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Extension > Youth Development Insight > September 2011

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Let's measure everything that matters

Dale-Blyth.jpgWhat outcomes do we want for our children and youth? What outcomes can we expect from expanded learning opportunities during the non-school hours?

What we measure and hold up now is pretty limited -- test scores, drug use, cheating on tests. Sometimes we get stuck in the mode of just using the data we have, even when they are not the measures we need. How many times are we forced to consider how well our youth are doing by just looking at deficits or test scores rather than strengths?

I believe we do need to be accountable for our collective impact, not just our program and organizational impact. I also believe that we need a set of valued and visible measures for youth -- measures that:
  • are valued for what they do capture about youths' experiences while they are in those expanded learning opportunities
  • are visible to the public and remind people of how important and needed community learning opportunities are for our youth
  • include academic measures, but go beyond them
  • don't just talk about the size of the problems that youth have but the levels of engagement in their own learning and in our communities as well as the size of their contributions

One barrier is that these positives are considered hard to measure. measuring-height.jpgFor example, a colleague identified to me recently the importance that African American males place on feeling respected and that someone in their schools actually cares about their learning. This value is so great to them that when it is achieved, it is still hard to see or expect achievement as it is traditionally measured. The problem is that the gains these youth have toward feeling engaged and respected are regarded as "qualitative" and "anecdotal" - not measurable. But they are not anecdotal. They are measurable and meaningful in young people's lives. They are the types of measures we need to put into policy and change efforts.

Too often we are our own enemies in this regard. By talking about what we do as deeper and richer than something measures can capture we too often devalue the very things that do matter. Many of these elements are measurable. Many of them, if measured and held up as valuable for policy makers and citizens alike, could be changed if we work together.

I long for the day when we measure the success of our youth along their journey with measures that are rich and wonderful at capturing engagement in learning, contributions by youth, the level of socio-emotional growth as well as reading and math competency. I hope for the day that we find energy for action from knowing our young people miss the very strengths we want them to have, not just from fear of the drugs they use or their sexual activity or the lack of progress in test scores. I am all for accountability but let's at least be accountable for all of the things that really matter.

As a field we need to support measurement that matters, and not let our youth or schools or communities be defined as failing because of their math and reading numbers alone. If we do not want youth to become numbers only, perhaps ironically we need to know more about them as a whole. Are they engaged in their learning in life, not just in school? Do they know the sparks that drive them? Do the people in their life support and respect them?

What do you think are the measures that should get the same attention as reading and math scores or GDP in our state and national debates?

-- Dale Blyth, associate dean and director

The importance of measuring non-academic outcomes is the subject of a public symposium we will present on October 6.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Observation should inform program evaluation

Thumbnail image for Samantha-Grant.jpgHave you ever watched a youth program where everything seemed to be working? As a youth worker, your gut reaction can be a good gauge of when things are "clicking" inside youth programs and when things need improvement. Sometimes with the current pressure to show the outcome and impact of our programs, we lose sight of the skills we develop through experience in youth work - our ability to observe and assess.

Observational methods in evaluation or research are gaining popularity in school and youth settings. In Minnesota 4-H, we have been investing in the Youth Program Quality Assessment. This standardized observational tool allows youth workers to assess safe environments, supportive environments, interaction, and engagement. There are many other tools for assessing youth program quality. Check out The Forum for Youth Investment for a review of tools.

An article in the spring 2011 Afterschool Matters publication takes a look at the Self Assessment of High-Quality Academic Enrichment Practices. Holstead and King detail the growing emphasis of self-assessments inside 21st Century Community Learning Centers. Their article gives a glimpse into aligning self-assessment with standards of program practice and highlights the pros and cons of self-assessment. They note the power of self-assessment for providing information that can build "programs that provide the best possible services to participants."

Pros of self-assessment include: it encourages staff to be reflective, it promotes continual reflection, and it can generate important feedback that staff can use. One of the biggest cons of self-assessment is the risk that in tailoring tools to fit your program, you can lose the reliability and validity of the instrument.

I am a huge proponent of assessing the quality of our learning kids-peer-into-jar.jpgenvironments and I strongly believe in observation. Sometimes that means using a standardized tool, like the YPQA, but sometimes it means creating a tool that hones in on what is important in your organization. It can also mean just stopping to watch what is happening inside your program.

So what can observation add to your program?
  • Observation prompts program staff to slow down and be reflective
  • Observation takes you to the heart of youth programs - the point of service - where adults and youth come together
  • Making observation part of your practice helps to build skills in youth workers and encourages a climate of dialogue and improvement

Are you a proponent or practitioner of observation as part of program self-assessment? Why or why not?

-- Samantha Grant, assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Decision-making -- a risky business for teens

Carrie-Ann-Olson.jpgResearch has shown the more we practice making decisions the better we become at it. Learning how to make decisions and to be able to defend them helps one to be independent and responsible -- a part of growing up.

As we look at teen decision making, one has to consider the development of the brain during adolescence. Teens' brains are going through a period of intense development, and they naturally seek out risky, novel experiences and peer approval. As a result, decision making can be less than rational.

It's during this period of development that brain wave activity is busiest in the prefrontal cortex. This area is responsible for advanced reasoning: cause and effect, planning, managing impulses, etc. Teens strengthen their thinking about thinking at this time. Along with this development comes actions like teens being quick to point out inconsistencies between adults' words and actions, and viewing conflicts from different perspectives. For example, is a clean room a personal choice or a reflection of morals? It's also during this time that social and emotional influences become stronger and develop earlier than the cognitive abilities such as logical reasoning.

shopping-carts.jpgA new book called The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development by Clea McNeely and Jayne Blanchard explains that teens get personal higher rewards, or an "increased rush" when they follow those social and emotional influences for risk-taking versus "thinking" through a situation logically.

So what does this mean for programming for teens? We know that making good decisions is related to cognitive development so we need to help teens develop reasoning and thinking skills. And we know that learning to make good decisions is necessary for transition to adulthood, so we need to focus on creating safe places for risk-taking and practicing making decisions.

Youth development programs such as 4-H, in which participants are engaged in the leadership of the program, help youth to practice safe decision making. The 4-H consumer decision making judging program is a specific decision-making program that teaches youth to make decisions around topics that regularly make up our daily decisions; food and nutrition, clothing & textiles, personal care, entertainment and recreation and personal finance.

In what other ways can we as youth workers capitalize on teens' prime motivators of peer influence and novelty-seeking to encourage teens to be better decision makers?

-- Carrie Ann Olson
Extension educator & associate Extension professor, educational design & development

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