Making the Most of Each Budget Dollar

One of the few things both sides of the political aisle are able to agree on is getting better performance out of programs, as seen by the move toward evidence-based policymaking under prior administrations. The federal government could lead by example, suggests Brookings Fellow Andrew Feldman, by creating a bipartisan team focused on improving performance of federally funded programs, giving states the freedom to implement innovative programming and shoulder more accountability for results, and reducing hurdles to program evaluation while encouraging the incorporation of data analytics into regular reporting. In a time of new federal spending priorities, budget shortfalls, increased need, and much uncertainty, states must get serious about investing in programs that work by actively incorporating outcomes research into their policymaking.

A report from the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, How States Engage in Evidence-Based Policymaking: A National Assessment, assessed the levels of commitment and action of states using research to guide decision-making related behavioral health, criminal justice, juvenile justice and child welfare policy. This study scored each state and the District of Columbia on the extent to which they incorporated research findings in policy, including defining categories of evidence, conducting program cost-benefit analyses, and identifying specific funding for evidence-based programming. According to the brief, 50 states have taken some sort of action through the allocation of funding for programs supported by research findings, while 42 states report outcomes in the budget annually. Just 17 states compare program outcomes and costs.

While Washington, Utah, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Oregon lead the nation in evidence–based policymaking, Pennsylvania is one of 11 “established” states, with 13 evidence-based policymaking actions (three advanced and ten minimum) across the four policy areas studied. According to the assessment scorecard, Pennsylvania uses advanced research-driven policy actions most often in the juvenile justice sector.

Read more about the levels of evidence-based policy-making and individual state scorecards, in the report available at the Pew Charitable Trusts website. Case studies are also available on how to design contracts and grants to require outcomes reporting tied to program performance.

A Look at the Research on School Lunches and the Importance of Recess

Over the summer I came across a couple of briefs from Bridging the Gap that I thought might be appropriate to post once the yellow buses started rolling again. One report summarizes research on the changes in the federal lunch program, the other discusses policies on recess.

Although an initial government study found the much debated new nutritional regulations resulted in a decrease in participation in the school lunch program, waste of food, price increases and menu planning challenges between 2010-11 and 2012-13, student opinion of lunches may not be as negative as previously thought. According to the brief, Student Reactions During the First Year of Updated School Lunch Nutrition Standards, data on administrator perception of student opinion of the new meals concluded that while middle and high school students did voice their displeasure about the new lunches (44 and 53 percent, respectively), by the end of the year they were liked “to at least some extent” by students (70 and 63 percent).  Other findings,

  • Among elementary schools, more students complained about the meals in the spring of 2014 than at the beginning of the school year (56 percent versus 64 percent), but 70 percent of those surveyed reported that students generally liked the new lunches.
  • Rural schools reported more student complaints about school lunches than urban schools.
  • Rural schools reported increases in waste (students throwing away food) more than urban schools.

While school lunches are one way to attempt to impact student health and wellness, there has not been as much policy activity around the inclusion of recess time for elementary-school-age students.  Less than half of the school districts in the country have a recommended or required policy regarding daily recess, and just 13 states recommend or mandate recess as part of the daily schedule in elementary schools.  The CDC/Bridging the Gap brief, Strategies for Supporting Recess in Elementary Schools, discusses evidence-based approaches for encouraging physical activity such as recess, including

  • training and technical assistance from states to districts on student health and wellness,
  • upgrades to or maintenance of existing playground and sports equipment, and
  • daily recess as well as scheduled physical education class in elementary schools.

More information on the importance of recess in child development (including academic achievement)  is available at the website for the  US Play Coalition: A Partnership to promote the Value of Play throughout Life  at the Clemson University School of Health, Education and Human Development, including the white paper A Research-based Case for Recess.

 

 

Report Citations:

Terry-McElrath YM, Turner L, Colabianchi N, O’Malley PM, Chaloupka FJ, Johnston LD. Student Reactions during the First Year of Updated School Lunch Nutrition Standards— A BTG Research Brief. Ann Arbor, MI: Bridging the Gap Program, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan; 2014.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Bridging the Gap Research Program. Strategies For Supporting Quality Physical Education and Physical Activity in Schools.Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2014.

