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The Research That Changed My Thinking

A Survey

March 27, 2024

Practitioners and researchers reflect on a study that shaped their worldview.

Practitioners and researchers reflect on a study that shaped their worldview.

A Thorny Problem With a Seemingly Simple Solution

By John King

I have spent my career — from my time in the classroom to my tenure serving as President Obama’s secretary of education to my current role as chancellor of the State University of New York — fighting for educational equity as a civil right. When I first encountered the data on the City University of New York’s revolutionary Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP) in 2015, I was awed by the transformative potential to scale student success.

Then working as a U.S. deputy secretary of education, I was jubilant that a problem so thornily insoluble — the struggle of community colleges to consistently and effectively help students facing remediation needs and financial shortfalls persist and succeed — potentially had a simple solution: Help the students more.

But it was the passage of years and the replication of the stellar data reported by the MDRC on ASAP, first by additional studies of the CUNY outcomes, then by assessments of replications in other communities and states, which convinced me I must work to ensure that the research which had captured my imagination would also change the world.

The problem was simple, yet seemingly intractable, when CUNY began implementing ASAP in 2007. Community college was touted as the first, crucial step on the path to higher-education success, especially for students who needed developmental or remedial courses to build basic skills. But nationwide, only 15% of students with developmental needs attending a community college were earning a degree within three years.

ASAP’s answer was to present students who had both remedial and financial needs with a pairing of opportunity and obligation: The students would have to attend full-time, take any required developmental (and later corequisite) courses as a foundational step in their college journey and move toward graduation in three years.

In exchange, they would be offered intensive, comprehensive advisement from a specially trained counselor charged with a reduced caseload, intensive tutoring services, career and employment advisement services, prioritized course enrollment and special skills seminars.

Students also received crucial financial support, starting with a tuition waiver that covered all gaps between financial aid and the cost of tuition and fees, free public transportation cards and free use of textbooks.

The results were astonishing and conclusive: ASAP substantially improved students’ academic outcomes over three years, nearly doubling graduation rates.

Just over 40% of the program group students earned a degree within three years, while just 22% of the control group did. And while the average program group student earned 48 credits over that period, the control group averaged just 39 credits.

Eight years later, the results of the 2015 study of CUNY’s ASAP program and its success have been replicated repeatedly. Similar initiatives, implemented and then evaluated in Ohio and at SUNY’s Westchester Community College, produced much the same results.

And while the biggest barrier raised by administrators opposing ASAP iterations is cost, colleges that adopt ASAP spend less per degree granted than those that do not.

To date, CUNY has served over 100,000 students with ASAP or its four-year baccalaureate counterpart, ACE, and the programs have been replicated successfully in seven states.

I came to SUNY as chancellor in January 2023 and one of my earliest and most important hires was Senior Vice Chancellor of Student Success Donna Linderman, whose leadership of ASAP at CUNY was pivotal to its success. Today she is leading the charge to institute ASAP through the SUNY Transformation Fund, with 13 community colleges launching programs and 12 of our four-year campuses kicking off programs in ACE.

I have no doubt she and the programs will be every bit as successful at SUNY, and I feel nothing but pride and excitement to be associated with them. And it is my fondest hope that the data and success we create will alter others’ worldviews, just as earlier triumphs opened mine.

John King is chancellor of the State University of New York.


Exposing the Truth About Child Welfare Systems

By Jeffrey Butts

One federally sponsored study from the 1970s changed my life. The research was not statistically brilliant. It did not break new ground in theory or methodology. It simply investigated factors shaping agency decisions in the child welfare system, which can harm poor and disadvantaged families with young children. I was once part of that system.

Before earning a Ph.D., I was a social worker in Oregon’s foster care system, coordinating services for children in foster homes scattered around Portland. Less than a year into the job, my supervisor moved me into the agency’s specialized team for “permanency planning.” We managed the cases of children most likely to be stuck in foster care. We were to act aggressively to return the children home or to assemble the evidence needed to petition the court for termination of parental rights to facilitate legal adoption.

I was horrified by the job. The children in my caseload were in foster care because their families were desperately poor and suffering from mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment and inadequate housing. How hard was I supposed to fight all those social and economic factors before just giving up and working on the termination of parental rights? For me, it was an exhausting ethical struggle. Some of my colleagues appeared less troubled. They began preparing for termination hearings almost as soon as they received a new case.

I needed information. I went to the campus library at Portland State University. That’s where I found a 1978 study by Arthur Emlen and his colleagues at PSU’s Regional Research Institute for Human Services, “Overcoming Barriers to Planning for Children in Foster Care.” With funding from the federal agency then known as the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), researchers studied the factors shaping permanency planning for children in foster care. The study found that agency actions to remove or return children to families were not simply due to case characteristics. They could be predicted in part by worker beliefs and the general climate of attitudes in the agency. We were part of the problem.

I eagerly prepared a summary of the research to present at the next staff meeting of the permanency planning team. I still remember the brief silence that followed my presentation before one of my colleagues said, “Yeah, but that’s just research bullshit.” It was the first time I thought I just might be a researcher.

Jeffrey Butts is the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


A Lifelong Lesson in Evidence-Based Policing

By Cynthia Lum

In 1996, I began working as a graduate research assistant for Professor Lawrence Sherman at the University of Maryland. When I started the doctoral program, I had no idea what “evidence-based” anything was about, let alone evidence-based policing. Like many young people studying criminal justice, I had aspirations of a career in law enforcement, not academia. But that first year, I read an article that would eventually change the course of my professional life.

