Should youth programs focus on academics? If so, how much? This ongoing debate has a new twist, with the emerging Common Core State Standards, now adopted by 46 states.
The Common Core sets standards for what students in K-12 should master in math and English language arts to be college- and career-ready, and are expected to be implemented in 2014-15 in each state.
In a recent Forum for Youth Investment article, Devaney and Yohalem explain that the standards "emphasize higher-order thinking skills, that is, they focus more on demonstrating understanding of content and analyzing written materials rather than memorizing specific content." They also question what they may mean for youth programs.
Undoubtedly, practitioners and leaders in youth work should explore and consider the Common Core standards as a policy force that will affect the youth we work with every day. And as Devaney and Yohalem note, there are a number of networks and coalitions in out of school time already exploring how youth programs could respond and connect to the new standards. Their article is a great place to start exploring the ideas and implications on an old debate.
But I caution us to reflect and consult with each other before we act too quickly. For me, the most critical paragraph in the article is the brief review of possible challenges. These challenges are framed as the risk of OST overpromising the support we can guarantee for achieving academic outcomes.
I am less worried about over promising than I am about shifting to purposes that may be out of proportion to what we do best. For me, youth programs create the kinds of spaces where young people can determine what they want, need and are interested in learning and doing. It is about also creating a space where they can navigate, reflect about and even relax from the complex realities they live in. That is closer to what I would describe as a common core of youth programs.
I wonder if we should step back and do what is briefly noted in the article and take stock of youth work's own core before we take a "big bite" of the academic one.
Back in 2005, Robert Halpern called the over-emphasis on academic outcomes "The Big Lie." I plan to dust off his article and then have some conversations about what I believe is core to youth work.
What is core to youth programs? How does that core relate to the academics debate?