Evidence-based education policy

I’m always on the lookout for quantitative examples where government spending on science and education show clear positive results. Federal policies and spending devoted to improving this nation’s education infrastructure following WWII led to an expansion of economic and technological progress that made the US a world superpower. Today we’re used to being on top, and many in government have forgotten that valuing education adds value to a society. Good schools are surely worth their cost in taxes. There, I’m another tax & spend liberal, right?

Not so fast. I may be a liberal, but I’m an evidence-based liberal. Public policy, including expenditure of tax dollars, should be directed to only those initiatives that have a demonstrable or empirically justifiable payout in terms of economic success and quality of life. I’m quite conservative about spending tax dollars; I’d prefer it be spent on things that work.

So I was happy to learn about the Partnership for America’s Economic Success (PAEC), a non-profit charity consortium of prominent business leaders, economists, and educators working to improve public education in the US. The PAEC is based on a fairly straightforward premise: if it can be shown that treasury investments in education provide empirical economic benefits, such strategies and tactics should be adopted by the public sector.

How can you measure the success of a school program? One way is by comparing the lifetime economic success of students in a control group against students participating in a such a program. The problem is that this takes a lot of time. Some might also say that this approach is crass, that it turns a human being into a commodity. I disagree, because if the question is whether a group – either governmental or private – should invest money in something, it is valid to ask whether such an investment will pay monetary dividends or not. One might choose to fund a program that doesn’t reliably pay lucrative dividends to society, but there is still value in knowing the average return.

Happily, such a thing is possible for at least preschool education. PAEC rests in part on a landmark study that examined whether kids who go to preschool are better off in the long term than kids who don’t, in economic terms such as average income, if they consume welfare dollars, or commit crimes (direct costs of the crime, imprisonment, etc.). This long term study followed a control group of Michigan kids who did not have preschool with a group who did, over the course of their lives. The results are jarring.

Compared with kids who did not go to preschool, those who did “paid out” an average 16% return on the initial investment, which is better by far than what the stock market would give you over the same interval of time. That’s not the extent of research on this issue, there is much more. Here are some specifics of how preschooled kids did better than their un-preschooled peers:

• +35% high school graduation rate

• +$6,500 per year in income

• -35% juvenile arrests/convictions

• 50% reduction in documented child abuse (the kids grown up as parents)

• 12% increase in family earnings as working parents

Quantitatively, preschool pays for itself and pays society in the form of economic growth and quality of life for the recipients. This is a wonderful example of evidence-based public policy, and should be recognized as the kind of thing a rational, reality-driven approach to problems can provide.

Ideology fails. If you decide ahead of time that sex is evil, you will always vote against sex education and for idiotic tripe like abstinence-only education, which leads to higher rates of teen pregnacy and STD transmission. Conservative ideologues oppose giving teen girls HPV vaccine, because they would rather other people’s kids die of cervical cancer than govern their own sexuality. There are plenty of ideologues in Washington who oppose public funding of education, or who ignore education funding in favor of stupidities like freedom fries and faith-based initiatives.

Faith is not required to measure real things. I’d rather my tax dollars go to initiatives based on reality.


~ by Planetologist on September 20, 2008.

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