This is the first of a two-part guest blog series from an IES-funded partnership project between Teachers College, Columbia University, American University, and Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky. The purpose of the project is to explore academic return on investment (AROI) as a metric for improving decision-making around education programs that lead to improvements in student education outcomes. In this guest blog entry, the team showcases cost analysis as an integral part of education program evaluation.
Here’s a fun thought experiment (well, at least fun for researcher-types). Imagine you just discovered that two of your district partner’s firmly entrenched initiatives are not cost-effective. What would you do?
Now, would your answer change if we told you that the findings came amidst a global pandemic and widespread social unrest over justice reform, and that those two key initiatives were a school nurse program and restorative practices? That’s the exact situation we faced last year in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, KY. Fortunately, the process of conducting rigorous cost analyses of these programs unearthed critical evidence to help explain mostly null impact findings and inform very real changes in practice at JCPS.
Cost-Effectiveness Analysis Revealed Missing Program Components
Our team of researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University and American University, and practitioners from JCPS had originally planned to use cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) to evaluate the validity of a practical measure of academic return on investment for improving school budget decisions. With the gracious support of JCPS program personnel in executing our CEAs, we obtained a treasure trove of additional quantitative and qualitative cost and implementation data, which proved to be invaluable.
Specifically, for the district’s school nurse program, the lack of an explicit theory of change, of standardized evidence-based practices across schools, and of a monitoring plan were identified as potential explanations for our null impact results. In one of our restorative practices cost interviews, we discovered that a key element of the program, restorative conferences, was not being implemented at all due to time constraints and staffing challenges, which may help explain the disappointing impact results.
Changes in Practice
In theory, our CEA findings indicated that JCPS should find more cost-effective alternatives to school nursing and restorative practices. In reality, however, both programs were greatly expanded; school nursing in response to COVID and restorative practices because JCPS leadership has committed to moving away from traditional disciplinary practices. Our findings regarding implementation, however, lead us to believe that key changes can lead to improved student outcomes for both.
In response to recommendations from the team, JCPS is developing a training manual for new nurses, a logic model illustrating how specific nursing activities can lead to better outcomes, and a monitoring plan. For restorative practices, while we still have a ways to go, the JCPS team is continuing to work with program personnel to improve implementation.
One encouraging finding from our CEA was that, despite imperfect implementation, suspension rates for Black students were lower in schools that had implemented restorative practices for two years compared to Black students in schools implementing the program for one year. Our hope is that further research will identify the aspects of restorative practices most critical for equitably improving school discipline and climate.
Process and Partnership
Our experience highlights unexpected benefits that can result when researchers and practitioners collaborate on all aspects of cost-effectiveness analysis, from collecting data to applying findings to practice. In fact, we are convinced that the ongoing improvements discussed here would not have been possible apart from the synergistic nature of our partnership. While the JCPS team included seasoned evaluators and brought front-line knowledge of program implementation, information systems, data availability, and district priorities, our research partners brought additional research capacity, methodological expertise, and a critical outsider’s perspective.
Together, we discovered that the process of conducting cost-effectiveness analysis can provide valuable information normally associated with fidelity of implementation studies. Knowledge gained during the cost analysis process helped to explain our less-than-stellar impact results and led to key changes in practice. In the second blog of this series, we’ll share how the process of conducting CEA and value-added analysis led to changes in practice extending well beyond the specific programs we investigated.
Stephen M. Leach is a Program Analysis Coordinator at JCPS and PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology Measurement and Evaluation at the University of Louisville.
Dr. Fiona Hollands is a Senior Researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Dr. Bo Yan is a Research and Evaluation Specialist at JCPS.
Dr. Robert Shand is an Assistant Professor at American University.
If you have any questions, please contact Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), IES-NCER Grant Program Officer.