Do We Know What to Do?

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

This has been a busy week for educational researchers and for EPI. Two major conferences are happening as I write this commentary: the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) in Anaheim, California, and the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC) in Washington, DC. Both deal, in part, to expanding access and success at the postsecondary level, similar to our mission at EPI. Both organizations involve many of the same people, and–in logic that I can’t quite understand–both are being held on opposite coasts on the exact same dates. Brilliant. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the leaders of higher education in the US… and we shouldn’t be worried?

I spent the past two days at the NPEC conference in DC, just two blocks from the White House. This has been a very well-planned event with all the right people: Vincent Tinto, Derek Bok, Jim Hearn, George Kuh, Tom Bailey, Bridget Terry Long, David Longanecker, Paul Lingefelter, and many other top-notch individuals who have much to say such that we understand how much we have to learn. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings dropped by for a while.

The theme of the NPEC conference is “Spearheading a Dialogue on Student Success.” Five papers were commissioned for the event, including a lead-off piece by Jim Hearn of the University of Georgia. Jim’s piece summarized the five papers and identified the common themes. One in particular buttressed Alex Usher’s Halloween commentary of last week by stating that student success at the postsecondary level starts far before students finish high school. This is something that we are only beginning to grasp. While postsecondary educators and policy analysts have been lamenting the lack of focus on PSE by the Bush Administration for the past five years, there is great truth in our need to do much better in K-12 education before any real changes in higher education will emerge, at least from the student perspective. That doesn’t mean the Administration, along with states and philanthropies, shouldn’t be focusing more on higher education, but we do have to find a better way to engage students from Pre-K on to learn.

In talking about student learning at the K-12 level, A new report came out this week saying that students in Korea and other nations, who do much better in mathematics and other core academic areas than Americans, hate taking those courses as much or more than US students. But they do it, learn it, and excel it, so to speak. Somehow, if we truly want to take off the “glass ceiling” we’ve self-imposed on postsecondary access and success, students will have to develop a better set of academic skills in elementary and secondary school, and that’s a problem that involves everybody. Expecting postsecondary institutions to pick up the pieces in remedial (sorry, developmental… but don’t let me digress) education is asking far too much for “higher” education.

The Hearn paper also noted the importance of further integration between K-12 and postsecondary education to encourage student success. We’ve given this a wonderful name in the United States: K-20 integration. I love it. I particularly enjoy going to states who spout off about their K-20 “collaboratives.” Great semantic engineering, but I’m not seeing a whole lot of change in actual practices. Jim’s right, though. Until we figure how to best tie these two entities—that of compulsory education and elective, postsecondary education—students will continue to face challenges determining their education and vocational futures.

There was a funny moment at the conference, because most presenters in front of the 500+ audience were talking in a theoretical perspective about what “should be,” or what their research “posited.” I overheard one lady in the audience say a little too loudly, “Enough, enough, enough. What are we supposed to do?” Vince Tinto echoed this sentiment in his comments, as written in this Thursday’s “Will all due respect to my colleagues, one might argue that we already have sufficient research on student success. What is missing in our view is the ability to transform the knowledge that we have into practical knowledge.”

Back to the lady in the audience, isn’t this the catch? What to do? I’ve said before that when we conduct our Retention 101 workshops: participants ultimately want to know what to do. But–collectively speaking–we do a poor job of providing information on what works. At the NPEC Conference, Harvard’s Bridget Terry Long said that all strategies must be somewhat local because every campus is unique. While this is ultimately true, we don’t even do a decent job of providing information on what “could” work on campuses.

This point is the main impetus behind EPI’s effort to build an international database on “What Works” in student success. The project, supported in part by TG (formerly known as the Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation), will produce a searchable web-based portal where practitioners can search for peer-reviewed strategies, complete with contact information so that individuals can make direct contact to program administrators. EPI will be releasing more information on the Effective Practices Database in the near future. We’re also looking for further financial support, so…

I would also like to quickly report that this was an important week for EPI. On Tuesday we released the UNIVERSITY NAVIGATOR, which is our online web portal for students and parents to rank institutions based on their own interests, not those determined by other organizations (like US News and World Report or MacLeans Magazines). EPI created the Navigator in partnership with the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest newspaper. Unfortunately, the Navigator only works with Canadian universities at this time, but we are hoping to bring it down to the US in the very near future.

Secondly, EPI recently won a series of bids on research projects in the US and Canada. Over the next year, EPI will conduct an evaluation of the Reading First program in North Carolina; in Canada, we secured a contract with the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum (Forum canadien sur l’apprentissage) to conduct a national survey of apprentices whose in-class experiences occur in a private (i.e. non-community college) setting, and a contract for the Government of Ontario to conduct an evaluation of the Government’s Aboriginal Education and Training Strategy. All very cool stuff.

Have a relaxing weekend.

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