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Democrats Move to Stop Upward Bound ‘Experiment’

The U.S. Department of Education should not make major changes to the Upward Bound college access program without specific authorization from Congress, says a group of Democratic senators set to reclaim power on Capitol Hill.

Just weeks before they take over the Senate’s education committee, the six lawmakers say the Education Department’s plans to overhaul the program — including an experiment to test the program’s effectiveness by serving just half of recruited students — would have “negative consequences.” (see Diverse, Nov. 2).

“The department’s new eligibility requirements contradict the authorizing language for the program,” says U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., incoming chair of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. U.S> Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was among the five senators joining Kennedy in signing a letter urging current Congressional leaders to block the department’s plans.

The Education Department is changing many aspects of Upward Bound, including limiting eligibility to ninth- and 10th-graders and reserving 30 percent of new slots for students at risk of failure based on grades and test scores. In addition, the department would require grantees to recruit double the number of students they need for their programs.

From this larger pool of students, only half actually would receive services. The remainder would form control groups to evaluate the usefulness of Upward Bound.

Organizations such as the Council for Opportunity in Education already have criticized the control groups, citing ethical objections. The council says the other changes would undermine local grantee flexibility, a view the senators echoed as well.

“The requirements create a one-size-fits-all approach that removes individual projects’ flexibility in a way that runs counter to Upward Bound’s mission of helping all needy students get into college,” Kennedy and his colleagues say.

The senators are seeking action by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which still is debating an education funding bill for fiscal year 2007. They have asked the committee to include language in its bill preventing the department from acting unilaterally on Upward Bound “without specific approval” from the House and Senate education committees.

The proposed changes — particularly recruiting students who receive no services — are also drawing opposition from scholars familiar with education challenges facing low-income students and students of color.

“This research design is wholly inappropriate for Upward Bound and other programs that serve disadvantaged students,” says Dr. Blenda J. Wilson, president of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, in a letter to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Others signing the letter include Dr. Alberto F. Cabrera, a University of Maryland professor, and Dr. William Trent, an education professor at the University of Illinois.

By using control groups, the department is adopting a medical model for education research, they said. Yet most medical studies do not entirely deny service to control group participants with a need for assistance. In Upward Bound’s case, however, students who want help may not receive any at all.

“Disadvantaged students recruited to participate in the program but not ‘selected’ to receive the services would most certainly be harmed in terms of their college aspirations and pre-college preparation,” the scholars wrote.

Instead of using control groups, the federal government could collect information from a “matched sample” of students who attended the same school but did not sign up for Upward Bound services.

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