Study of Federal Upward Bound Program at Risk

By Debra Viadero — July 11, 2007 4 min read

Congress is weighing plans to scuttle a $5 million evaluation of the national Upward Bound program for low-income high school students because the federal study calls for randomly assigning students to either the program or a control group.

Established in 1965 as part of the “war on poverty,” Upward Bound provided summer learning activities, mentoring, college counseling, work-study jobs, and other services to an estimated 61,000 students last year. Its aim is to increase college-going rates among students from disadvantaged families, particularly when neither parent has attended college.

“I speak often of a ladder of opportunity that takes energy, persistence, and responsibility to climb,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a critic of the study, said in a statement. “Young people deserve to know that programs like Upward Bound will be there for them as they climb that ladder and that they will not lose that access for the purpose of an evaluation.”

The Department of Education is requiring 101 of the 700-plus universities, colleges, and other agencies receiving 2007 funds to run local Upward Bound programs to take part in the evaluation, which got under way this summer.

But legislative amendments approved in recent weeks by the full House of Representatives and the Senate education committee could effectively cripple the study. The Senate amendment, introduced by Mr. Harkin and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and attached to the Higher Education Amendments Act, would bar the department from forcing Upward Bound programs to participate in evaluations that deny services to control-group students. As of last week, that measure awaited passage in the full Senate.

The House amendment, sponsored by Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., was added to a student-loan reform package that the House approved on July 11. It also seeks to rescind the requirement to take part in the study, as well as several other controversial changes to the program the department made in September.

Implications for Research

The concerns in Congress pose a challenge to the Bush administration’s ongoing efforts to seed and promote randomized experiments in education.

The Education Department’s top research officials see such scientific experiments, which are widely seen as the “gold standard” for determining whether a program works, as a way to transform education into an “evidence-based practice” not unlike medicine.

Meanwhile, conflict between the department and Capitol Hill over the long-running Upward Bound program dates back to at least 2005, when President Bush, in his proposed budget, called for killing it. His recommendation came after the White House Office of Management and Budget gave Upward Bound, and many other federal education programs, an “ineffective” rating.

Faced with congressional opposition to eliminating Upward Bound, the department decided instead to retool and re-evaluate it. Federal education officials in September contracted with Abt Associates, a Cambridge, Mass.-based research group, the Washington-based Urban Institute, and the Oakland, Calif.-based Berkeley Policy Associates to carry out the study that is now in jeopardy.

Both the rule changes and the evaluation effort have run into heavy resistance from grantees and their Democratic allies in Congress.

“You can’t tell a kid, ‘You’re going to be in this life-changing program,’ and then say, ‘No you’re only going to be in the control group,’ ” said Susan Trebach, a spokeswoman for the Council for Educational Opportunity, a Washington-based group that represents administrators of Upward Bound and other federal college-access programs. “We already have some people telling us the kids they deal with are devastated.”

Removing Bias?

Advocates for such programs contend randomized experimentation is the wrong way to study their efforts because program operators typically require students to undergo an elaborate application process as a way to demonstrate commitment to the program and winnow out candidates not likely to succeed.

“We have to get parents to actively support the whole process or … kids drop out,” Ms. Trebach said. But Education Department officials said that’s precisely why a randomized study is needed: Participants may be more motivated than students who don’t apply to Upward Bound. The only way to remove that potential bias, the department maintains, is to compare participants with applicants who failed to win a spot in Upward Bound.

“If that control group is removed, it would prevent us from estimating the impact on student outcomes, determining which practices are most promising, or determining whether the impact is more evident under certain circumstances than others,” said Ricky P. Takai, the associate commissioner for evaluation in the department’s National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance, which is overseeing the study.

If it’s not halted, Mr. Takai said, the study will also enable federal officials to weigh the impact of last fall’s rule changes, which restricted the traditional program to students in 10th grade or younger and required grantees to set aside 30 percent of their slots for students deemed at high risk for academic failure.

“Some critics said changing the program to include at-risk children could have a negative effect on traditional students in the program,” Mr. Takai said. “This looks at the impact on all students.”


Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela
Teaching Live Online Discussion How to Develop Powerful Project-Based Learning
How do you prepare students to be engaged, active, and empowered young adults? Creating a classroom atmosphere that encourages students to pursue critical inquiry and the many skills it requires demands artful planning on the

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal LGBTQ Students Are Protected by Federal Anti-Discrimination Law, Education Dept. Says
Schools violate Title IX when they discriminate against students based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the agency said Wednesday.
4 min read
Demonstrators gather on the step of the Montana State Capitol on March 15, 2021 protesting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Helena, Mont. The Montana Senate Judiciary Committee voted March 18 to advance two bills targeting transgender youth despite overwhelming testimony opposing the measures. The measures would ban gender affirming surgeries for transgender minors and ban transgender athletes from participating in school and college sports. Both bills have already passed the Montana House. They head next to votes by the GOP-controlled Montana Senate.
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Montana State Capitol in March to protest bills on transgender students' ability to play on single-sex sports teams.
Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP
Federal Republicans Want Federal Funding Cuts to Schools Using '1619 Project'—But There's a Twist
A bill from U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton, Mitch McConnell, and others targets schools using lessons based on the New York Times Magazine series.
4 min read
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on voting rights on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 20, 2021.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on voting rights on Capitol Hill.
Evelyn Hockstein/AP
Federal What's at Stake in a Review of Federal Sex Discrimination Protections for Students
The Biden administration's review of Title IX may prompt new guidance on how schools deal with sexual harassment and protect LGBTQ students.
10 min read
Image of gender symbols drawn in chalk.
Federal Opinion Education Outlets Owe Readers More Than the Narratives They Want to Hear
It's vital that serious news organizations challenge runaway narratives and help readers avoid going down ideological rabbit holes.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty