Dr. Hector Garza, National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP) Reauthorization Proposal for the U.S. Department of Education
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We appreciate the opportunity to provide the U.S. Department of Education with comments and suggestions for amending the Higher Education Act. Also in the spirit of contributing innovative ideas to help improve postsecondary education, we are pleased to submit a few new program ideas for your consideration and review.
Because NCCEP has signed on as a supporter to other reauthorization proposals submitted by sister associations and the higher education community as a collective, my remarks this afternoon will focus primarily on the question related to promoting access and educational opportunities for low-income and underrepresented students.
As all of you know, NCCEP was founded to help schools, colleges, universities, communities, and businesses work together to improve students' academic achievement and to increase ALL students' access to postsecondary education. An organization with expertise in developing and sustaining K-16 education/community partnerships for the purpose of improving public education and creating systemic change throughout the K-16 education communities, NCCEP aims to help ensure students'-particularly low-income and underrepresented students'-academic success and access to college.
For example, our extensive involvement with the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) provides ample opportunities to work with your grantees in building their individual and partnership capacities to help greater number of students to achieve academically and to make lasting improvements in educational programs, policies, and practices.
With respect to the federal college access programs, we believe that GEAR UP and TRIO should be maintained as separate complementary programs and expanded to collectively serve larger number of students, schools, and communities. Each of these important college access programs offers unique approaches and student services to low-income and first-generation college students. To consolidate the programs would be a mistake.
Of the two, GEAR UP is the younger and more contemporary in terms of its philosophic and programmatic approach. Using research-driven practices that focus on what matters most- student achievement and academic success-GEAR UP partnerships already are documenting impressive changes in students' achievement levels as well as changes in educational practices that will serve as lasting reforms to K-16 systems.
The central question, then, is how can we make an excellent college access program even better? We believe that the programmatic thrust and work of GEAR UP partnerships are central to helping schools, districts, and states efficiently implement the No Child Left Behind Act. GEAR UP local partnerships work within middle schools and high schools to help improve instruction through improved pedagogy and technology integration, supplemental academic enrichment and student support programs, smoother transitions from middle to high schools, and to ensure that student achievement is always at the core of the GEAR UP strategy. Similarly, the state GEAR UP partnership grants are equally important to helping create the climate necessary for academic success within low-income communities and their schools. GEAR UP state partnerships play an important statewide coordinating role, ensuring that the work of local partnerships is aligned with state academic standards; they also facilitate the involvement of colleges and universities in helping to create and implement the education reforms necessary to provide low-income students with greater access to postsecondary education.
In GEAR UP, the administration has a model program that can help ensure that "no child is left behind." GEAR UP is the mechanism to ensure a smooth education transition for all children. This model, encompassing local strategies and community engagement with a coordinated state presence directed from the governor's office, is precisely the type of federal program that should be improved and expanded to serve all states and more communities.
We believe that the Department of Education can play a leadership role in convincing the American public that as a country we can manage one integrated system of education in which every sector of the continuum coordinates with the other, aligning curricula, teaching methods, and academic standards in a way that can help all students achieve academically. This K-16 education model, though studied and written about, has been implemented in only a few communities across our nation. We therefore encourage the department to consider expanding GEAR UP to serve students beginning at the elementary school level as a way both to maintain a coordinated K-16 education reform strategy and to capitalize on the high levels of motivation and advanced degree aspiration demonstrated by elementary school students. Through an enhanced GEAR UP program, those positive student-related characteristics at the elementary school level could be further nurtured and supported during middle school and beyond.
In addition, we believe that the department can be helpful in defining more precisely the roles and responsibilities of leadership from local GEAR UP partnerships and state GEAR UP grantees. The strength of the model is the multiple spheres of influence that are impacted by both types of partnerships, both equally important in developing a coordinated strategy to ensure student success.
Explore the feasibility of making GEAR UP a K-16 model.
