GEARing UP for Success

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

This past week I was in San Francisco for the Annual GEAR UP Conference, held by my friends at the National Council for Community and Educational Partnerships, or NCCEP. This year marked the 10th anniversary of both GEAR UP and NCCEP, the latter started by my friend Hector Garza, who has created the equivalent of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) for the federal TRiO programs.

As our readers know from a previous column back in January of this year, I am quite familiar with GEAR UP, having served on the US Department of Education’s negotiated rulemaking committee for the program after it was authorized by Congress in the 1998 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965. NegRegs, as we call them, are used to put legislative language into action; Congress defined the mechanism; we created the rules, such as how the matching component works.  

I have complete support for GEAR UP, TRiO, and other outreach programs, like MESA, AVID, I Have a Dream, College Summit, and the countless others in operation across the US and Canada (for my Canadian colleagues, AVID is big in BC, having been supported, in part, by the soon-to-be-footnote Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation). They provide an important service to children, youth, parents, communities, and educators by filling the gaps left open by both our communities and education system. And therein lies the problem.

Back in 2000, USC’s Bill Tierney, one of the brightest guys I know in the business, compared these programs to the scaffolding of a school house–they provide necessary support for the building. However, at some point, we don’t want scaffolding around our buildings–our schools. We want them to be freestanding entities fulfilling our societal needs.

Until we have schools that perform the services for ALL STUDENTS, not just the chosen few, we will need educational and social scaffolding.

We understand that our education system(s) do not work in isolation. Some might suggest they don’t work at all. But they do. They just don’t work well enough for those who do not possess the necessary external support resources. This issue is a continuing thread through our work.

Yesterday I was on a conference call with the Texas Education Association (TEA), The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the Community Foundations of Texas (CFT), regarding their $200 million+ investment into educational reform in the great state of Texas. Most of us around the collective virtual table have seen large investments in school reform before. The Annenberg Fund, for one, which showed how $500 million can have such little impact on schools and learning. When I worked for the College Board, I originally worked on a project called EQUITY 2000, a school reform effort aimed at restructuring how schools teach mathematics and science, and getting students through Algebra I by the 8th grade. We spent $27 million dollars in six school districts across the US to find that when the money goes, so do the reforms. I can stand corrected, but I don’t think any of the serious reforms from the program stayed in place after it folded tent in the early 2000s.  

During our conversation yesterday, we spoke of how to evaluate the Texas High School Project when it competes with other interventions. As researchers clearly understand, schools that receive funding for special education interventions often receive other funds for other interventions–those who get more get, well, more.

Designing evaluations that parse out the individual elements is difficult–sometimes impossible (this theme also came up at the GEAR UP conference). Is it the counseling services that resulting in better graduation rates, or the teaching? Or was it the administrations retooling of communications and partnerships within the schools? Or was it the computers, technology? Or the revised curricula? Or moving teachers out and new teachers in? Was it AVID? Or MESA? Who gets the credit? It gets complicated…

And is we can’t determine what the causal factors are, how do we change schools? Because group A will say it is intervention A and group B will say it is intervention B? Status quo wins.

So we’re back to scaffolding. Perhaps that is the best we can hope for (or “the best for which we can hope” for you English grammar pot heads) given the serious constrains on our ability to re-juggle the system. I often hear from my colleagues, including myself, that we know what to do to reform our education system. The problem is we can’t agree on which pieces, parts, or possibilities. I point to Kansas, who infamously changed the science curriculum to teach creationism. These were smart people doing not-so-smart things. World history is littered with examples of exceptionally bright people doing the wrong thing.

Back in the early 1970s we played with open area schools. Bad idea. But it had a following mostly because it was “different,” and it would take different to change the face of education. We’ve played with same gender schools; same race schools. Let’s face it; improving education is, to a degree, like a diet. Any diet in the world will work if we focus enough on the outcome. Eat lettuce for two weeks; you will lose weight. Do Atkins; South Beach; Scarsdale; low-fat; etc. You will lose weight. We need focus, and in education, we simply do not have that focus. There isn’t enough collective interest (as I stated two weeks ago) and too many factions trying to get “their way” rather than work together to forge “our way.” Unless we break down that barrier, we won’t get very far.

School reform becomes a discussion first about ideas and second about politics–the politics of change. There are those who see change as an opportunity to make better, and those who fear change away from what they know. We see that in health care reform now. In the end, we are not making the progress we need to make. We need to use the projects like the Texas High School Project and get beyond the rhetoric so that we can begin to dismantle the scaffolding around our schools and communities and energize stakeholders to take hold and reaffirm our commitment to education.

I congratulate all the GEAR UP and TRiO colleagues I met this past week in San Francisco. They are doing a magnificent job trying to buoy the public education system in communities across the US. I hope they can help fight beyond the rhetoric and change how teachers teach, students learn, and families function. Then perhaps we can move forward.

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