• by Josie Danini Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2000 • Josie Cortez Josie Danini Supik, M.A.

In 1994 the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) established the comprehensive regional assistance centers – a national network of 15 centers mandated to help this country’s most disadvantaged schools restructure and improve education for all students, especially those students who are poor and considered at risk of failure. Originally conceived as “one stop shopping” under the IASA, the comprehensive centers provide their expertise to schools with: limited-English-proficient (LEP) students, migrant students, immigrant students, neglected or delinquent students, homeless students, Native American students, students with disabilities, and Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students. These are the students who, traditionally, are left behind or overlooked.

This new concept of technical assistance greatly expanded the centers’ range and scope of responsibilities compared to previous categorical technical assistance programs. Before IASA, there were 48 separate, federally-funded centers providing technical assistance to states, districts, schools, tribes and grantees responsible for implementing the categorical programs that comprised the $12 billion IASA. These 48 assistance centers were funded at more than $45 million, but they operated independently.

Under Title XIII of IASA, Congress consolidated the independent assistance centers into the 15 comprehensive centers. The new centers were deemed a more cost-effective and efficient way of coordinating technical assistance services. It made sense to coordinate funds and programs that were, in many instances, targeting the same student. Congress authorized up to $55 million for the centers but actual appropriations have never exceeded $28 million – a little over half of the authorized amount and significantly less than the level of support available previously.

It is against this backdrop that the comprehensive centers have operated for the past four and one half years. Despite the low level of funding, the centers have capitalized on their collective strengths including their ability to leverage resources through strong collaborations with comprehensive center network partners and other service providers across the country. Through collaboration and comprehensive technical assistance, the centers are able to reach and positively impact many of the schools with the greatest needs – schools with few resources; high-poverty, low performing schools; schools in remote areas of the country; and schools with limited capacity.

Together, the centers provide direct assistance in designing and improving instructional programs in high-poverty schools; training, technical assistance and other staff development activities for teachers and administrators; information on current research and best practices in ways that are useful and meaningful for school staff; and direct assistance in making school-to-school and school-to-community connections.

The following services are the core of the comprehensive centers’ mission:

  • Improving teaching and learning,
  • Helping all children meet challenging standards,
  • Assisting schools serving students in poverty, and
  • Helping states, post-secondary institutions and school districts integrate federal, state and local programs in ways that will improve schools and whole school systems.

Texas schools are served by the STAR Center, a collaboration of the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and RMC Research Corporation. Without the comprehensive centers, many schools and their students with limited resources would not have access to services. Those students with the greatest needs would be lost or forgotten in the marketplace.

While relatively new, the comprehensive centers have made an enormous difference for schools and students across the country. Two recently released reports confirm this. The first report is from Policy Studies Associates (PSA). The results of this independent, external evaluation of the quality and impact of the comprehensive centers are based on several nationally representative surveys of states, districts and schools administered by PSA on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education. PSA findings are summarized below.

Reaching Targeted Clients

PSA found that the comprehensive centers have provided technical assistance to clients representing the following.

  • High poverty schools and districts
    • The comprehensive centers have provided technical assistance to 34 of the 50 districts in the country with the highest concentrations of children living in poverty.
    • More than 70 percent of the centers’ clients work in schools or districts with poverty levels that are greater than 50 percent.
  • Title I schoolwide programs
    • A least 73 percent of school-based clients are from schools with Title I schoolwide programs. Title I schoolwide programs are schools where at least 50 percent of the students are living in poverty.
  • Large school districts
    • The comprehensive centers have provided technical assistance to over 50 percent of the largest school districts (greater than 25,000 students) in the nation.
  • Schools and districts with high percentages of LEP students
    • Of the centers’ clients, over 50 percent are from schools or districts where more than 10 percent of the students are LEP.
  • State education agencies and other technical assistance providers to schools and districts
    • Almost 400 clients from every state education agency in the country received on-site professional development or consultation from the comprehensive centers. In addition, more than 400 clients from more than 300 intermediate education agencies and other educational organizations providing technical assistance were served by the comprehensive centers.

Client Satisfaction

PSA found that the comprehensive center clients indicated satisfaction in several ways.

  • At least 70 percent of the comprehensive centers’ clients were “very satisfied” (the highest rating) with the centers’ quality of products and services in the following six areas: implementing schoolwide programs; addressing the needs of special student populations, including LEP, migrant and American Indian; improving curriculum and instruction in reading/language arts; challenging standards and accountability; assessing students; and analyzing student achievement data and interpreting results.
  • Of the comprehensive centers’ clients surveyed, 86 percent were “very” or “moderately” satisfied with the overall quality of comprehensive centers’ products and services.
  • Of all clients receiving services, one out of three reported that the technical assistance served their purposes completely, and an additional 57 percent reported that it provided a good start.

