Education innovations for disadvantaged students in Washington DC

Can internship and mentorship programs help students graduate from high school and prepare them for colleges and careers? What type of support is needed for the most disadvantaged youth, including those who suffer from homelessness? Do tutoring programs help students learn? How can we improve the research, writing, and presentation skills of middle and high school students? 

These are some of the questions considered in a new series of briefs on innovations in education in the greater Washington DC, area of the United States.  The series is launched jointly by the World Bank Group’s (WBG) education team, the WBG Community Connections Program (the WBG’s outreach program to the local community), and the Rotary Club of Capitol Hill. We hope to contribute to better education outcomes not only in the DC area but also elsewhere by showcasing innovative programs that make a positive difference in the life of students and how well they learn.

Why focus on DC? The WBG’s mission is to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. While living standards in DC are better than in the developing work, poverty rates remain high and only about two thirds of students complete high school according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. While improvements have been achieved in recent years, innovations are needed to improve education and employment outcomes for disadvantaged children and youth.

The  briefs, in a small but meaningful way, will hopefully contribute to debates on how to improve education by featuring successful programs and policies. The programs and policies featured in the briefs will likely be relevant for other regions in the United States and developing countries with similar challenges.

The first set of briefs in the series feature non-profits that benefited from monitoring and evaluation grants from the WBG’s Community Connections Program or pro bono evaluation support provided by World Bank staff. The Latin America Youth Center (LAYC), One World Education, and the Urban Alliance are among the nonprofits featured in the briefs released on the occasion of the WBG’s Volunteer Awareness Day on May 10.

Below is a brief description of the work of the three organizations together with links to the briefs on these organizations.

LAYC: Some 17,400 young adults aged 18 – 24 who are from the Washington Metropolitan Area are disconnected from work and school. These youth are often from low-income families, are not in school, and are out of work. They typically face multiple challenges, including homelessness, issues with the courts, or substance abuse. These challenges prevent them from successfully transitioning into adulthood. LAYC uses an innovative approach called the ‘Promotor Pathway’ to target high-risk youth.  It’s a long-term, intensive, holistic case management and mentorship intervention which has led to positive changes in school enrollment, birth rates, and homelessness.

One World Education: During the 2015-16 school year, One World Education worked with District of Columbia Public Schools as a partner for the ‘Cornerstone’ initiative. Cornerstones are high-quality, in-depth core curricular experiences such as argumentative writing programs. Cornerstones aim to provide rigorous content to students, improved professional development for teachers, and continuity and consistency across grades and subjects. Some 5,200 students in 15 DC public schools in grades 10 and 12 have already participated in the One World Education programs.

Urban Alliance:  This non-profit organization, which operates in DC, Baltimore, Chicago, and Northern Virginia, facilitates the transition of disadvantage youth from high school to college to employment. It does so by running a comprehensive early employment program that provides access and exposure to professional networks for youth enrolled in the program. Urban Alliance staff train and mentor the students through their first professional employment opportunities, which help propel them to future success. Over 90 percent of Urban Alliance alumni go on to college. The WBG has participated in the Urban Alliance program since 1997 and supported over 300 students through internships. Results from an external evaluation suggest that the Urban Alliance program improves high school graduation rates and the likelihood that students will go to college after graduation.

The objective of the series of briefs is to document these and other successful programs, so that they can inform education policy and practice not only in DC, but also elsewhere. If you are living in the Greater Washington, DC, area and if you have an idea for a potential brief in the series, please let me know or post your idea in the comment section below.

This post is reproduced with minor changes from a post published by the author on May 9, 2016 on the World Bank Education for Global Development blog.

 

 

Evaluation is essential to assess what works and share stronger stories

Readers of this blog know that I have emphasized for some time the need to strengthen a culture of evaluation in Rotary. Evaluations should be undertaken not only for our service projects, but also to assess how our clubs meet, work, and grow – or wither away. This post is about a recent evaluation of an education project supported by my club, and how the evaluation is proving to be useful not only for the local nonprofit we worked with, but also for our club and more generally for practitioners and policy makers working in the field of education.

OWED celebration
Photo of OWEd scholarship winners with Brian Pick, Chief of Teaching and Learning for the District of Columbia Public Schools, and Dave Paris, member of the Board of OWEd.

For several years my club has supported One World Education (OWEd), a great nonprofit based in Washington, DC. OWEd runs the largest argumentative writing program in public and charter schools in the city. The nonprofit reached 5,800 middle and high school students this past school year. The aim of the program, which runs for 4-5 weeks in the schools, is to improve the research, writing, and presentation skills of the students, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and do not do very well in school.

In previous years, our support to OWEd consisted in providing a bit of funding and volunteering at some of their events. This year, we provided college scholarships for some of the high school students (seniors) who participated in the program and worked especially hard. But we also did more. Together with a team at American University, we designed an evaluation of the program to better measure its impact. For more than 550 students, teachers collected essays written in class before and after the program. The essays were graded by professors and instructors in the Department of Literature at American University. This enabled us to assess whether the program made a difference in the writing skills of middle and high school students.

The evaluation demonstrated that the program has a positive impact. The program generates statistically significant gains in writing quality, especially for students who performed worst on the initial pre-program assignment.  The positive impact of the program was confirmed through data on the perceptions of teachers and students about the program. Two summary briefs about those evaluation results have been written and are now available for public schools and for charter schools separately.

