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The authors discuss how to use economic techniques to evaluate educational programs and show how to apply basic cost analysis to implementation of school-wide positive behavior support (SWPBS). A description of cost analysis concepts used for economic program evaluation is provided, emphasizing the suitability of these concepts for evaluating educational programs. The authors also describe the specific data and measurement and analytic procedures that cost analysis evaluation requires. The concepts are then applied in a case study showing a cost analysis of SWPBS. Implications are provided for extending the cost analysis case study into evaluation of cost-effectiveness and/or cost-benefit economic analyses of program success.
Keywords: cost analysis; opportunity costs; fixed and marginal costs; behavior intervention
Starting in the 1930s, economists began to formalize a set of procedures for evaluating public programs based on a comparison of their costs and benefits (Drummond, O'Brien, Stoddart, & Torrance, 1997; Hummel-Rossi & Ashdown, 2002; Hy, 2000; White et al., 2004). These procedures, known as benefit-cost analysis or BCA, have since been applied to government programs ranging from road construction to environmental policies to the provision of low-income prenatal health care. The objective of BCA is to put government expenditures to the same test that economists believe people generally use in their private decision-making, that is, spending money only if the expected value of the benefits exceeds the expenditures or costs.
Education is a large component of public spending, and schools often need to choose from among a wide variety of possible programs to accomplish a variety of objectives. Thus, using benefit-cost analysis to evaluate school programs seems natural. Given the increasing constraints on fiscal resources in education, it is important to document the benefits of better educational programs in economic terms (Greenwald, Hedges, & Laine, 1996; Verstegen & King, 1998).
The costs of implementing educational programs are in principle easily defined and measured. Methods for estimating the benefits people get from goods and services that do not typically have market prices associated with them are now well established (Boardman, Greenberg, Vining, & Weimer, 1996; Harberger & Jenkins, 2002; Levin, 1983; White et al., 2004). Similarly, procedures for adjusting these costs and benefits for uncertainty and discounting them for timing have also become relatively standardized (Levin & McEwan, 2001).
Despite the compelling logic for the application of BCA, such methods have not yet been widely adopted by education administrators and researchers, in part due to the technical nature of the procedures used and in part because researchers in education have concentrated on developing programs and measuring their effectiveness with noneconomic measures such as student academic achievement and social behavior.
This situation is rapidly changing. Major federal funding agencies now require education researchers and program developers to demonstrate that their proposed reforms will be an efficient use of public funds relative to current or alternative programs. The federal Office of Management and Budget (2003) now requires a benefit-cost analysis for new federal regulations with estimated costs above $50 million, and a procedure for review of existing regulations is also being implemented. In short, economic analysis is appropriate for many education programs and increasingly expected by funding agencies. The scarcity of prior benefit-cost analyses of education programs, combined with the recent emphasis on funding educational reforms that yield the highest possible public return in valued outcomes, has created a need for research that demonstrates how methods of economic analysis can be applied to educational program evaluation.
In this article, we demonstrate how to use economic techniques to evaluate costs of educational programs, and we present a case study showing application of a cost analysis to one contemporary educational innovation, school-wide positive behavior support (SWPBS; Lewis & Sugai 1999; Sugai & Horner, 2006) for preventing and ameliorating student problem behaviors in schools. We describe a rationale for cost analysis and the specific data and measurement and analytic procedures involved. We then discuss how our cost analysis evaluation could be expanded from cost analysis to cost-effectiveness and benefit-cost analyses.
While our case study can provide a useful guide for educational cost analysis, we do not present a full benefit--cost analysis of SWPBS. Instead, we regard our case study as the necessary first step in this direction. A full economic evaluation would involve at least three types of analyses: cost analysis, cost-effectiveness analysis, and benefit--cost analysis. Cost analysis (such as the one we present here) involves evaluating the cost side of a program but does not include any attempt to attach values to benefits. Cost-effectiveness analysis requires comparison of the costs of several alternative programs, including the status quo, for achieving some given benefit, for example, a given reduction in amount of problem behavior. This requires both a cost analysis and analysis of program effects on outcome measures. Office discipline referrals (ODRs), widely used as a valid index of schools' behavioral health (Irvin, Tobin, Sprague, Sugai, & Vincent, 2004), might be one measure for assessing the cost effectiveness of SWPBS; results could be expressed in terms of decreased student and administrator time spent on behavioral incidents and increased student time spent academically engaged (Luiselli, Putnam, Handler, & Feinberg, 2005; Scott & Barret, 2004; Taylor-Greene et al., 1997). Benefit-cost analysis involves comparing the costs of a program to its benefits and thus requires not only measurements or estimates of the outcomes or benefits but their conversion into dollars. A benefit-cost analysis of SWPBS would likely require a measure of how improved social behavior translates into greater educational benefits and better long-term economic outcomes in the form of students' greater earning potential and lesser reliance on publicly funded social programs.
