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Putting the youth programs "if" to bed


Deborah-Moore.jpgIf every grant writer, article author and researcher could commit to one simple action that would create a new perception about youth programs in our field, perhaps it would be to put the "if" to bed. By "if" of course, I mean the question of whether or not youth programs make a difference in the lives of young people. Today I firmly and proudly declare that they do and that I am done stating why I know this to be true. I hope this declarative choice of language will spread across our youth development conversations like the tea party in the November elections.

Here is what got me thinking - in the last few months, I have been immersed in another round of literature reviews for the article that I never quite seem to finish when suddenly -- the "if" became visible to me. Pull out two or three articles from writers and researchers in our field and you will see what I mean. Each article takes up precious column space going through the litany of research that shows youth programs can have positive effect on young people and their development. Why do we feel the need to keep saying it?

Kids-in-a-Bed.jpgAnd perhaps because we are constantly restating the evidence in the literature, it may be easy to for those outside program settings to assume that the findings are new, still unclear, or divergent. But as I have stated already, youth programs do make a difference in the lives of young people. Does every article about K-12 education begin by reminding readers that schools can help youth learn, even if in many cases students are failing? They do not.

If we can move forward in agreement and declare that youth programs positively affect development, then we can move to another set of discoveries and questions. No ifs ands or buts about it.

So I want to ask -- How can this be done? How could you put the "if" to bed on behalf of youth programs? Any ideas and action would be welcome.

Deborah Moore, state faculty and interim director, Youth Work Institute


Kate Walker said:

To your point Deborah, Granger (2010) suggests that the question driving research on after-school programs is shifting from if after-school programs affect important youth outcomes to why some programs do so while others do not. This shift is useful to those (like you!) who are interested in how to improve programs.

Granger, R. C. (2010). Understanding and improving the effectiveness of after-school practice. American Journal of Community Psychology, 45, 441-446.

-- Kate Walker, Extension Center for Youth Development

Deborah Moore said:

Absolutely correct - researchers are slowly shifting our understanding of what we can and should be measuring. Many practitioners have known for decades that proving youth outcomes is an uneasy role for programs. Which is why measuring quality is hitting a cord inside programs. Now funders, stakeholders and policy makers need to join in and start rethinking how and what they require for program accountability. This may be worthy of a blog itself. But it is also time for practitioners to be vocal about what they know and articulate a better pathway to accountability.

Deborah Moore - Youth Work Institute

Josey Landrieu said:

Great Post Deb! I'm also currently working on a massive literature review on Latino youth's motivations to participate and stay engaged in programs. I run into the "if" column numerous times a day when I read articles on the matter. However, I recently came across one that was a bit different and even felt that the researcher had taken MY research question!!! (or maybe the other way around :).

Anyway...the authors state “Given that consistent and engaged participation is essential to realizing the benefits of after-school programming (Got the "if" out of the way quickly), researchers must capture what adolescents find appealing and what motivates them to maintain their involvement over time and in meaningful ways” . I agree with you and believe that it's key that we start shifting focus from "ifs" to "How" and "why". This will allow us to go deeper into program experiences as well as contribute more meaningful findings to others in the field.

Strobel, K., Kirshner, B., O’Donoghue, J., McLaughlin, M. (2008). Qualities that attract urban youth to after-school settings and promote continued participation. Teachers College Record, 110, 1677-1705.

Deborah Moore said:

Josey - That is a really lovely way to put the emphasis on the more important questions we face today. Thanks for putting the example and those words out there. I think such a framing may be useful to those who want to move beyond old thinking. The words we use do indeed shape our perceptions.

Love the questions, Deborah. Comparing the questions we ask about YD programs and schools is a great frame. You are right, no one questions whether getting an education is important, they talk about the best ways to accomplish it. Perhaps the shift in the larger conversation about OST can parallel your comparison...i.e., instead of engaging in dialogue (some might call it arguing) about whether or not schools "work" we focus on what impact they are having...test scores going up or down or neither? comparisons to kids nationally? public vs. private enrollment? dropout rates?

Maybe as people in the YD field we can start talking more about the characteristics of out-of-school time activities and experiences that are important (and this could even include "home-out-of-schooling") and less about whether or not they make a difference. Sort of a question of "what are the human development needs at different ages and how are kids getting those or not in the scope of their life experiences?" More times than not that will lead us, I believe, to the absolute necessity of high-quality OST programs.

Deborah Moore said:


Wouldn't Gisela Konopka be both proud and frustrated that we are still wrestling with core questions about youth? Many decades ago she helped us understand the importance of focusing on the Eight Basic Youth Needs of Youth. You are right on the mark that we need to give clear descriptions of what meeting youth needs actually looks like, in real life. And not only that, but how we all can and should make those things happen for youth in our communities.

Dale A. Blyth Author Profile Page said:

Great blog. There is no longer any if -- youth programs can make a differnece in a myriad of ways. They do so every day in many different areas and on a variety of outcomes. While as a field we may rightly be tired of addressing the if question, it is critical that we shift from asking it to actively proclaiming the answer so that the public and influencial stakeholders know they do. Our task as a field is to move from defensively asking the if question or always seeking new evidence to address it, to helping others see the answer as clearly as a youth worker who has experienced it first hand. As the field moves rightly onto the critical how questions and the imprortant work of quality improvement, we also need to proclaim the impact of youth development programs to help others get beyond the "if" of which you speak.

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