Panel Paper: SPARK: Building Evidence across Succeeding Evaluations

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Marriott Balcony B - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Curtis Jones, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

SPARK was created in 2005 by Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee (BGCGM) to address the literacy needs of Milwaukee students through an innovative combination of in-school tutoring and parent engagement. In 2010, SPARK received a Department of Education Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to test its impact in seven predominantly low-income and minority Milwaukee elementary schools.

The SPARK model accounts for skill deficits while also addressing the reasons why students are unable to read by third grade. By using in-school tutoring and family engagement in concert, SPARK works both to develop the literacy skills of early-grade students and to engage families as they learn to support the literacy development of their students. It is through this school-family-community partnership strategy that SPARK seeks to have a lasting impact on students and set them on the course to long-term school and life success.

Prior to i3, SPARK had not engaged in any rigorous evaluations of its implementation or effectiveness. While the prospect of participating in a randomized control trial of its effectiveness was certainly daunting to the SPARK team, they agreed that doing so would provide them the best chance to get funded and would potentially better position them to survive in an increasingly competitive funding environment. This was the first randomized study that BGCGM had participated in.

The independent evaluator of SPARK, SREed at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, provided the program with two years of formative evaluation and capacity building support before conducting two randomized studies of its impact. The formative information provided during the first two years was used to develop a logic model, construct fidelity & observation tools, and determine levels of service needed to maximize the program’s impact on students. While both randomized studies demonstrated that SPARK had a positive impact on students, the results of the first study were used to make further modifications to the program. The results of the second randomized study then showed considerably greater positive program impacts on literacy, reading achievement, and school attendance.

The existence of these two studies conducted as part of i3 have been leveraged by SPARK to great effect. Both studies were reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse and determined to meet their design standards without reservation. Further, the first study has been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal while the second is currently under a revised review. SPARK is currently featured on the website as a literacy program with a strong empirical foundation. In 2017, the organization Education Analytics (EA) was awarded a mid-phase Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant to expand SPARK to 15 schools across three states and to develop systems that promote its scalability. SREed is again conducting two randomized studies of its impact across these sites. While SPARK would likely not still exist if not for i3, today SPARK is on the threshold of becoming an option for schools across the U.S.