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Who will determine the future of youth development?


nextgen-main-logo.jpgWhat is the role of after-school programs in educating our youth? In The Need to Reframe Afterschool Expectations, Robert Halpern challenged the trend toward aligning after-school programs with academic achievement. As I participated last month in the National AfterSchool Association Convention in Orlando;(NAA), I was concerned by the number of discussions regarding the direction of 21st Century programs becoming more of an extended academic day.

The Next Generation Youth Work Coalition leadership is promoting an ongoing conversation among youth development professionals on this question. My hope is that this conversation will result in a more balanced advancement of the movement into a professional field that adequately prepares tomorrow's youth worker to engage young people in developmentally appropriate practice that contributes to youths' social emotional development, significant and rewarding community engagement, as well as academic achievement.

jerry-kitzi-next-gen.JPGI was encouraged by the discussions at NAA about preparing a workforce that engages young people in developmentally appropriate practice. There was excellent discussion about assuring professional development and building the competencies of this workforce to address a variety of developmental domains. By the end of the conference I was impressed by the passion felt by many about the value of youth development work.

Fifty years from now, I predict that historians will note how this country began pulling in all related and/or complementary programs like school-age and youth development programs to try to improve academic outcomes in response to more aggressive accountability measures. They will note how youth work practice concertedly shifted away from a free-flowing, student-directed learning model and toward more focused educational after-school programs with research-based curriculum and structured activities with measurable outcomes. This policy-level discussion is already happening in the United Kingdom.

I can't help but wonder if the energy of the Next Gen leadership and the passion felt by participants at the NAA conference is strong enough to inform and influence policy makers who seem to be narrowing their focus for all out of school time programs to that of increased academic instruction. I don't think it is too late to inform the debate in Washington and state capitols about the distinguishing mission and integrity of youth development work.    

What do you think? What are the key messages we should be sending to policy makers to inform and influence the future of youth development to reach beyond a focus on academic achievement?

Jerry Kitzi, Next Gen Coalition Leadership Council, 
director, Francis Institute for Child and Youth Development
and associate dean, Metropolitan Community College - Penn Valley, Kansas City, Mo.


David M. Hansen said:

Thanks Jerry for your thoughts. Here are a couple of complementary thoughts I had:

1. Youth workers in the US need to be vigilent about not getting sucked into the academic achievement vortex. I have "felt" a subtle shift in the past few years from a youth development montra to an after-school educator montra, somthing that I think will be dangerous to the field over time. Jumping in with education provides a quick route to legitimizing youth work, but at what cost?

2. We need well developed theories of youth development that are age-appropriate and stand apart from educational models, although it should certainly complement education. I see bits and pieces of concepts around youth development and a lot of better practices around youth development concepts but I draw a blank on a clearly written theory (or theories) of youth development. As with #1, if we simply borrow educational theories I think youth work will pay a heavy price in the future. It is also difficult to influence policy in a theoretical vacuum.

Dale Blyth said:

Thanks for your thoughts and questions. I too worry about the drift to making youth work just a support field for formal learning. In Minnesota we have come to language around expanding learning opportunities that use youth centric non-formal learning approaches to youth that are the essence of youth work. While this helps connect to learning, I think we also need to articulate some key principles and theories as well as distinct measures that show the value of youth work and youth development programs. Principles include things like it requires a broad set of outcomes to attain success in school, work, college, citizenship and life - not just good test score. Or to get the value from different learning approaches (formal, informal and non-formal) one needs to respect and utilize the core values and distinct approaches, not redirect them just to formal purposes alone. With respect to measures we have to get better at assessing and holding up the value of engagement in learning (not just school) and contribution. These are two outcomes we can proudly claim and deeply influence and they are important to the future of our country.

Joyce Walker said:

Jerry, it seems you've spoken for a lot of us who worry about the price youth work will pay if it snuggles up too close to school. Sure, it's tempting as funders and policy makers wave around financial incentives to do more school after school. But adopting an academic achievement agenda is, I believe, a no-win for youth work. It does not play to our strengths and has never been our mission. Do we promote learning? You bet we do! Do we want young people to succeed in school? You bet we do! That doesn't mean we become an extension of school or its learning agenda.

Youth work and out of school time programs offer the kind of youth-chosen, voluntary life-long learning that emphasizes "learning to learn" and feeds what Peter Benson calls the "sparks" that young people and adults have. Nonformal learning calls them to pursue studies, talents, interests and passions in their everyday life, quite apart from the mandates and standards of school. Robert Halpern's "Confronting the Big Lie" makes the case so well -- abandon the pretense of being academic, step back and analyze our own strengths, and pursue the reflection and study that makes the case for what out of school time programs and organizations can do best!

Jerry Kitzi said:

Well choir, how do we get the attention of those sailing the ship away from the shores of youth centric, non formal learning? I have to admit I was further dismayed today when one of the readers let me know about a strategic direction United Way of America may be taking. It too may be charting a course for academic success by narrowly refocusing resources previously intended for a broader approach to youth development. Who is next?

