• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Saturday 17th November, 2007

Drop-out prevention program falters under scrutiny

Project GRAD is a magnet for the hopes of anyone concerned about the education of poor children in the US. GRAD, which stands for “Graduation Really Achieves Dreams”, aims to keep kids in school and to help them graduate and enroll in college. From Houston, Texas, where the program and the acronym were born, enthusiasm has spread to 12 cities. More than 135,000 students are enrolled in 211 Project GRAD schools. The idea is to start early in elementary and middle schools, with reading and math curricula focused on a core of basic skills that are supposed to become the platform for high standards throughout students’ academic careers. At the high school level, GRAD students get special academic counseling and summer academic enrichment designed to help them qualify for a college scholarship – the ultimate goal of the whole program. Finally, Project GRAD schools at all levels build support in the community for school improvement and college attendance. They implement a classroom management program, provide students with access to social services and receive special support from local GRAD organizations. But despite all of this input and the program's impressive ambition and popularity, hard evidence of impact is so far in short supply.The Project GRAD website is packed with numbers suggesting effectiveness. A "results page" features testimonials from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. However, when the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) took a colder, hard look at the research, they came to a different conclusion. They reviewed five evaluations and found that only one, conducted in Houston, used what the Clearinghouse regarded as adequate research methods. [For a detailed summary of this study, see: MDRC's Evaluation of Project GRAD) The Houston study compared three high schools that implemented Project GRAD from 1998 to 2004 to ten high schools in the same district that did not implement but which had similar performance on achievement tests and similar percentages of students from key demographic groups. Researchers found that GRAD students were no more likely to progress in school or, indeed, to graduate than their counterparts at the other schools. The researchers involved in the Houston evaluation concede that Project GRAD might simply need more time to prove its value. Some of the elementary and middle schools that “feed” the high school under study did not become Project Grad schools until the study began. Thus some of the high school students had not benefited from the program in their early grades. Additionally, due to high rates of mobility among schools, many of the students in the Project Grad high schools had come from elementary and middle schools without Project Grad programs. As more students receive the full benefit of the program in their early grades, their experiences in high school might change. The researchers also suggest that to help kids stay in school and graduate, Project Grad might need to focus on classroom instruction not only in elementary and middle schools, but also in high schools. The evidence is certainly no cause for rejoicing, but neither, it seems, should it dash the hopes of the 211 schools that have already invested. As apologists for the UK Sure Start program were saying earlier this year when faced with similarly tepid findings, "only time will tell". [See Learning the moral of the Sure Start story] • Summary of Project Grad: What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, July 30, 2007.

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