Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Lessons Learned: An Interview with Robert Granger, President of the W.T. Grant Foundation

By Sam Piha

Over the last ten years, the William T. Grant Foundation has been a leading friend of the afterschool movement - leading in terms of investing nearly $21 million into advocacy and research investigating the most vexing problems facing the afterschool movement. Their investments help to answer the questions, "what are the positive impacts that afterschool programs can have on youth outcomes, what are the qualities that successful afterschool programs share, what are the tools we can use to assess quality, and how can we move the needle on quality through program improvement"? These investments were guided by Robert Granger, President of the WT Grant Foundation. (Mr. Granger will be a speaker at the upcoming How Kids Learn II conference on January 9th.)

Robert Granger
Mr. Granger recently published a paper reflecting on the past decade. This essay entitled "Our Work on the Quality of After-School Programs: 2003-2011" provides an important history of the afterschool movement over the last decade and details the effort to define value and quality. In a recent "Letter from the President", Mr. Granger cites three lessons that the Foundation learned over this time. These lessons include: 

  • Harnessing intermediaries, relationships, and networks is key to connecting research and practice. 
  • Practitioner-friendly, evidence-based measures of program practices are powerful tools for improving practice. 
  • Focus on staff practice. 

We urge readers to read both the essay and the letter, authored by Mr. Granger. The essay can be downloaded from the letter
Below we offer a brief interview with him.

Q: Your first lesson you cite in your “Letter from the President”, you talk about the importance of collaboration between practitioners and researchers. Can you explain what you mean by this and give an example, if you have one?

A: The conventional model of researchers producing findings and then disseminating them to practitioners creates a weak connection between research and practice. Too often the information is not relevant or accessible. One potential fix is to make the relationship between researchers and practitioners much more of a two-way street where each affects the other. An approach with a lot of potential is to have practitioners identify a persistent problem and then work in an ongoing way with researchers to develop and test solutions. In the after-school field, Charles Smith and colleagues at the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality are doing this in several locations—Providence , Palm Beach County, and Cleveland  are three examples. Here is a link to the Cleveland work. In K–12 education, there are several examples of such partnerships. My colleague Vivian Tseng is leading a learning community of nine  of them, and she has written about that work.

Q: In your third lesson, you state that examining the quality of youth interactions is important for program improvement. The Learning in Afterschool & Summer project is training high school youth to help assess local after-school programs and their alignment to key learning principles (see #4). Do you think that youth are equipped to assess program quality if they are given the right tools and training?

A: This is an interesting idea. I bet the young people would learn a lot about the staff-youth interactions that lead to good results, and I like the emphasis on youth voice. It would also push the tool developers and trainers to be very clear in order to help the youth produce reliable results. That’s got to help make the tools better for adult use, too.

In a large study of K–12 teaching, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation compared information about the quality of classrooms—which came from student surveys about their experiences in the classrooms—to adult observations of videotapes of the same classrooms. The judgments of the young people and the adult observers were highly correlated—young people, especially middle-school age and up, can report on quality. One caution: I do not think any of this works well if the stakes are too high for the program (e.g., it might get defunded based upon the assessments). Rather, the information is best used by practitioners for program improvement.

Q: In the research you funded, conducted by Joseph Durlak and Roger Weissberg, the value of well-implemented programs that promote social-emotional learning is well-documented. The development of non-cognitive skills is also stressed by author Paul Tough and economist James Heckman. Can you speak as to how well after-school programs are positioned to promote the competencies and whether they should focus their attention on them?

A: Durlak and Weissberg reviewed the results from evaluations of after-school programs focused on social and emotional development and discovered that the programs  that produced positive effects in those areas also produced positive effects on measures of school achievement and engagement. Too often those areas are thought of as an “either/or”. Given their flexibility, after-school programs are in a great position to deliver experiences that can improve “21st century” skills, including persistence, personal responsibility, and good communication. This is why the LIAS principles and similar statements ring so true to after-school staff. But potential is not enough. In the Durlak and Weissberg review, about two-thirds of the programs produced no better results than other activities available in the community. As you noted, the good news came from the one-third of programs that were well-designed and well-implemented. So, our challenge is to make programs better.

It’s worth mentioning that the Forum for Youth Investment produced a very good compendium of practical measures of these important, 21st century “soft skills.” Researchers and practitioners should review that publication and use some of the measures in their work.

Q: The Learning in Afterschool & Summer project is promoting five learning principles that should, in part, define quality after-school programs. This project stresses that learning should be active, collaborative, and meaningful, while supporting mastery over time and expanding the horizons of participants. Which of these do you think is most important?

A: I resist the urge to pull apart the five principles because I do not think it’s necessary for policy or practice. Learning can be all these things at the same time. I know, however, that it is useful to focus. “Meaningful” strikes me as an umbrella under which the others could fit, so it stands out as the most important. For example, “active” learning alone is not important if it is not meaningful, but active learning helps to make learning more meaningful.   

Q: Recently, five states approved initiatives to increase learning time in school by 300 or more hours. If this trend grows, do you have any advice to ensure that these efforts are effective and how should after-school program leaders be involved?

A: I do not think it is possible to ever ensure that changes like this are effective. I would begin in any community by getting a consensus on what problems this change is meant to solve. If it is that students are not achieving or attaining at the desired levels, more time alone is not likely to make a big difference, although it may help some students. The extra time creates the opportunity to reconsider the entire school day. And yes, after-school leaders and others with good ideas should be involved.

Q: What do you see as the risks and opportunities facing the after-school movement in the decade ahead?

A: All discretionary programs for young people are going to be under increased pressure as my generation retires and the general population ages. Therefore, one risk is not enough funding to provide services. At the same time, more single parents and the increased emphasis on work means the need for safe activities for kids will remain. The challenge is to make those activities as engaging, supportive, and meaningful as possible.

Q: Word has it that you are planning to retire soon. Is this true? If so, when are you planning to step down, and what are your plans in the future?

A: We announced that I will retire at the end of August 2013, and the Board is actively engaged in a search for my successor. It has been a privilege to work at the William T. Grant Foundation. My wife and I plan to live on Cape Cod in Orleans, Massachusetts. I will continue some ongoing work with a couple of foundations,  focused on making research and evaluation more relevant to practice. I also plan to donate time to youth organizations on the Cape. I recently spoke with Bob Haggerty, who was president of the Foundation from 1980 to 1992. Bob advised me not to over-commit and suggested I think about a few more after-lunch naps. I have always thought that Bob Haggerty is a very wise man. 

Robert Granger has been president of the William T. Grant Foundation since 2003. Before joining the Foundation in 2000 as senior vice president of program, Dr. Granger served as senior vice president of the MDRC and executive vice president at Bank Street College of Education. Dr. Granger also recently chaired the National Board for Education Sciences. This presidentially appointed advisory panel of the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education oversees federal activities regarding educational research. In addition, Dr. Granger serves on the editorial board for several professional journals. He received his Ed.D. from the University of Massachusetts.

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