Wallowing In Crimson Irony

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

At a time of record public deficits, personal bankruptcies and business failures at home, not to mention fatal U. S. embassy attacks abroad, only an academic could believe we are being well-governed. “We’re in the middle of an age of improved public-sector management,” Harvard’s Jeffrey B. Liebman said via satellite to a Capitol Hill forum on Wednesday.

Liebman teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He does cite initiatives of Arne Duncan’s federal Department of Education and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in New York City as examples of “improved public-sector management.” Although he praised both Duncan’s T-3 program and Bloomburg’s Center for Economic Opportunity for being “data-driven” and “outcome-based,” Liebman offered no outcomes or data from either at the Brookings Institution forum.

The irony of that dichotomy is compounded by the title of the Hamilton Project forum—“Investing in what works: the importance of evidence-based policymaking.” The Hamilton Project is a program launched by Brookings.

“The simple truth about most government social spending (and many other kinds of spending) is that we have no idea how effective it is,” Liebman writes in the Brookings report which was released at the conference. For years, advocates of the program touted Head Start as a crown jewel of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, yet Liebman notes that “When it was finally submitted to an impact evaluation beginning in 2002, the results were disappointing.”

“The evaluation found ‘modest to moderate positive impacts’ that ‘largely disappeared by the end of first grade’ (Advisory Committee on Head Start Research and Evaluation 2012, 27-28). In addition, it had become apparent that the quality of different Head Start centers varied widely and that there was a need to systematically assess center quality on an ongoing basis.”

Nevertheless, Liebman goes on to assert that “The balance of the evidence suggests that its benefits significantly outweigh its costs.” Yet and still, Liebman displays none of the evidence that led him to this suggestion.

Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org.