An Open Letter To Control Participants in Higher Achievement’s Study

Dear “Control” Participant,

I am writing to say thank you.

13 years ago, Higher Achievement began its efforts to prove its impact with a randomized control study of its scholars. I was executive director then, and the idea for the study was born in a conversation where I was repeatedly asked how I could be absolutely sure that it was Higher Achievement that was responsible for the scholars’ success. I wasn’t absolutely sure. I realized that being able to precisely measure Higher Achievement’s impact would require a professional academic study, so I recruited an enormously talented PhD Candidate in economics from MIT to devise and execute one. Leigh Linden (now Dr. Linden) came with knowledge, energy and grit. Other than reimbursement for his bus fare from Boston to DC, he was unpaid.

The first few years were rocky. There was no funding for the study, one third of our staff quit with the first randomization in 2001; and parents, staff and schools got angry with Higher Achievement and me personally because of the study.

Randomized control trials, while the gold standard of evaluation studies, are enormously challenging and even more so, given the context and resources we were working with. In a neighborhood with a reasonable suspicion of “experiments” (most infamously the Tuskegee experiments), explaining to staff and partners that we would not be “experimenting” on kids was problematic. Internally, time was also a challenge. Staff had to work twice as hard to recruit twice as many students, a random half of whom would serve as the control group – kids that met all the criteria for Higher Achievement, but would be evaluated for comparison to those who actually participated in Higher Achievement. Indeed, the largest challenge was telling a family about the study and how only half of the qualified applicants would become a Higher Achievement Scholar – but, they all wanted to be one.

We knew how badly they wanted to be scholars (they were signing up for 650 additional hours of academic study a year) and just how well qualified they were. We saw their report cards, test scores, essays, sure, but we also talked at length with families and we interviewed every single candidate individually to learn about their hopes, dreams and lives. We fell in love.

Then, after grouping the students by demographic criteria (grades, test scores, attendance rates, neighborhood, ethnicity, gender, income) Dr. Linden would randomly segregate the group into two. Essentially, twin groups exactly the same: one “treatment” and one “control”.
Treatments got to be in Higher Achievement and so many of our loves were put into the control group –never to get the chance to attend Higher Achievement ever.

It was then and still is heartbreak.

In the beginning, I required every single person on staff to conduct interviews. It was important to me that every single person felt the joy of having a student accepted and the pain of having a student become a “control”. This was especially difficult, as inevitably treatment students would drop out –some before they ever started Higher Achievement! But they were counted as a treatment scholar forever. No, we could not switch them for a control.

After a few years of practice we got better at explaining why the study was important. We had to demonstrate the growth was solely due to a student’s participation in Higher Achievement and not due to any other factor – not their school, or their family, or their teacher’s new math curriculum, not even due to their own work ethic.

Over time, we applied for funds to support the evaluation specifically. With every door-closing “no” I would jam in my foot to ask “why?” Leigh (who by this time had graduated MIT and was teaching at Columbia) would help us to learn from their rejections to improve and evolve our work.

The team at Atlantic Philanthropies was the first to see what this study could be.  They were essential to our early learning and development.  Then, the William T. Grant Foundation (WTG) got involved thanks to Atlantic’s early investment.  We applied for grants from the WTG Foundation three times and worked through two “no’s to get to the final “yes.” But to get to yes, we had to do the study differently. There were conditions. First, we had to hire known researchers in the field: Public Private Ventures was to lead the evaluation. We made sure Dr. Leigh Linden was part of the team (and that he would finally get paid!). After 5 years of running the study, we had to start again with a cadillac $3 million study.

Long story short, Higher Achievement did show impact. This week, because of that study and the work of many, it was named the “highest rated applicant” for a prestigious $12 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Of the 400 organizations that applied, Higher Achievement was one of three selected and the first afterschool and summer program in the country to be awarded a grant of this size.

Higher Achievement will grow and will serve more children around the country. More lives will be changed and more opportunities will be earned for hard-working children. There are many people to thank: the research team, the funders, the board, staff and scholars, the schools and parents –so many to thank…

Yet amid all these thank yous, there is a group missing. The largest debt of gratitude we owe goes to those “control” students and their families; the ones who didn’t get in. The ones we cried about, worried about, that broke our hearts. The ones who didn’t have the same outcomes and opportunities despite all the same potential, because they were randomly selected as “controls”.

Our debt to you is enormous.

My greatest hope is that someday, in Richmond, Baltimore, DC, Pittsburgh or wherever else that Higher Achievement grows, that your child will come home with a flyer about an afterschool program and because of you and your sacrifice, your child will be called to join Higher Achievement.

With deep admiration and humble thanks,

Ms. Maureen

You can learn more about Higher Achievement at: www.higherachievement.org
You can learn more about the i3 grant at – http://1.usa.gov/10FEFjG

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Maureen Holla
Managing Partner
Onward!
DC Tel: 202.536.2882
Brazil Tel: (61) 9929 – 1583
www.onwardconsulting.com
Email: mholla@onwardconsulting.com
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/maureenholla

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