Adult Mental Illness Rates by State

Just over 4 percent of Pennsylvania adults reported experiencing severe mental illness in the past year, while approximately 18 percent reported any mental illness during the same time period, according to the new brief from SAMHSA, State Estimates of Adult Mental Illness for the 2011 and 2012 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health. The report contains data from over 92,000 adults in the United States who participated in the National Survey of Drug Use and Health in 2011 and 2012.  The rate in Pennsylvania has increased only incrementally since the 2008 and 2009 report, when 3.5 percent of adults in Pennsylvania reported a severe mental illness in the past year, while 17.7  percent reported any mental illness.

In the 2011, 2012 report, West Virginia had the highest rate of severe mental illness (5.5 percent) reported among adults, as well as the highest rate of any mental illness among adults, 21.4 percent. There does not seem to be any regional correlation to rates of mental illness, as states with high and low rates of both severe mental illness and any mental illness are located in all regions of the country.  However, these data can assist in examining connections between mental health and other health issues at the state level, such as the link between mental illness and non-response to traditional anti-smoking interventions, hopefully leading to similar innovative approaches to public policy.

 

 

 

Report Citations:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (February 28, 2014). The NSDUH Report: State Estimates of Adult Mental Illness from the 2011 and 2012 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (October 6, 2011). The NSDUH Report: State Estimates of Adult Mental Illness. Rockville, MD.

School Budget Cuts Become Reality as Students Return

 

As we approach the start of another school year, students in Pennsylvania may find themselves returning to fewer elective classes (even in math science and English), increased class sizes, old textbooks, suspension of field trips, and fewer teachers and staff due to furloughs and hiring freezes. These intended changes, from a survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, also include, 22 percent of districts cutting tutoring programs for students (just under a third – 32 percent – did the same for the 2012-13 school year), and 13 percent of districts ending summer school programs for 2013-14, as did 21 percent last year.

While the enormous impact of the recession prompted serious budgetary reviews, from the dinner table to the halls of the State Capitol, the reduction in education funding has hit urban schools first, and worst.   While fingers point at various “causes of the problem” and some argue the problem doesn’t exist but for mismanagement,  the financial shortfall, at least in urban Pennsylvania schools, appears to be a mixture of shrinking tax bases, shrinking enrollment, ever-increasing per-pupil spending, and bureaucratic administrations, coupled with reductions in funding from the Commonwealth.  Still, cutting programs (like tutoring) that are designed to help struggling students seems to only contribute to the achievement gap that already exists between schools  in poorer areas and their more affluent counterparts.

The report, Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward by Richard J. Coley of Educational Testing Service (ETS) and Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, examines the connection between poverty and life outcomes, including success in education and future employment.  The researchers note the academic achievement gap is larger between poor and not poor than between races, with those living in extreme poverty lagging most behind peers in cognitive performance.  Poverty is also associated with outcomes of less schooling, lower income, and higher likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system.   The impact of poverty on educational quality is illustrated in the brief, The Impact of Teacher Experience, Examining the Evidence and Policy Implications by Jennifer King Rice, through a discussion of data that indicate high-poverty schools have teachers with the least experience and, according to some studies, a lower level of effectiveness.  A National Center on Educational Evaluation brief reports that, overall, poorer students had unequal access to the highest quality teachers (although the study on just 10 districts is not generalizable).

Lest one think such relationships have little bearing on their local schools, the issue of poverty and education is no longer just a concern for city residents as the 2000’s saw a shift in the distribution of families living below the poverty line.  Suburbs are the fastest growing pockets of poverty in the country, according to the book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube. Over the last decade, the population of poor in the suburbs grew by 64 percent and at a brisker pace than in many of their regional cities.  According to Kneebone and Berube, there are more poor people living in the suburbs now than anywhere else in America.

This past year, school districts – urban and suburban – have dealt with budget issues by challenging mandates that limited the number of students to teachers in a classroom, removing access to or increasing participation fees for extracurricular activities, and reducing the number of available courses.  A cursory read of the trends in income, funding steams and predicted economic growth suggests that even the more affluent districts won’t be able to escape the experience of severe budget cuts and need for increased tax revenues for too much longer.