It is clear that this type of evaluation is beneficial for the nonprofits whose programs are evaluated, as the evaluations enable the nonprofits to measure their impact, and take corrective action when needed.  The evaluations are also beneficial for our club in reassuring members that we are investing in worthwhile initiatives.

But there is more. Many others are interested in such evaluations and may learn from them, possibly generating larger impacts beyond the specific programs being evaluated. And these evaluations provide for great stories to be featured in local newspapers or magazines as well as social media, giving more visibility not only to the nonprofits and programs being evaluated, but also to the Rotary clubs that supported those evaluations.

This is what we are focusing on now – making sure that the positive results obtained by OWEd through its program are better known in Washington, DC, and beyond. We are writing short articles that document those results, and some of the stories of the students who benefited from the program.  We have secured already two placements for stories in the local media and we hope to write additional articles for national publications about the results of the evaluation. In addition, we will also prepare technical papers for academic journals. It remains to be seen whether we will be successful, but we now have a stronger story to tell thanks to the evaluation.

Finally, as mentioned, the evaluation has been summarized in two easy-to-read briefs. The two briefs, together with briefs about the work of other nonprofits operating in the field of education and skills for youth in the city, will be included in a small brief series on innovations in education in Washington, DC to be published by the World Bank. We hope that this simple brief series will help attract attention to the nonprofits doing great work in the city, while also helping practitioners and policy makers learn from the experience of successful programs.

In summary, evaluation is essential not only to help improve service projects, whether implemented by Rotary clubs or nonprofits, but also to tell stronger stories about ways to improve the lives of the less fortunate. Investing more in evaluation seems to be a win-win for nonprofits as well as service clubs.  And for Rotary as a whole, as I mentioned it in a previous series of posts on this blog, focusing more on partnerships, innovation, and evaluation seems key to achieve larger impacts.

Technology in Nepal’s classrooms: Using impact evaluation as a learning device

Students use laptops and digital resources provided by OLE Nepal
Students use laptops and digital resources provided by OLE Nepal

Impact evaluations are becoming essential in the way we think about development and service projects. Pilot programs suggesting statistically significant impacts are hailed as breakthroughs and as candidates for scaling up. Programs without such clear impact tend to be looked down upon and may be terminated. This may not be warranted. A primary function of impact evaluations should be to improve existing programs, especially in fields where evidence of positive impacts remains scarce. The experience of OLE Nepal, which is part of the OLE network and aims to improve learning and teaching through technology, is instructive in this regard.

Last week, Rabi Karmacharya shared his experience at OLE Nepal at a seminar co-sponsored by the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education and the Rotary Club of Capitol Hill, a supporter of Rotary Club of Kathmandu Mid Town in expanding OLE Nepal’s programs. After a successful career in engineering and technology in California, he launched OLE Nepal in 2007. Now a social entrepreneur, Rabi wants to use technology to transform the way children learn through engagement, exploration and experimentation.

OLE Nepal has achieved quite a bit over the last eight years: deploying 5,000+ laptops in 100+ schools, training 600+ teachers on integrating ICT in the classroom teaching-learning process, developing 600+ learning modules for use by teachers, and creating a digital library with 6000+ books and other items used in schools and community libraries. Its ultimate objective is to help transform and improve Nepal’s education system with technology, working closely with the Ministry of Education and other partners.

What I found most interesting about Rabi’s presentation is how OLE Nepal – as well as donors that support the NGO such as the World Food Program, responded to an evaluation of its programs in 2009-11. The evaluation used a quasi-experimental design: English and mathematics tests administered to students, with collection of additional data through student, teacher and household surveys.

The results were disappointing, with no effect on student test scores even though both teachers and students reported liking the digital contents and finding them useful. The results contradicted field observations and other evidence from teachers and students on the fact that the program was making a difference.

Several factors may have led to an apparent lack of impact on student learning, according to Rabi. First, the program had been implemented only for a relatively short period of time, and improving student learning takes time. Second, it turned out that not all teachers reported to the one-week intensive training session that was held before launching the program, which may have decreased overall impacts in the schools that benefitted from the program. Third, some teachers may not have used as the available digital resources as much as expected due to the increase in workload that this entailed. Fourth, after the initial training, the support provided to teachers was limited. Fifth, it could be that the digital content, while following the curriculum taught in school, was too difficult for students to grasp.

These and a number of factors (including questions about variations in exam difficulty between the baseline and endline tests in the evaluation, and the possibility that some students spent more time on games available through the digital libraries rather than on study for examinations) may have led to the results.

What is important is that the evaluation did not lead to the demise of the program. Witnessing firsthand the changes in classroom dynamic and student engagement brought about by the program, donors continued to fund the NGO, which has been able to grow with support from the World Food Program, the Embassies of Denmark and Finland, and most recently the Air Asia Foundation.

In response to the evaluation, OLE Nepal introduced a number improvements in its programs:

  • It now promotes a shared model between grades for a more effective use of laptops and digital resources by schools and teachers;
  • The use of resources by students is better supervised and teachers receive more extensive support after the initial one-week training. In addition, a volunteers program is available for additional support;
  • The educational contents have been revised to follow the curriculum even more closely; and
  • More emphasis will be put on enhancing the ability of students to read in early grades, since this is a prerequisite for them to be able to learn subsequently and use digital resources effectively.

OLE Nepal’s experience is a great lesson in social entrepreneurship, humility, and resilience from an innovative NGO that strives to help teachers and students harness the power of technology in the classroom.

Note: this post is reproduced with minor changes from a post by the author for the World Bank’s Education for Global Development blog, available at http://blogs.worldbank.org/education/.