Provide further clarification of the role(s) and function(s) of local and state GEAR UP partnerships to maximize program impact. The clarification should emphasize that state and partnerships programs should continue to function together. The law should indicate that Congress intends that both types of GEAR UP partnerships will work closely together throughout the lifetimes of the programs, with state partnership grants serving as an equally important partner supporting local GEAR UP partnership grants in areas of state/local education policy development; leveraging state resources to support local GEAR UP efforts; facilitating the engagement of colleges, universities, and business; and helping to coordinate the student scholarship efforts of GEAR UP statewide. In addition, state grantees can help local GEAR UP partnerships document the financial match required by the program and can help ensure that accountability measures and effective assessment and data collection methods are in place and functioning well. Our proposed strategy should not be interpreted to mean that we are recommending that state GEAR UP partnership grantees should perform a "compliance" role with local partnership grant programs; rather, they must be partners in the truest sense: collaborating, coordinating, and cooperating with one another.
Local GEAR UP partnership grants should not be encouraged/allowed to propose a scholarship component. Rather, the scholarship component should be left exclusively to state partnership grantees. Local communities rarely have the capacity to fundraise and manage complex scholarship programs that involve out years and forward funding and may not have the requisite experience to ensure that a student is appropriately "packaged" as required by law. Providing scholarships should remain a role for state grantees, though waivers for states with appropriate need-based student aid programs should also be made available.
The department should ensure that the sixth year of funding for current GEAR UP grantees is provided and appropriated so that existing GEAR UP grantees can keep their promise to provide their students with greater access to postsecondary education.
Systemic reform takes time, and therefore GEAR UP must be given the time necessary to demonstrate its impact over a long sustained period of time. Studies conducted by SRI Associates on behalf of the National Science Foundation concluded that effective education reforms not only took time to develop and implement but also required a sustained effort continually improving and adjusting the education strategies implemented using a top-down and bottom-up (grassroots work) approach. These comprehensive and systemic reform models being implemented through GEAR UP are precisely the locally effective practices the administration needs to support.
With regard to assessments and accountability for program impact, we strongly support the administration's position on funding only programs that work and ensuring that tax dollars are wisely spent. While project-level evaluations are the cornerstone for measuring program impact, we are concerned that GEAR UP partnerships have not been provided the necessary technical assistance by the department evaluation staff or their evaluation contractor, Westat. As with many other education reform initiatives, at least three years are necessary to get organized and to begin to function effectively as an education partnership. GEAR UP partnership teams are just now ready to more effectively use local and state and student achievement data to refine their programs, policies, and practices.
As the technical assistance provider for GEAR UP partnerships, NCCEP stands ready to work with the U.S. Department of Education evaluation staff to help build the organizational and individual capacities of GEAR UP partnerships. We believe that our proven track record and organizational capacity in the area of K-16 partnership assessments will help GEAR UP grantees to conduct better evaluations and to use their data and analyses to improve their programs.
Moreover, the GEAR UP community has repeatedly expressed concern about what is perceived as a disconnect between the data reported through the Annual Performance Review (APR) and the unique design of the local GEAR UP program. Many program directors see little relevance between the data collected through APR and their specific program interventions. Our concern is that a flawed methodology and data collection system will fail to produce the type of evaluation that will be necessary to demonstrate programs' real impact. In addition, program evaluations should have value locally and should be designed to guide program directors in making program adjustments and mid-course corrections. Thus, we recommend that the department use the NCCEP-sponsored GEAR UP conferences and capacity-building workshops as a way to gain valuable insight from the field and to refine the current APR and project-level evaluation strategy.
- We continue to be concerned bout the way in which Westat has organized itself to conduct the GEAR UP evaluation. This contractor has failed to demonstrate a willingness to immerse itself in the trenches of partnership work as a way to understand the inner workings of the program. This has left the GEAR UP community suspicious of Westat's role and function. Repeated attempts to engage Westat in meaningful conversations with GEAR UP practitioners have proven futile, heightening mistrust.
We recommend that the department consider a review of the current scope of work and explicitly require the contractor to form a learning community made up of GEAR UP program and NCCEP evaluators, Department of Education evaluation and GEAR UP program staff, and academic researchers who study college access programs and K-16 partnerships. Further, the contractor should be encouraged to participate and assume a supportive role at national GEAR UP conference and capacity-building workshops. However, it should not be assigned the task of providing technical assistance to the field of GEAR UP practitioners.
In closing, we offer the following reflection: GEAR UP is founded on the adage, "Give a hungry person a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he can eat for a lifetime." GEAR UP teaches students, parents, teachers, and schools "how to fish"-how to learn, what to learn-so they can feed-educate-themselves and the generations that will follow.