The Costs and Benefits of an Excellent Education for All of America's Children

Henry Levin, Clive Belfield, Peter Muennig, Cecilia Rouse
Teachers College, Columbia University
January 2007

It's taken for granted that improving education boosts the economy and saves taxpayer dollars down the road. But in case anyone still doubts this, researchers at Teachers College have put together a cost-benefit analysis, though a dubious one at that. They claim that for a certain set of policy interventions "proven" to reduce high school drop-out rates, "the benefits are 2.5 times greater than the costs." To arrive at that number, they subtract the average per-student cost of those interventions from the gains in tax revenues and declines in welfare expenditures, crime, etc. that occur when at-risk students graduate high school. It's all pretty straightforward, but one wonders whether the supposedly proven interventions--two pre-school programs, two small-class models, and an across-the-board teacher salary increase of 10 percent--are really as effective as the authors believe. The section detailing the five interventions is among the shortest in the 75-page "Technical Appendix" attached to the report. That's because (as some have already pointed out) the authors relied on only one or two studies per model and then extrapolate the benefits if taken national. Yet if there's one thing we know from research and experience in education, it's that promising results for targeted interventions are rarely replicated when those interventions are scaled. The report offers a valuable reminder of why high school grads are important to the economy, but readers should be skeptical about its overall conclusions. Read the report here.

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