By Nicole Yohalem, Director of Special Projects for the Forum for Youth Investment
“As a youth development professional by training and a parent of school-age children, the narrow definition of success that currently drives schooling (grades and standardized test scores) has me worried in a more acute and personal way than ever before.”
– Nicole Yohalem
I feel lucky to count Jane Quinn among my youth development mentors. Listening to this podcast was a good reminder of why.
Out of the gate, Jane emphasized the importance of defining youth success broadly. At the Forum for Youth Investment, where I have worked for the last 11 years, this is a pressing priority (and really, a big part of our reason for being). We continue to experiment with the best language and strategies for actualizing this goal within local, state and federal policy and with helping communities build systems to support it.
Over the past several years we have moved away from the “positive youth development” language that our founder, Karen Pittman, helped popularize. This is not because we don’t think youth development is important, it’s because policy makers’ attention often drifted when we talked about youth development. Perhaps we were trying to communicate too many things with the term – a set of practices, a policy approach, a field, a developmental stage, a broad set of goals. Whatever the problem, when we reframed the question from, “Do you support youth development?” to “Are you committed to ensuring young people are ready for college work, and life?” policy makers perked up. Ensuring that the “ready for life” part of that trio of goals doesn’t fall off the radar is, as it turns out, more than a full-time job.
Reading by third grade is a powerful predictor of high school graduation. As such, it has become a focal point for communities across country as they determine how to focus resources and track progress. What’s an equivalent indicator of readiness for life? One that can help galvanize a broader set of developmental supports? “Spark by second grade?” “Good buddy by fourth grade?” I’m only being slightly facetious here. A challenge with all of these examples is that they can send the message that if we miss these milestones, it is too late. Longitudinal research by Michelle Gambone and colleagues demonstrates that forming a relationship with a positive adult as late as the beginning of high school can change a young person’s trajectory for the better. Though I am all for heavy investments in young children, we cannot afford as a nation to give up on kids who miss the early milestones. I realize it’s a little wonky, but how about this for a rallying indicator: “Engaged in learning, in school or out.” Is learning a word that non-school providers should be rallying around? Certainly, as long as youth success is defined broadly.
That brings me to the expanded learning opportunities or ELO movement, which Jane points out is gaining traction inside both formal education and youth development circles. Many efforts taking place under the ELO banner seem focused on expanding when and where young people learn – and maybe even how they learn. But few seem focused on expanding what they learn. As a youth development professional by training and a parent of school-age children, the narrow definition of success that currently drives schooling (grades and standardized test scores) has me worried in a more acute and personal way than ever before.
Jane also emphasizes the importance of expanding not just any old learning opportunities but high quality learning opportunities. Seems obvious, but the hard truth is that in school and out, we have real work to do to ensure that young people are engaged in programs and classrooms where instruction is engaging and supportive. On the OST side I think we have reason to be optimistic, with interest in and openness to quality improvement efforts gaining steam and many exciting efforts afoot to build systems for continuous quality improvement.
On the school side, I’m more worried. Though many students in this country have fabulous teachers and are doing well in school, many in high poverty contexts are struggling. The income gap is wider than ever before and growing, our schools have been re-segregated, and what remains of the public safety net is rapidly disappearing. Rather than address the underlying inequity, we pile more and more drastic reforms on beleaguered school systems, and the divisive policy climate around teacher evaluation has some hardworking teachers more demoralized than ever.
Finally, I resonate with Jane’s emphasis on community schools as a strategy and not a program. I feel the same way about expanded learning opportunities. It seems to me that the ELO language will be most useful to the field to the extent that it is embraced as a unifying umbrella term. Creating yet another specific program label and attempting to carve out new territory (drawing a hard line between ELOs and out-of-school time programs, for example) may only result in new silos and could undermine infrastructure that has been built over the last 20 years to support expansion of OST opportunities writ large.
The basic idea of expanded learning opportunities is a good one, and it has the potential to push practice, inform policy, and capture the public’s attention. In his book The Power of Public Ideas,Robert Reich wrote that a “core responsibility of those who deal in public policy…is to provide the public with alternative visions of what is desirable and possible, to stimulate deliberation about them, provoke a reexamination of premises and values, and thus to broaden the range of potential responses and deepen society’s understanding of itself.” It seems to me that the idea of expanding learning opportunities for young people has the potential to be this kind of alternative vision. The after-school movement has helped bring enrichment and the work of community based organizations right up to the edge of schools. Maybe the ELO movement can bring down those walls once and for all, so we can help ensure that all young people have access to the services, supports and opportunities they need across the settings where they live, learn, work and play.