Claire King said:

This is indeed a trend that we need to examine. The youth work workforce studies of the last decade indicate that tutoring is a youth work activity common to the majority of youth work and care workers across settings, sectors and demographics. In light of that, it makes sense to help prepare our youthworkers to be effective in this activitiy as in the other dimensions of their practice and programming. However, while it may be a common use of youth work and care workers' time, we know that academic support is not the crux of the value we bring to youth and is but one piece of the interaction between young people and those who work with and care for them outside of the classroom. Tutoring is another expression of the relationship that is at the heart of youth work and care and differs from the objectives of formal education. In that regard, tutoring must look different because it has a developmental impetus to it even while it seeks to reinforce youth comprehension and mastery of academic content and cognitive growth. What then, might characterize tutoring in a youthwork framework of positive youth development, let's say?

Joyce Walker said:

Good conversation! You make some interesting observations, Claire. I wish they fanned my optimism more than they do. I fear that saying "tutoring" in an afterschool program is translated as "academic tutoring for academic outcomes" the same way "education" to many equates with "school." In youth work it's very common to tutor, coach, befriend and assist a young person sort out personal issues, make sound decisions about their future, tackle a challenge or work to overcome an obstacle. The youth worker provides the support and the young person typically names the issue or identifies the assistance desired. That's very different than tutoring aimed at passing a high stakes test or avoiding failure in a required course.

Jerry notes that our messages about healthy developmental supports and opportunities don't seem to be heard. Perhaps it's because amid the clamor to prove that schools aren't failing, folks conclude that the young people are. Sometimes I think it's our language that gets in the way of better understanding. Other times I just think that as a society we get so invested in the success of our institutions and systems that we can't step back and ask what's sensible, positive, healthy and constructive for our young people.

dana fusco said:

great discussion and one that we are currently having in NY as well. we have identiifed the same trend but are now probing the "what's next?" question. i will keep you posted with our strategy but i can say that we are working on a concept paper dubbed "re-claiming youth work." it is attempting to position youth work around a wide set of outcomes but more importantly as a qualitatively different approach than academically oriented programs. if we came together in the making of a white paper (or series of) and then distributed that widely it might be a start. the choir does have an amazing voice after all. thanks for pushing the envelope.


Jon Ord said:

Really interesting thoughts... I had the impression that whilst youth work in the US, lacked some of the structures which supported and developed youth work in the UK at least it had the benefit of being more flexible and responsive, it saddens me to think that you are suffering the overbearing grip of policymakers too. Whilst it appears that your primary focus is on academic achievement ours has been on employability for nearly a decade now...

For me two things emerge, there is a need to shout loudly about our achievements, namely the outcomes that are work produces. Dale's point is a good one that's there are other outcomes (other than academic achievement which are important) but also it should be remembered that academic achievement is predicated on a number of subsidiary outcomes for example 'self belief'. Youth work works with these subsidiary outcomes. The irony of policymakers emphasis on particular outcomes whether that be academic achievement or employability is a total disregard for what underpins successful achievement of them.

I'm also reminded about the emphasis on opportunities over here in the UK, the need to 'give young people opportunities' has been a resounding message over the last few years. But of course you can take a horse to water, but can't make it drink. Aspiration is far more important than the provision of opportunities, youth work can enable young people 'to aspire' but that is a process that takes time...

We need to be able to articulate the process of our work more fully and with clarity as well as celebrate the outcomes we achieve...

Dale Blyth said:

Great conversation and very glad you joined in Jon! Your three points -- sell our unique outcomes, recognize the other outcomes it takes to get success in ones policy makers care about (and youth work promotes), and better frame our process and its value -- are exactly the type of multi-pronged strategies we need to both build and advance youth work. We also need to find ways to unite around these approaches more effectively and find the language that both articulates them well and get through the mental frames other use (google Frameworks Institute for info on frames and see work they did for Minnesota on frames that work with voters).

Also, with respect to the second point and the outcomes we achieve that underlie or support achievement and employment, I think this is a very powerful argument. I am completing an article with Laura LaCroix-Dalluhn on expanded learning opportunities that articulates this as a principle we should use to guide what types of opportunities we expand. It will be in a special issue of New Directions in Youjth Developemnt in the fall.

Take care,

Naomi Stanton said:

This was a really interesting post to read, as well as the conversation that follows.
My own thoughts echo a lot of what is already said above; like Jon, it does shatter for me the notion I had of the freedom to do youth work without constraint in the US.

One of the more successful arguments I think youth work has made here in the UK, is the ability many youth workers, and the approach they take, has to engage young people who are not engaging with the academic process, and the positive work that can be done with this client group in the youth work setting. I think rather than selling youth work as an extension of teaching, and thus somewhat arguing against the need for youth workers at all, we do need to celebrate what we do that other professionals struggle with. So if stats are needed, how many young people who struggle within the school environment, who truant, or have been excluded from school, are youth workers managing to engage? And more qualitatively, what kind of relationships and work is being built with them?

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