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Research must guide Maryland’s pandemic recovery | COMMENTARY

President Biden has pledged to follow the science. He elevated the role of science adviser to a cabinet position, created a task force to review scientific integrity practices in federal agencies and said he will make “evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.” This is the right approach — and it’s the way our state government in Maryland should make decisions, too. We not only need to act on the science to fight COVID, we need research to lead us in every aspect of our collective recovery, from helping those who have lost their jobs to supporting kids who are struggling in school.

I have dedicated my career to reforming government programs so that spending decisions are based on actual evidence about what works — and what doesn’t — to improve people’s lives. A longtime Montgomery County resident, I was trusted by the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations and by Congress to identify and develop truly effective public programs. When you look at the research on employment and education, it points to several highly successful programs that we should adopt to help Marylanders get on track after such a grueling year.

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Let’s look first at what the research tells us about assisting people who are out of work. Our unemployment rate in Maryland is still unacceptably high at 6.2%, and this rate does not include thousands of workers who have dropped out of the labor force. As the number of COVID cases continues to drop, our state should help people get back to work by starting a low-cost re-employment program, like the one that has made a real difference in Nevada in recent years. A well-conducted randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of research, found that people who took part in Nevada’s Re-employment and Eligibility Assessment (REA) Program not only got new jobs, they got jobs where they made, on average, an additional $8,460 over three years — that’s 15% more than people who didn’t participate in the program.

A key aspect of the Nevada REA program is that it gets people headed in the right direction when they file a claim for unemployment. While states often initially focus on reviewing a person’s claim and then have them come back a couple of weeks later for help with their job search, Nevada does everything all at once during a single visit. The state simplifies the process and doesn’t take a chance on people not returning for their follow-up appointment. That’s smart, because data show that the longer people are out of work, the more their earning potential decreases. And the approach is cheaper for taxpayers, too. It costs the state about $250 for every person enrolled in the program and, by moving people off unemployment insurance and into jobs, results in a net savings for the government.

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Another program that could make a difference in Maryland’s COVID recovery is one-on-one tutoring for young children who are behind in reading and math. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed assessment data from last fall and projects that: “Students on average could lose five to nine months of learning by the end of June 2021. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students.” And The Sun reported Thursday that failing grades have tripled in some school systems across the state amid online learning.

The research is not clear on the effects of tutoring at all grade levels, but there are studies showing that certain models do make a difference for kids in the early grades. Under one such program, struggling readers in first grade meet individually with a specially trained reading teacher every school day for 30-minute lessons over a period of 12 to 20 weeks. Randomized controlled research shows that this brief program of daily tutoring produces large gains in children’s ability to recognize words and understand what they read. Every student in Maryland who needs it should get this kind of support early on in elementary school. It’s good for them, and it’s good for the future of our state.

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Many programs don’t work, but some do. In Maryland, we should choose programs that actually make a difference, so people who have been laid off don’t just find work, but land jobs with bigger paychecks, and kids having a hard time in school don’t just catch up, but start to speed ahead.

This past year, we’ve all seen how important it is to follow the science. By wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings, we have been able to slow the spread of COVID-19. Now, we must rely on research to guide our recovery, too. If we do that, Maryland will come back stronger than before.

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Jon Baron (jon@jonbaron.com) is a former nonprofit executive and federal official who is exploring a run for governor of Maryland.

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