In the winter issue of New Directions for Evaluation, Sarah Zeller-Berkman, director of the Beacons National Strategy Initiative, argues that youth development evaluations reinforce the "status quo" for young people in the United States. She suggests that Western society systematically excludes young people, and that the designs for outcome evaluations play a role in that exclusion. Evaluation studies are largely designed based on assumptions that youth are incomplete and "less than" adults. We do this, she contends, by focusing on individual youth outcomes and ignoring the differences that youth make when they engage with adults, in organizations, and in communities.
The author reviewed 209 evaluations of out-of-school time programs contained in the Harvard Family Research Project database and found that "only a handful of them measured community- or systems-level outcomes, while the majority measured individual gains related to academic achievement and youth-development outcomes." The one-way street for documenting that our youth development programs are making a difference is "fundamentally flawed" Zeller-Berkman concludes. This got my attention.
Youth programs benefit adults, too
A couple of years ago, our center partnered across 11 states to collect data from more 3,000 adults who volunteered in 4-H programs. In this survey (as yet unpublished), adults told us the many ways that they benefit from their involvement with youth. Several themes emerged:
- increased self confidence for adults
- improved social skills for adults
- stronger community connections for adults
- new learning of subject matter for adults and
- access to creative outlets through the program for adults.
The adult volunteers wouldn't have gained these benefits without youth participation! To take these benefits into account, Zeller-Berkman urges us to design outcome evaluations that include:
- the changes that result in the community from partnerships with youth
- program designs that do this effectively, and
- strategies written by youth that change adults and communities for the better.
Is it time to re-think the way we approach outcome evaluation in the youth development field? What would you change?
Pamela Larson Nippolt, state faculty and program leader, program evaluation
Zeller-Berkman's article is available to subscribers here.