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Henry Levin and Colleagues: Asking What Works -- and If It's Worth the Money

Social and emotional learning (SEL), also called cognitive-behavioral development and mindfulness, is being widely touted as a tool for helping young people cope with stress, manage aggression, pay attention, become more compassionate and in general improve executive functioning — essential life skills that schools, in theory, should be helping to inculcate. Yet little research exists to support the effectiveness of SEL programs for children or, in an era of budget tightening, to determine whether the impact of instituting SEL programs in schools justifies the cost.

Enter TC’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE), which evaluates initiatives ranging from SEL and preschool enhancement to dropout prevention and online learning.

Founded at TC in 2007, CBCSE is led by Henry Levin, TC’s William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, and Clive Belfield, Associate Professor of Economics at Queens College. During the 1970s, Levin was tapped by a congressional committee to quantify the financial toll of the nation’s high school dropout crisis. In 2005, Levin, Belfield and other researchers projected $45 billion in annual savings if the high school dropout rate were cut in half. They estimated that scaling up a number of proven approaches could save $127,000 for each new graduate added.

Levin’s signature contribution, now employed by CBCSE, is his “ingredients method,” which measures not only direct program costs and shadow costs such as teachers’ salaries or the value of a student tutor’s time, but also the impact of interventions on tax revenues, public assistance programs and the criminal justice system. The ingredients method is cited in thousands of books and articles and used by leading centers such as MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Recently, CBCSE created a tool kit to assist researchers, policymakers and administrators in using the technique.  

Studies by CBCSE have produced dramatic findings. For example, among programs that are comparably effective in improving dropout prevention or high school completion, CBCSE found a six-to-one difference in cost per graduate between the most and least costly programs. A little-known, federally funded Initiative called Talent Search, which provides information on financial literacy and careers to low-income, at-risk students, proved to be particularly cost-effective.

Similarly, CBCSE has found that MOOCs (massive open online courses) have yet to fulfill their promise as an antidote to spiraling education costs and as a means to educate vast new audiences. Most MOOCs remain “a significant drain on time and money” for colleges and universities; assert Associate Director Fiona Hollands (Ph.D. ’03) and researcher Devayani Tirthali (Ed.D. ’13, Ed.M. ’12), while their “actual impact on educational outcomes has not been documented in any rigorous fashion.”

And then there is the Center’s work on SEL, which thus far suggests that some SEL programs do, indeed, have benefits that substantially exceed their costs.

“There is not much consensus in the literature as to what constitutes ‘social and emotional learning’ and how to measure it,” says doctoral student Rob Shand. “We’re looking at a wide range of outcomes, from reduced violence to qualities such as ‘grit’ or ‘locus of control,’ and trying to estimate how much society values them in monetary terms.”

Whether SEL programs can improve academic outcomes is another question, but perhaps not the most important one.
 
Social and emotional learning has always been a goal of schooling,” Levin adds. “Learning how to get along with others, how to persist in planning and completing tasks, how to harness emotions in a productive way are all goals of SEL, even if they do not affect student achievement. There are many high achievers who are social misfits, so the two are not necessarily allied. Healthy child development is an end in itself. – Nanette Maxim


Published Friday, Dec. 19, 2014

Henry Levin and Colleagues: Asking What Works -- and If It's Worth the Money

Social and emotional learning (SEL), also called cognitive-behavioral development and mindfulness, is being widely touted as a tool for helping young people cope with stress, manage aggression, pay attention, become more compassionate and in general improve executive functioning — essential life skills that schools, in theory, should be helping to inculcate. Yet little research exists to support the effectiveness of SEL programs for children or, in an era of budget tightening, to determine whether the impact of instituting SEL programs in schools justifies the cost.

Enter TC’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE), which evaluates initiatives ranging from SEL and preschool enhancement to dropout prevention and online learning.

Founded at TC in 2007, CBCSE is led by Henry Levin, TC’s William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, and Clive Belfield, Associate Professor of Economics at Queens College. During the 1970s, Levin was tapped by a congressional committee to quantify the financial toll of the nation’s high school dropout crisis. In 2005, Levin, Belfield and other researchers projected $45 billion in annual savings if the high school dropout rate were cut in half. They estimated that scaling up a number of proven approaches could save $127,000 for each new graduate added.

Levin’s signature contribution, now employed by CBCSE, is his “ingredients method,” which measures not only direct program costs and shadow costs such as teachers’ salaries or the value of a student tutor’s time, but also the impact of interventions on tax revenues, public assistance programs and the criminal justice system. The ingredients method is cited in thousands of books and articles and used by leading centers such as MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Recently, CBCSE created a tool kit to assist researchers, policymakers and administrators in using the technique.  

Studies by CBCSE have produced dramatic findings. For example, among programs that are comparably effective in improving dropout prevention or high school completion, CBCSE found a six-to-one difference in cost per graduate between the most and least costly programs. A little-known, federally funded Initiative called Talent Search, which provides information on financial literacy and careers to low-income, at-risk students, proved to be particularly cost-effective.

Similarly, CBCSE has found that MOOCs (massive open online courses) have yet to fulfill their promise as an antidote to spiraling education costs and as a means to educate vast new audiences. Most MOOCs remain “a significant drain on time and money” for colleges and universities; assert Associate Director Fiona Hollands (Ph.D. ’03) and researcher Devayani Tirthali (Ed.D. ’13, Ed.M. ’12), while their “actual impact on educational outcomes has not been documented in any rigorous fashion.”

And then there is the Center’s work on SEL, which thus far suggests that some SEL programs do, indeed, have benefits that substantially exceed their costs.

“There is not much consensus in the literature as to what constitutes ‘social and emotional learning’ and how to measure it,” says doctoral student Rob Shand. “We’re looking at a wide range of outcomes, from reduced violence to qualities such as ‘grit’ or ‘locus of control,’ and trying to estimate how much society values them in monetary terms.”

Whether SEL programs can improve academic outcomes is another question, but perhaps not the most important one.
 
Social and emotional learning has always been a goal of schooling,” Levin adds. “Learning how to get along with others, how to persist in planning and completing tasks, how to harness emotions in a productive way are all goals of SEL, even if they do not affect student achievement. There are many high achievers who are social misfits, so the two are not necessarily allied. Healthy child development is an end in itself. – Nanette Maxim


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