Because our focus here is primarily on demonstrating the process and value of cost analysis evaluation, we do not present cost-effectiveness or cost-benefit analyses in our case study. Rather, we return to consideration of these fuller economic analyses in the discussion as possible extensions of our cost analysis case study. A fourth possible economic analysis, cost-utility analysis, requires additional data on the stakeholder valuations of program effectiveness or "utility" for the resources expended and outcomes realized by the stakeholders in the program being evaluated. Cost-utility analysis yields a subjective program evaluation and is not considered further in this article because data regarding stakeholder valuations are not available for the SWPBS program.
School-Wide Positive Behavior Support
School-wide positive behavior support focuses on establishing the broad social, culture, and individual behavior supports needed to promote both academic success and prosocial behavior. SWPBS begins with school-wide emphasis on prevention of problem behavior and then adds more intensive individualized supports for those students who have developed and/or continue to display problem behavior, even with school-wide prevention efforts in place. The SWPBS approach is organized around five core imperatives (see www.pbis.org for more details):
1. Invest in preventing the development of problem behavior. Preventing problem behavior is more effective, cost-efficient, and productive than responding after problem behavior patterns have become ingrained. Investing in prevention requires development of a whole-school emphasis on predictable, positive, consistent expectations. Students have a clear understanding of social expectations, and how those expectations are linked to educational outcomes.
2. Teach appropriate social behavior and skills. Because children come to school with widely differing understandings of what is socially acceptable, school personnel bear an increased obligation to define the core social expectations (e.g., be respectful, be responsible, be safe) that will lead to success. In addition, these expectations need to be taught overtly so students are able both to label the social expectations (e.g., be respectful) and define what that label means for real behavior in school settings (e.g., raise hand in classroom, share equipment on playground). When all students in the school are taught the same social expectations, a social culture is established where students have both personal knowledge about social behaviors expected in the school and the knowledge that everyone else in the school knows those same social expectations.
3. Acknowledge appropriate behavior. Students should receive regular recognition for appropriate behavior at rates that exceed corrections for rule violations and problem behaviors. Negative consequences alone will not change problem behavior. Instead of irregular punishment, or ignoring problem behavior, a continuum of consequences (e.g., correction, warning, and/or office discipline referral) for problem behavior should be maintained and used to prevent escalation and ensure that academic instruction is allowed to continue in class.
4. Gather and use data about student behavior to guide behavior support decisions. Data on the frequency of problem behaviors, where and what time of the day they are occurring, and who is engaging in these problem behaviors enable school personnel to develop the most effective, efficient, and relevant school-wide behavior support interventions.
5. Invest in systems that support effective practices. Tremendous effort has focused on the specific skills that allow teachers and administrators to be more effective. These skills are important, but they will not be effective or durable unless the skills are combined with the administrative systems needed to nurture and support implementation of effective practices. Systems variables include the teams, policies, funding, administrative support, and data structures within a school.
Implementation of these five core SWPBS features is combined with more intensive behavior support practices (e.g., wraparound, person-centered planning, functional behavioral assessment) to meet the needs of students with more extreme support needs. Our focus in this article is on the initial implementation of the SWPBS features. Costs associated with more intense, individualized supports will fit the same cost analysis model, but we have fewer examples of these costs and will address them in future manuscripts.
Implementation of SWPBS during the past 10 years has been initiated (and is occurring with varying levels of fidelity) in more than 4,700 schools across 30 states (Horner& Sugai, 2004; Sugai & Horner, 2006). The typical approach to implementation is for a state leadership team to (a) provide training for a set of local demonstration schools, (b) establish a cadre of local coaches who facilitate and sustain implementation, (c) invest in developing local trainers who assume ongoing training responsibilities once initial demonstrations are established, and (d) facilitate allocation of local evaluation resources that allow ongoing assessment and help guide ongoing improvement in implementation (Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, 2004). Efforts to implement SWPBS focus on long-term, large-scale strategies for system change. Schools implementing SWPBS procedures with fidelity report reductions in office discipline referrals of 20% to 60%, improved student and staff morale, and initial indications that improving the social culture of the school is linked to improved academic gains (Bradshaw, 2006; Horner, Sugai, Todd, & Lewis-Palmer, 2005).
Research to date has focused on documenting that schools …