Report co-author Rick Hess (right) discusses the “moneyball” approach to education policy with panelists, from left, John Bailey, John King, Cheryl Oldham and Jim Shelton at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday. (American Enterprise Institute)

Report co-author Rick Hess (right) discusses the “moneyball” approach to education policy with panelists, from left, John Bailey, John King, Cheryl Oldham and Jim Shelton at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday. (American Enterprise Institute)

WASHINGTON – The Education Department has a math problem.

Experts from Republican and Democratic administrations agreed Wednesday with a report detailing policies to more effectively distribute federal education funding through stronger use of statistics.

All that’s needed is more effective use of data, and right now that’s not happening.

“We just do such a terrible job right now, as a sector, in terms of sort of being able to track how funds flow down to the kids, what interventions were used with those funds and then marrying it with even the basic outcomes that we have now,” said John Bailey, former education advisor to President George W. Bush.

The authors of the report — Rick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute and Bethany Little of EducationCounsel and Results for America — argue for a “moneyball” approach to federal education funding. The term is borrowed from the famed Michael Lewis book about using innovative statistics on player performance to spend money more effectively in Major League Baseball.

“Moneyball is not just about trying to figure out which programs give you the biggest reading and math score jumps,” Hess said of the report’s findings. “It’s really about trying to figure out all those opportunities to help children learn better, all those opportunities for teachers to teach better, that we don’t observe, that we don’t see, that we might overlook because we’re looking in the wrong places or with the wrong tools.”

The report suggest ways to effectively use data in measuring performance and doing cost-benefit analysis in calculating how to spend limited taxpayer money on federally-funded education programs. It does not, however, assess the current level of federal spending on education.

“This agenda, around using data, evidence, innovation to drive better outcomes, is supposed to be common sense, but it’s really not the way things often work in policy,” said Little, who was an education advisor to President Bill Clinton.

The panel discussion at the think tank included education officials who worked for either President Barack Obama, or his predecessor, former President Bush. They all agreed that an increased focus on research and development would benefit the effectiveness of federal education policy.

Federal programs such as the Bush administration’s Reading First or Obama’s Race to the Top could be more effective and attract more popular support if backed up by sound data, demonstrating what works, and what doesn’t. More transparent evidence-based standards, the report contends, would overcome the programs’ political barriers.

The Education Department, the panelists said, should make school statistics readily available and easy to understand. Right now, the department’s statistics are often released with a year or two lag, making effective, real-time assessment difficult.

The issue creates a “blank space,” where the government is unable to accurately measure successes and failures, according John Bailey.

The lack of data makes it difficult for the department to track which federally funded programs produce strong results and which fall short.

Thus, says John King of the Education Department, there is no incentive for schools to change their strategies because sufficient statistical evidence is lacking.

“I’m not sure we’ve created an incentive structure in the sector,” said King, a former director of a charter school management organization and deputy commissioner of the New York State Education Department. “If you are in a community where the schools have not been failing for a year, five years or ten years, but for literally generations, it’s very hard to imagine what different would look like. We’ve got to figure out how to show people what it would be.”

Through the development of “solid, trusted metrics to improve federal programs,” the report states, everyone from lawmakers to teachers to parents to students should be able to understand what makes programs successful and how to replicate them with statistical models.

Two senators — Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner — have agreed to work more closely to implement this “moneyball” approach, according to Results for America CEO and Co-Founder Michele Joplin.

“This is all about responsible government. This is all about good outcomes for kids,” Joplin said.