A new approach reveals which social programs work

MINNEAPOLIS—A new scientific method of assessing social welfare programs is revealing something important that's never been known before: which ones work.

Among the ones that do, it turns out, are:

_Career Academies, a nationwide high school vocational program whose graduates earn more than comparable nonparticipants with at least a year of community college credits.

_Center for Employment Opportunities, a work program for ex-cons that halves their recidivism rate by putting them to work—and paying them daily—as soon as they're released.

_Louisiana Opening Doors, a $1,000-a-semester performance-based scholarship whose community college recipients—all low-income parents—earn higher grades and are more likely to stay in school than nonscholarship recipients.

_Jobs-Plus, a multifaceted jobs campaign that helps public housing residents find work and earn bigger paychecks.

Behind each claim of success lies scientific-quality evidence. Typically, it's based on dividing a random selection of volunteers into two groups: one that gets a program's help and one that doesn't.

In the scholarship study, based in pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, qualified applicants were told that they were part of an experiment similar to a test of a new drug and were given $20 gift certificates for signing up. They then were split up at random into two groups, one of which received the $1,000-a-semester scholarships.

The money was doled out in three payments over the semester to students who earned C's or better for taking six credits or more. They received counseling along with the money. Compared with the control group, scholarship recipients were taking 60 percent more courses by the third semester. They passed them at a 20 percent higher rate and were 80 percent more likely to be enrolled full time.

MDRC, an independent nonprofit agency known only by its initials, pioneered the scientific approach to evaluating social programs. It hopes that the approach will encourage what it calls "evidence-based policies" for social investments by government agencies.

When agencies offer initiatives that don't work, said Gordon Berlin, MDRC's president, "the first to know are the people who participate and the second to know are the taxpayers. ... This breeds cynicism in government's ability to spend money wisely and effectively."

To identify programs that work, MDRC's evaluators "apply experimental evaluation techniques to social science questions," according to Gregory Acs, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington. "When I pick up one of their reports, I know they did it right."

MDRC focuses these days mainly on assessing public school revisions, rehabilitation for ex-cons and programs to help low-income people succeed in college.

The biggest clear winners, according to a series of its studies, are high school programs that combine academic and career themes with outreach to local businesses for internships and other work-based learning opportunities. About 2,500 U.S. high schools offer such job-oriented elective programs, called Career Academies.

At Washburn High School in Minneapolis, for example, a gaunt old pile that smells of floor wax, about 60 freshmen a year sign up for the four-year Travel and Tourism Academy. It offers electives in topics such as geography, event management and hospitality technology systems to the general curriculum. Minneapolis-based Carlson Cos., which owns Radisson and other hotels, T.G.I. Fridays, a cruise line and Carlson Wagonlit Travel, kicks in headquarters tours, speakers, counselors and internships. State and city hotel associations and the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association also pitch in.

Felicia Chappell, a downtown hotel receptionist, is a fan. Washburn's Travel and Tourism Academy, Chappell said, "is helping my godson Ma-Sha to set a goal and work toward something besides sports." Her son, Cedric, an eighth-grader, is applying to get in, too.

According to MDRC, Career Academies improve high school attendance and graduation rates. And male Career Academy alumni earned an average of about $10,000 more in the four years after graduation than did male nonparticipants. That's based on a sample of 1,458 young people from nine high schools, some of whom had been chosen by lottery to be Career Academy students.

MDRC attributes the earning differential, which came to about 18 percent, or $212 a month, to a combination of higher wages, more hours worked and greater employment stability. By comparison, young men with one or two years of community college credit earned only $100 a month more than those without it.

Career Academies worked far better for young men than women when it came to post-high school income, MDRC found, because women were likelier to be in school after high school or taking care of children.

The gains were the greatest, MDRC found, for the hardest nuts to crack: male students at high or medium risk of dropping out. Risk was based on elementary school attendance, test scores and the education level of students' parents.

James Kemple, MDRC's director for K-12 education programs, thinks high-risk kids gain the most because Career Academies are their one best shot.

"High-risk kids are the least likely to find other helpful opportunities in high school," Kemple said. "For them, it's a new and real pathway into the labor market."

Career Academy students also gain from being part of a small group that takes lots of classes and trips together, he said. A big urban high school can be alienating for high-risk kids, he said, "especially for adolescents moving into a school where no one knows who they are."

Other interventions that help solve tough social problems, according to MDRC:

_Problem: About 600,000 U.S. adults get out of prison each year, and half will be back in in three years, according to government and academic statistics. A big clue why: Nine out of 10 parole violators are unemployed.

Solution: New York City's Center for Employment Opportunities, which, on their release, grabs ex-cons who served time for nonviolent crimes. After four days of training they earn the minimum wage, paid daily, on crews that provide maintenance, landscaping, light construction and demolition for state agencies. Job counselors appraise their attitudes daily in writing until higher-skilled jobs are justified.

Among ex-cons who held higher-skilled jobs for one month, the New York State Department of Correctional Services found, the recidivism rate was 24 percent. For those who held the jobs for six months, it was 13 percent.

_Problem: Public housing residents say they're discouraged from seeking work by the traditional public-housing rent formula, which takes 30 percent of whatever they earn.

Solution: Jobs-Plus, whose housing project participants pay a flat rent. They also receive counseling in how to prepare resumes, interview for jobs and manage bills, plus help with child care and transportation. Incomes "flourished" in good economic times and bad, said Al Hester of the St. Paul Housing Authority in Minnesota, whose Mount Airy Homes residents participated in the MDRC study.

On average, Mount Airy residents gained $5,968 over four years, 15 percent more than residents of similar St. Paul public-housing projects that weren't part of Jobs-Plus. Tenants at Jobs-Plus sites in Los Angeles and Dayton, Ohio, scored similar gains.

While MDRC has found much to laud in some programs, it's panned a lot of others, including Job Training Partnership Act programs for youth and a program for high school dropouts called JOBSTART.

Recognizing which programs work and which don't is crucial, according to MDRC's Berlin. "Doing what we hope will work, rather than what we know works," he said, "leads to constant reinventing of the wheel, dooming policymakers to a cycle of relearning past lessons with no ability to build on those lessons."

To learn more about MDRC and its evaluations, go to