Reaching more than 350,000 students throughout the city, the United Way of Greater Houston’s (UWGH) urban education initiative is ambitious, to say the least. Still, the program has thrived thanks to guidance from researchers at the College of Education and Human Development’s Education Research Center (ERC) at Texas A&M University.
“I think our initial work has improved the quality of many of the programs,” says Dr. Hersh Waxman, professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Culture and co-principal investigator on the project.
Drs. Yolanda Padrón, Kayla Rollins and Susana Franco-Fuenmayor are also co-principal investigators on the project.
The UWGH education initiative brings together more than 30 non-profit agencies across the city to deliver resources to students who need them.
Among them include programs providing reading enrichment during the school year and a space for students to stay engaged during the long summer months. Kindergarten readiness programs provide assistance to children who haven’t attended pre-school while parenting programs provide learning tools for families to help themselves.
What the initiative was initially missing, however, was accountability. How does an undertaking of that size measure success? In other words, when tackling an issue as complex as urban education—in a city growing as rapidly as any other in the nation—what does success even look like?
As evaluators of the initiative, these are the questions that researchers at the ERC were tasked to answer when they began working with the program in 2012. During the time since, they have brought to the table subject area expertise and a sharpened sense for what actionable data looks like.
In what Dr. Waxman called “a massive undertaking,” the ERC developed a data warehouse to collect academic outcome data for children involved in the UWGH community agency’s programs. Ultimately, the goal is to determine whether involvement in the programs – whether students are in elementary, middle or high school – increases the likelihood that they will attend college and have generally more successful lives.
The initiative also provides opportunities for faculty who are interested in field-based research and a training ground for the college’s doctoral students, as they have a chance to work directly with community agencies and school personnel.
Through it all, ERC researchers say they could not have asked for a better partner in this fight for social change than the United Way of Greater HoustonTweet This
TRANSLATING DATA TO ACTION
So far, the researchers’ systematic observation of the programs has revealed a number of areas for improvement that UWGH has been working hard to address.
Researchers discovered that, for the dozens of UWGH community agencies in Houston, less than 1% of students were involved in more than one program. The data suggested that, students seldom participated in more than one program.
“You would think that students would be involved in multiple programs because these programs are all over the schools,” said Dr. Waxman. “They’re really not. Typically, kids are involved in one particular agency or another. There’s very little overlap.”
Given that challenge, ERC researchers encouraged UWGH to foster a more collaborative culture within the initiative.
“There’s been collaboration between the agencies that has never occurred before,” said Dr. Waxman. “For example, during the summer learning programs, you have several agencies that are collaborating to develop a stronger program. That never occurred until these last two years.”
“So now they’re able to bring their services together,” added Dr. Rollins. “One might have the transportation for students, the other might have the facilities, the instructors or the curriculum. One of the requirements to receive funding for the summer programs is that they need to collaborate with at least one other agency.”
ERC researchers are also urging UWGH to pay careful attention to socio-emotional data, in addition to the academic achievement outcomes that they were already monitoring, as a source for potential growth opportunities.
The researchers are developing instruments to measure affective qualities, such as a student’s perseverance or self-efficacy towards learning, that have been proven to lead to academic success.
“I think the agencies have finally bought into it,” said Dr. Waxman. “They were a little reluctant at first to understand why they needed to collect certain student identification data, but I think they’re seeing the value in that now.”
Through it all, ERC researchers say they could not have asked for a better partner in this fight for social change than UWGH. UWGH is receptive to feedback and always open to new ideas for a more efficient initiative.
“We’ve done a lot of evaluation work with various projects but this project is kind of unique in that our formative feedback is really meaningful,” says Dr. Rollins. “They’re not learning about everything for the first time when they see the end-of-the-year report because we are constantly talking with them and recommending changes. I think that’s a neat aspect of this project that you don’t always see in evaluation research.”
ABOUT THE TEXAS A&M EDUCATION RESEARCH CENTER AT TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY
The Education Research Center (ERC) at Texas A&M University studies major issues in education reform and school governance. The mission of the ERC is to investigate these issues in order to inform educational policy, facilitate decision-making, and improve student learning. The ERC's interdisciplinary team of researchers has distributed expertise in a broad range of research methods, analytical skills and specialized content areas. The team includes researchers from Texas A&M University's College of Education and Human Development, Bush School of Government and Public Service, College of Science, College of Engineering and College of Liberal Arts.