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Productivity Research, the U.S. Department of Education, and High-Quality Evidence

America’s leaders have frequently invoked the principle that important policy decisions should be evidence-based. This rhetorical embrace, however, has not always prevailed against the appeal of policy ideas with political resonance or other perceived advantages. The following analysis describes a particularly egregious example of this phenomenon: the approach taken by the U.S. Department of Education in its “Increasing Educational Productivity” project. This example illustrates the harm done when leaders fail to ground policy in high-quality research.

The Department of Education has set forth a series of documents explaining how public school districts can stretch their dwindling dollars by becoming more productive and efficient. This brief explains that neither the materials listed nor the recommendations found in those materials are backed by substantive analyses of cost effectiveness or efficiency of public schools, of practices within public schools, of broader policies pertaining to public schools, or of resource allocation strategies. Instead, the sources listed on the website’s resources page are speculative, non-peer-reviewed think tank reports and related documents that generally fail to include or even cite the types of analyses that would need to be conducted before arriving at their conclusions and policy recommendations. These omissions are particularly troubling because high-quality research in this area is available that would provide the sort of policy guidance the Department is ostensibly seeking.

This policy brief reviews the Department’s stated policy objectives, provides a brief explanation of the types of analyses that should typically be conducted when attempting to draw conclusions regarding cost-effective strategies, examines the resources listed on the Department’s website, critiques that content, and then offers recommendations for a research agenda that would aid in providing more thoughtful information on improving educational efficiency.