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What is the common core of youth programs?

By Deborah Moore

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?

-- Deborah Moore, former director, Youth Work Institute

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  1. The core of youth programs is engagement.
    To me learning is a highly emotional process. I, as well as many others including youth, need to understand the reasoning of why something is important. When it is identified something is important, it is easier to learn. I think your quote of "...youth programs create the kinds of spaces where young people can determine what they want, need and are interested in learning..."
    I have seen excellent programs, that created space for youth to be engaged, crushed by the incorporation of academic expectations that were beyond the original vision of the program. If we are to adjust current programs we need to be highly intentional. We need to ask many questions and proceed with caution. Why is this program effective? Will changing the youth program by doing X decrease the youth engagement? Is it the potential benefit of the change worth the cost?

  2. I could not agree more that engagement is key to learning and youth work. You also articulate the potential for programs to lose that in a search of the support desperately needed to run programs. If we expand our cost benefit analysis, as you suggest, to the learning and emotional cost to youth, we might have some very different conclusions. Maybe you could work on a new framework for the ever popular return on investment (roi) process for youth work! I would support it!

  3. Jennifer Griffin-WiesnerMarch 1, 2013 at 4:20 AM

    Great post, Deborah. I believe that the very best youth programs are about young people exploring who and how they are in the world. That means we need a wide range of emphases covering the spectrum from transfer of information to transformation. Our education system in its current iteration very intentionally takes young people out of society for a good portion of their lives in the name of preparing them to function in and engage with society. Linking the expectations of youth workers and youth programs to that context is dangerous indeed, as you clearly point out.
    Youth programs can and ought to be about young people's active participation in their and our world.