comprehensive evaluation system. Such a system could significantly increase the impact and cost-effectiveness of federal investment in education, and build the knowledge base to help teachers and school leaders solve chronic education problems.

In May 2014, Results for America (RFA) issued its third federal Investing in What Works Index,which highlighted the extent to which the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies are building the infrastructure needed to use evidence and evaluation in budget, policy, and management decisions (RFA 2014). The Department scored well on the index, but it has plenty of room for improvement, starting with investing 1% of funds in rigorous, independent evaluations.

This paper makes eight recommendations for how the Department could use evaluation funding to build the knowledge base and improve its programs:

  1. Use scientifically rigorous methods to evaluate programs and build a cumulative evidence base.
  2. Focus program evaluations on finding what works—where, when, how, and under what circumstances—rather than a thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict on the entire program.
  3. Pay attention to needs and timing constraints of the end users of evaluation results.
  4. Invest in capacity building and infrastructure to disseminate, explain, translate, communicate, and use program evaluation results.
  5. Revise federal rules to maximize the use and impact of program evaluations.
  6. Incentivize the use of cost-effective and evidence-based educational evaluations and educational programs.
  7. Establish a Chief Evaluation Officer at the U.S. Department of Education.
  8. Fund the right kinds of evaluations.

Each recommendation on its own would be helpful, but taken together they constitute a comprehensive and robust program evaluation system. By investing just a penny on the dollar, the Department of Education can build a robust and rigorous system of program evaluation focused on, and able to improve education outcomes for, all our nation’s children.

The Power of a Penny: Building Knowledge to Invest in What Works in Education