This blog is part of a guest series by the Cost Analysis in Practice (CAP) project team to discuss practical details regarding cost studies.
Educational interventions come at a cost—and no, it is not just the price tag, but the personnel time and other resources needed to implement them effectively. Having both efficacy and cost information is essential for educators to make wise investments. However, including cost analysis in an efficacy study comes with its own costs.
Experts from the Cost Analysis in Practice (CAP) Project recently connected with the IES-funded team studying Promoting Accelerated Reading Comprehension of Text - Local (PACT-L) to discuss the challenges of conducting cost analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis as part of an efficacy trial. PACT-L is a social studies and reading comprehension intervention with a train-the-trainer professional development model. Here, we share some of the challenges we discussed and the solutions that surfaced.
Challenge 1: Not understanding the value of a cost analysis for educational programs
Some people may not understand the value of a cost analysis and focus only on needing to know whether they have the budget to cover program expenses. For those who may be reluctant to invest in a cost analysis, ask them to consider how a thorough look at implementation in practice (as opposed to “as intended”) might help support planning for scale-up of a local program or adoption at different sites.
For example, take Tennessee’s Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project, a class size reduction experiment, which was implemented successfully with a few thousand students. California tried to scale up the approach for several million students but failed to anticipate the difficulty of finding enough qualified teachers and building more classrooms to accommodate smaller classes. A cost analysis would have supplied key details to support decision-makers in California in preparing for such a massive scale-up, including an inventory of the type and quantity of resources needed. For decision-makers seeking to replicate an effective intervention even on a small scale, success is much more likely if they can anticipate whether they have the requisite time, staff, facilities, materials, and equipment to implement the intervention with fidelity.
Challenge 2: Inconsistent implementation across cohorts
Efficacy studies often involve two or three cohorts of participants, and the intervention may be adapted from one to the next, leading to varying costs across cohorts. This issue has been particularly acute for studies running prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, then during COVID-19, and into post-COVID-19 times. You may have in-person, online, and hybrid versions of the intervention delivered, all in the course of one study. While such variation in implementation may be necessary in response to real-world circumstances, it poses problems for the effectiveness analysis because it’s hard to draw conclusions about exactly what was or wasn’t effective.
The variation in implementation also poses problems for the cost analysis because substantially different types and amounts of resources might be used across cohorts. At worst, this leads to the need for three cost analyses funded by the study budget intended for one! In the case of PACT-L, the study team modified part of the intervention to be delivered online due to COVID-19 but plans to keep this change consistent through all three cohorts.
For other interventions, if the differences in implementation among cohorts are substantial, perhaps they should not be combined and analyzed as if all participants are receiving a single intervention. Cost analysts may need to focus their efforts on the cohort for which implementation reflects how the intervention is most likely to be used in the future. For less substantial variations, cost analysts should stay close to the implementation team to document differences in resource use across cohorts, so they can present a range of costs as well as an average across all cohorts.
Challenge 3: Balancing accuracy of data against burden on participants and researchers
Data collection for an efficacy trial can be burdensome—add a cost analysis and researchers worry about balancing the accuracy of the data against the burden on participants and researchers. This is something that the PACT-L research team grappled with when designing the evaluation plan. If you plan in advance and integrate the data collection for cost analysis with that for fidelity of implementation, it is possible to lower the additional burden on participants. For example, include questions related to time use in interviews and surveys that are primarily designed to document the quality of the implementation (as the PACT-L team plans to do), and ask observers to note the kinds of facilities, materials, and equipment used to implement the intervention. However, it may be necessary to conduct interviews dedicated solely to the cost analysis and to ask key implementers to keep time logs. We’ll have more advice on collecting cost data in a future blog.
Challenge 4: Determining whether to use national and/or local prices
Like many other RCTs, the PACT-L team’s study will span multiple districts and geographical locations, so the question arises about which prices to use. When deciding whether to use national or local prices—or both—analysts should consider the audience for the results, availability of relevant prices from national or local sources, the number of different sets of local prices that would need to be collected, and their research budget. Salaries and facilities prices may vary significantly from location to location. Local audiences may be most interested in costs estimated using local prices, but it would be a lot of work to collect local price information from each district or region. The cost analysis research budget would need to reflect the work involved. Furthermore, for cost-effectiveness analysis, prices must be standardized across geographical locations which means applying regional price parities to adjust prices to a single location or to a national average equivalent.
It may be more feasible to use national average prices from publicly available sources for all sites. However, that comes with a catch too: national surveys of personnel salaries don't include a wide variety of school or district personnel positions. Consequently, the analyst must look for a similar-enough position or make some assumptions about how to adjust a published salary for a different position.
If the research budget allows, analysts could present costs using national prices and local prices. This might be especially helpful for an intervention targeting schools in a rural area or an urban area which, respectively, are likely to have lower and higher costs than the national average. The CAP Project’s cost analysis Excel template is set up to allow for both national prices and local prices. You can find the template and other cost analysis tools here: https://capproject.org/resources.
The CAP Project team is interested in learning about new challenges and figuring out how to help. If you are encountering similar or other challenges and would like free technical assistance from the IES-funded CAP Project, submit a request here. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us @The_CAP_Project.
Fiona Hollands is a Senior Researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University who focuses on the effectiveness and costs of educational programs, and how education practitioners and policymakers can optimize the use of resources in education to promote better student outcomes.
Iliana Brodziak is a senior research analyst at the American Institutes for Research who focuses on statistical analysis of achievement data, resource allocation data and survey data with special focus on English Learners and early childhood.
Jaunelle Pratt-Williams is an Education Researcher at SRI who uses mixed methods approaches to address resource allocation, social and emotional learning and supports, school finance policy, and educational opportunities for disadvantaged student populations.
Robert D. Shand is Assistant Professor in the School of Education at American University with expertise in teacher improvement through collaboration and professional development and how schools and teachers use data from economic evaluation and accountability systems to make decisions and improve over time.
Katie Drummond, a Senior Research Scientist at WestEd, has designed and directed research and evaluation projects related to literacy, early childhood, and professional development for over 20 years.
Lauren Artzi is a senior researcher with expertise in second language education PK-12, intervention research, and multi-tiered systems of support.