Given the many responsibilities in a day and the limited timeframe for accomplishing them, I often find myself considering which tasks are most worth my time when prioritizing what to do. In other words, what is the return on my investment?
Weighing benefits and costs is nothing new and is something many of us do daily in our personal and work lives. The first question I often hear when decisions need to be made about prioritizing objectives in education is “What is the cost...of materials, of staffing?” In my experience, conversations about benefits are usually more limited and narrow. One of the most frequent “benefit” questions I hear from leaders, funders, and other stakeholders is “What is the change in student achievement scores?” Student achievement is very important, but the impact of social and emotional gains can be even more powerful over the long term. The catch is that these gains can be harder to measure because they involve estimating benefits of changes such as reduced conduct problems, suspensions, and emotional distress and relating them to financial burden and other economic variables. Not an easy task!
The good news is that the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Columbia University's Teacher College undertook the challenge of considering whether the benefits of social-emotional learning (SEL) exceed the costs in a recent study entitled “The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning.” The Second Step Middle School program was one of the six programs examined in the analysis, and the estimations are based on impacts of reduced physical aggression from a recent study by Espelage et. al (2013). This is a brief summary of the program-related results:
- Estimated cost = $44,000 per 100 participants
- Considers costs beyond resources students already receive as part of their regular instruction, such as instructional time to teach lessons, teacher time to participate in training and document implementation, and trainer resources to implement training
- Benefits in terms of reduced aggression = $388,000 per 100 participants
- Considers only those costs that could be “monetized” in some way, such as medical resources required to address physical aggression
- Benefits from reducing the number of at-risk youth = $711,000 per 100 participants
- Benefits from reducing the number of at-risk youth, if assumed those benefits do not fade out for three years = $796,000 per 100 participants
Although the study has limitations and the cost estimates are not exact (for example, not all factors are considered, such as the costs of buying the curricula), it does show the potential economic returns of an investment in the Second Step Middle School program. This benefit also carries across the other evidence-based SEL programs examined in the study. The average return on investment for all six SEL interventions analyzed is 11 to 1, meaning that for every dollar invested there is a return of 11 dollars. In summary, SEL is well worth the cost.
Hopefully this information is useful in facilitating conversations about SEL programming in your organization, school, or district. For more details about the other benefits considered and about how the benefits and costs were calculated, see the full report on economic benefit of SEL.
Espelage, D. L., Low, S., Polanin, J. R., & Brown, E.C. (2013). The impact of a middle school program to reduce aggression, victimization, and sexual violence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(2), 180-186.