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Brian Yates from American University explains the value of both cost-effectiveness and cost–benefit analyses in promoting investments in family involvement.

Have you ever wondered how you could involve more families in more ways for less (money, time, or other resources)? Then you’ve been asking questions that cost-effectiveness analysis can answer. Have you ever hoped to show a potential funder that a family involvement program is “worth it”? Now you’re talking about a cost–benefit analysis.

Both cost-effectiveness and cost–benefit analyses are simple approaches to answering the complex questions that arise in a world of escalating demands and decreasing budgets. Because programming can be costly, funders, policymakers, and school leaders want assurances that their investments pay off. Cost-effectiveness and cost–benefit analyses can give the family involvement field the data it needs to make the case for continued and increased funding.

Cost-Effectiveness Analysis
To do a simple cost-effectiveness analysis of a family involvement program, start by listing the effects that your program should have on family members and the community. These might be improved academic performance, increased interactions with children, or reductions in problem behaviors in the home, school, and community. Focus on the effects that you can measure, that don’t cost too much to measure, and that have been shown to improve with more or better family involvement. Measure these effects accurately, ideally using a quasi-experimental or experimental design.

Next, list the ingredients of your family involvement program: time and expertise, space, written materials, toys, and whatever else you use to involve families. Concentrate on the resources that are, in your opinion, most crucial to making the program work, and that, if omitted, would be most damaging to the program’s success. The best way to do this usually is to list each component of your program (such as a parents-read-to-kids initiative or a principal-visits-your-home effort). Next, ask yourself what specific ingredients are essential for that component to be implemented well. Don’t forget the time that parents and kids need to spend in the program and in activities directly related to the program. Measure the value of these resources by either finding out what was paid for them, or what you would have paid for them if they had not been donated. These are the ingredients’ costs.

Related Resource

Temple, J. A., & Reynolds, A. J. Benefits and costs of investments in preschool education: Evidence from the Child–Parent Centers and related programs. Economics of Education Review, 26, 126–144.
This article uses cost–benefit analysis to explore the effectiveness of the Chicago Child–Parent Centers and other early childhood programs. The authors find that the economic outcomes associated with high-quality early childhood education programs far surpass interventions occurring later in children’s school lives.

Now assemble measures for both effects and costs. If the data are detailed enough, you may be able to at least estimate the contribution that each component of your program contributes to the overall effectiveness of the program in terms of helping families function better. By contrasting the effectiveness of each component to the value (costs) of the resources each component requires, you may be able to decide how much each component should be used to deliver the most effective program given the resources available. You also can use the same data to argue for more resources (a bigger budget), possibly showing how modest increases in certain resources could allow substantial increases in the effectiveness of your family involvement program.

Cost–Benefit Analysis
To begin a simple cost–benefit analysis of a family involvement effort, return to the list of program effects and concentrate on those that are monetary or that can be translated into monetary terms. For example, successful programs may allow some family members to return to part- or full-time employment or to be more productive on the job. If so, those are monetary outcomes that can be very persuasive to potential funders—and to some family members. Successful family involvement programs also may eventually reduce children’s and parents’ use of medical, social, and even criminal-justice services, though perhaps after a period of higher use of those services to solve family problems. Reduction in use of other services can be a significant, positive result of family involvement, justifying greater funding of family involvement programs even in the face of tightening constraints on government and private funding.

A final caveat: Both cost-effectiveness and cost–benefit analyses can be simplistic, even misleading, if performed by those who do not understand what’s most important about family involvement or what it takes to make family involvement work. For that reason, family involvement professionals—that is, you—are best positioned to design, initiate, supervise, and interpret cost-effectiveness and cost–benefit analyses of their own programs.

Brian T. Yates, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
American University
4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20016-8062
Tel: 202-885-1727

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