This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education sort of stunned me, and I’m jaded. It’s about ongoing evaluations of federal programs — the TRIO programs in the parlance — that aim to help prepare disadvantaged students for higher education. It’s an enormously important goal but the overall results have been disappointing. Consequently there are evaluations going on to try to shed light on what might work better. But check this out from The Chron:
Mr. Oxendine [the federal official who oversees the program] surmised that the reason Upward Bound failed to increase college-going rates for the rest of the participants was because those students would have gone to college anyway. He hypothesized that if Upward Bound were refocused on higher-risk students, its impact on college-going rates would be greater and its limited budget would be spent more effectively. To test his theory, he proposed a second study comparing high-risk Upward Bound participants with a control group of nonparticipants and with lower-risk Upward Bound participants.
The study, under way in several states, has been harshly criticized by the Council for Opportunity in Education, the program’s main lobbying group. The council says it is unethical, even immoral, of the department to require programs to actively recruit students and then deny them services. They have taken their fight to Congress in an attempt to stop the study.
Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, is bothered by the study’s methodology. He likens the study to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, in which the government withheld treatment from 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis so that scientists could study the ravages of the disease.
“To take a kid who is vulnerable and say, ‘You’ve got a shot at college,’ and then take it away,” he says. “What is it that you were so desperate to find out that you had to abuse people?”
Huh? We can disagree on various policy remedies but to compare efforts to evaluate the programs with the awfulness of Tuskegee is just about shutting down inquiry not figuring out what works best for kids. Full disclosure, Urban Institute’s Jane Hannaway, with whom I’ve collaborated on projects, is involved in the evaluation.