Impact on Client Work

PSA found that the centers have had an impact on the work of the clients in the following ways.

  • Of the centers’ clients surveyed, 78 percent reported that they gained new information about a program or instructional practice.
  • Of the centers’ clients surveyed, 77 percent reported that they incorporated into their jobs something they learned from the comprehensive centers.
  • Over 75 percent of school-based clients reported that they incorporated into their jobs something from comprehensive center assistance and shared the centers’ ideas and information with colleagues.
  • Nearly 50 percent of clients reported providing training or technical assistance to others based on comprehensive center services.
  • Of the clients surveyed, 57 percent reported that the comprehensive centers’ assistance increased teacher knowledge and skills.
  • Almost half reported that the service they received from a comprehensive center helped the organization take the next step in a reform effort.

External Technical Assistance

PSA found that the comprehensive centers were the most frequently turned to source of external technical assistance on critical topics in education reform.

  • More than 75 percent of comprehensive center clients reported the following reasons for their decisions to use center services:
    • center products and services were of high quality,
    • services or products were not available elsewhere,
    • they met the needs of the organization, and
    • they were easily accessible.
  • Compared to other similar services and products, over 75 percent of clients rated the comprehensive centers’ services and products as “excellent” or “good” on their:
    • quality and usefulness;
    • responsiveness to local conditions;
    • reflecting sound research or most current thinking in the field;
    • providing knowledge and expertise not available within their organization; and
    • usefulness for guiding improvement efforts.

Texas’ STAR Center: PSA Survey Findings

PSA’s evaluation focused on the quality and impact of the comprehensive center network as a whole as well as that of the individual centers. For each center, clients of two key activities were surveyed.

In the case of the STAR Center, PSA surveyed participants of the Leadership Institute for Bilingual Directors (a three-day institute held in the fall of 1998) and the Excellence and Equity through Technology Network (EETNet) (two-day institutes held in the fall of 1997 and 1998). See boxes below for major findings.

Stories of Success

In addition to the PSA report, the centers recently published Making a Difference for Children in Schools, success stories from the centers illustrating their contributions in a wide array of contexts – from improving student achievement in mathematics and increasing capacity to teach mathematics at the primary grade levels in Wisconsin to curbing the tide of violence in schools in Gary, Indiana (see www.ccnetwork.org).

The STAR Center’s success story focuses on EETNet. EETNet’s ultimate goal is to help educators prepare all children for an Internet civilization, especially those children that IASA targets: high poverty, homeless and neglected, LEP and others who are usually left behind, especially in the area of technology. EETNet helps students cross the digital divide by helping teachers and administrators increase their technology planning capability and establishing a network of project schools that serve as an ever-growing resource link to other schools seeking similar assistance.

Through EETNet, teachers and technology coordinators from more than 23 school districts implementing Title I schoolwide projects have received ongoing technical assistance and training for increasing the achievement of their students through innovative instruction enhanced by effective use of technology. The STAR Center’s comprehensive approach to providing technical assistance targets a variety of areas including budget development, grant writing using examples of successful proposals, strategies for successfully dealing with technology vendors, strategies for overcoming techno-phobia among school staff, and providing information on exemplary technology models implemented at the school level.

Teams from participating schools attend an annual technology planning institute to help them develop their school’s technology plan. Evidence of EETNet’s success lies in the fact that all of the participating school teams that completed and submitted grant proposals based on their technology plans were successfully funded. EETNet is developing capacity in campus teams to integrate technology into their schoolwide reform efforts to enhance student achievement.

The STAR Center story is one of 15 that speak to the value of the comprehensive centers and the contributions made at the local level – in classrooms and schools with the greatest needs, from isolated, remote areas to inner-city schools.

The PSA national evaluation report and the comprehensive centers success stories clearly demonstrate that the comprehensive center network provides technical assistance to schools, districts and states that is high quality, useful, and effective for schools and students.

Percentage of Clients Who Turn to Comprehensive Centers on Critical School Reform Topics*

Critical School Reform Topics

 Comprehensive Centers

Implementing Other IASA Programs

Meeting the Needs of Special Populations

Expanding Parent/Family Involvement

Improving Curriculum and Instruction

Implementing Schoolwide Programs

Assessment Student

Improving Bilingual/ESL Programs

Implementing Challenging Standards and Accountability

Implementing Model Programs or Comprehensive School Reform

Analyzing Student Achievement

Consolidating/Integrating Federal Programs

Creating Safe and Drug-Free Learning Environments













 *Percentage of clients indicating that they turn to comprehensive centers “Always” or “Sometimes.”

Source: Policy Studies Associates


Josie Danini Cortez, MA, coordinates IDRA’s materials development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2000 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]