This is the second of a two-part blog series from an IES-funded partnership project. The first part described how the process of cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) provided useful information that led to changes in practice for a school nurse program and restorative practices at Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, KY. In this guest blog, the team discusses how the process of conducting value-added analysis provided useful program information over and above the information they obtained via CEA or academic return on investment (AROI).
Since we know you loved the last one, it’s time for another fun thought experiment! Imagine that you have just spent more than a year gathering, cleaning, assembling, and analyzing a dataset of school investments for what you hope will be an innovative approach to program evaluation. Now imagine the only thing your results tell you is that your proposed new application of value-added analysis (VAA) is not well-suited for these particular data. What would you do? Well, sit back and enjoy another round of schadenfreude at our expense. Once again, our team of practitioners from JCPS and researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University and American University found itself in a very unenviable position.
We had initially planned to use the rigorous VAA (and CEA) to evaluate the validity of a practical measure of academic return on investment for improving school budget decisions on existing school- and district-level investments. Although the three methods—VAA, CEA, and AROI—vary in rigor and address slightly different research questions, we expected that their results would be both complementary and comparable for informing decisions to reinvest, discontinue, expand/contract, or make other implementation changes to an investment. To that end, we set out to test our hypothesis by comparing results from each method across a broad spectrum of investments. Fortunately, as with CEA, the process of conducting VAA provided additional, useful program information that we would not have otherwise obtained via CEA or AROI. This unexpected information, combined with what we’d learned about implementation from our CEAs, led to even more changes in practice at JCPS.
Data Collection for VAA Unearthed Inadequate Record-keeping, Mission Drift, and More
Our AROI approach uses existing student and budget data from JCPS’s online Investment Tracking System (ITS) to compute comparative metrics for informing budget decisions. Budget request proposals submitted by JCPS administrators through ITS include information on target populations, goals, measures, and the budget cycle (1-5 years) needed to achieve the goals. For VAA, we needed similar, but more precise, data to estimate the relative effects of specific interventions on student outcomes, which required us to contact schools and district departments to gather the necessary information. Our colleagues provided us with sufficient data to conduct VAA. However, during this process, we discovered instances of missing or inadequate participant rosters; mission drift in how requested funds were actually spent; and mismatches between goals, activities, and budget cycles. We suspect that JCPS is not alone in this challenge, so we hope that what follows might be helpful to other districts facing similar scenarios.
More Changes in Practice
The lessons learned during the school nursing and restorative practice CEAs discussed in the first blog, and the data gaps identified through the VAA process, informed two key developments at JCPS. First, we formalized our existing end-of-cycle investment review process by including summary cards for each end-of-cycle investment item (each program or personnel position in which district funds were invested) indicating where insufficient data (for example, incomplete budget requests or unavailable participation rosters) precluded AROI calculations. We asked specific questions about missing data to elicit additional information and to encourage more diligent documentation in future budget requests.
Second, we created the Investment Tracking System 2.0 (ITS 2.0), which now requires budget requesters to complete a basic logic model. The resources (inputs) and outcomes in the logic model are auto-populated from information entered earlier in the request process, but requesters must manually enter activities and progress monitoring (outputs). Our goal is to encourage and facilitate development of an explicit theory of change at the outset and continuous evidence-based adjustments throughout the implementation. Mandatory entry fields now prevent requesters from submitting incomplete budget requests. The new system was immediately put into action to track all school-level Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER)-related budget requests.
Process and Partnership, Redux
Although we agree with the IES Director’s insistence that partnerships between researchers and practitioners should be a means to (eventually) improving student outcomes, our experience shows that change happens slowly in a large district. Yet, we have seen substantial changes as a direct result of our partnership. Perhaps the most important change is the drastic increase in the number of programs, investments, and other initiatives that will be evaluable as a result of formalizing the end-of-cycle review process and creating ITS 2.0. We firmly believe these changes could not have happened apart from our partnership and the freedom our funding afforded us to experiment with new approaches to addressing the challenges we face.
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. Robert Shand is an Assistant Professor at American University.
Dr. Bo Yan is a Research and Evaluation Specialist at JCPS.
Dr. Fiona Hollands is a Senior Researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University.
If you have any questions, please contact Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), IES-NCER Grant Program Officer.