Larry was scheduled to meet with the governor’s office in Richmond, Va., to discuss policing issues and asked me if I’d like to tag along to see criminal justice policymaking (and politics) in action. To prepare me for what to expect, he gave me an early type-written draft of what would eventually become “Evidence-Based Policing,” one of the most significant Ideas in American Policing lectures for the Police Foundation (now known as the National Policing Institute). Although discussed before in several essays and later expanded upon in his “triple-T” (tracking, testing, targeting) paper in 2013, “Evidence-Based Policing” became the foundation for my work and that of many others trying to reform policing through science. 

In “Evidence-Based Policing,” Larry argued that the police had an ethical and democratic mandate to use the “best available knowledge” to guide both their internal organizational practices and external public safety efforts. He wasn’t just advocating for more scientific evaluations but equally for agencies to generate their own analysis and knowledge as feedback loops to everyday accountability and deployments. But this piece went much further than advocating for systematic study. He spoke at length about the other side of the evidence-based policing coin — how research should be institutionalized into everyday police actions — and the benefits and challenges thereof. 

His emphasis on both generating and institutionalizing good science in policing practice would eventually become anchors of my Ideas in American Policing lecture and my work with Chris Koper (another of Larry’s students) on translating and institutionalizing evidence-based policing into practice. Across almost three decades since seeing the piece, my appreciation for its value and meaning has evolved alongside my learning. 

For example, as a new student of policing when I started working with Larry in his partnerships with police agencies, the ideas in the article seemed entirely logical. However, when I left my studies to become a police officer in 1997 (a story for another day), I became quickly schooled in why such an idea might not be so easily implemented in practice. I hardly spent my patrol days proactively targeting hot spots with problem-solving or community-engaged interventions. This was not because of the inherent difficulties implementing these evidence-based approaches or my lack of knowledge about them. Instead, the agency’s deeply ingrained operations, systems and expectations led me to primarily answer calls, drive around my beat and use my experience or “craft,” not scientific knowledge, to do my job. The profession also makes one cynical and sometimes angry, making it harder to be optimistic about reform and change.

When I left policing and returned to academia in 2003, it took me two more decades of toiling in partnership with police agencies to fully appreciate the magnitude of the effort Sherman described and why it is so fundamentally important to both police research and practice. However, each time I read it (and now have my students read it), I find new and additional meaning as I navigate the challenging world of implementing and institutionalizing research and science into practice.

But back to the article’s emphasis, which is still the same today as in 1997: Evidence-based policing is deeply ingrained in the democratic ideal of criminal justice. We need researchers and practitioners — in partnership with each other and their communities — to generate high-quality and objective knowledge and figure out how to translate, operationalize and institutionalize that information into justice outcomes and outputs to reform policing towards the democratic ideal. This immense task will hardly be accomplished in my lifetime. But the efforts and hopes in “Evidence-Based Policing” have shaped and brought significant meaning to my career, and I’m grateful for it.

Cynthia Lum is a distinguished university professor of criminology, law and society and director of George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.


Research Plus Power Equals Change

By Mindy Tarlow

In 1984, at 24 years old, I was recruited by New York City’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for my first big job. I made the rounds through OMB’s “task forces” — housing, education, etc. In the 1980s, housing was the hot topic, and the logical place to go — but then I interviewed with Michael Jacobson for the position of senior analyst for probation and correctional alternatives. Unusual for OMB, Mike had a PhD in sociology and a deep commitment to research. Mike gave me my first window into research that showed alternatives to incarceration as better, fairer and, yes, a lot cheaper, than incarceration. He made the case that OMB was the perfect place to demonstrate that you could avoid spending on incarceration and support alternatives instead. In other words, you could be both fiscally and socially responsible. I was sold.

Still, as an analyst, I had lots of questions: If you’re diverting people from jail and prison, how do you know they would have been incarcerated without the alternative? How do you calculate how much jail/prison time would be saved? What is the cost/benefit analysis? I was able to turn to the alternatives-to-incarceration contracts in my portfolio, most notably with the Vera Institute of Justice. Through Vera’s research, I began to understand how to make the case for expansion of these programs.

From this period, one memory stands out. At a meeting with Vera, discussing an alternative-to-incarceration proposal, I remember lasering in on a footnote that offered a detailed calculation of savings due to diverting people from incarceration. The footnote included how “jail displacement” and “bed days” were calculated; the “cost per day” of alternatives to incarceration vs. corrections; and even an estimated deduction for “failure” — assumptions around inaccurate targeting and the number of people who might fail to complete a program and then be incarcerated. The precision of this calculation, even allowing for inevitable margins of error, resonated deeply with me.

Armed with this research and the positional power of OMB and the deputy mayor’s office, we sought opportunities to expand the use of alternatives to incarceration in New York. And we found a big one in the early 1990s when Mayor David Dinkins launched the Safe Streets, Safe City plan and we prepared to hire thousands of police officers. By calculating the “jail displacement beds” anticipated by alternatives to incarceration, we made a successful argument that no new jail beds were needed. As a result, the city allocated $3 million to incarceration alternatives instead of $50 million to the Department of Correction — this, remember, was in 1990s dollars. The savings funded Beacon Schools — citywide afterschool programs — that remain today.

This firsthand experience at such a young age taught me that, if you are in the right position with the right research at the right time, you can influence the decisions of those who shape public policy. It has stayed with me throughout my career in government, nonprofits, philanthropy and, now, academia.

Mindy Tarlow is a senior fellow and research professor at the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management.