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Working hard or working smart?

By Samantha Grant

"How could we know as much as we do, spend as much as we do, care as much as we say we do and accomplish so little for so many kids over so long a period of time?"

That is one powerful statement by Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. For anyone interested in the achievement gap, I encourage you to listen to his speech during this year's Ready by 21 National meeting. You will ride the wave of deep sadness to hope all in this 30-minute presentation. He had me at the first line, but the whole speech is thought provoking.

No one who understands the reality of education and youth work would say that educators don't care deeply and work hard. But I wonder- are we working smart? Smith talks about how in programs we will hold dearly to one that has a specific outcome for a specific population. Often times we know that this program doesn't have lasting power and it certainly isn't sustainable if scaled up. Sound familiar?

So here's where I argue with myself when it comes to the goal of programs:
  1. The youth program part of me says that we should develop responsive programs to the needs of audiences. In fact, that's what Extension is all about. Sometimes getting a handful of kids to master a new skill or grow in their social emotional learning is at the core of what youth work is really about. It doesn't have to be a "one size fits all" model.

  2. On the other hand, the evaluator side of me says it's important to have programs with demonstrated positive outcomes. Without testing our programs to see the impact that they have on our target populations, we are cheating our main audience - the young people themselves.
What I have seen in the education and youth work field in response to this tension is an emphasis on collective impact. Strategic consulting firm FSG says collective impact occurs "when organizations from different sectors agree to solve a specific social problem using a common agenda, aligning their efforts, and using common measures of success."

I love the idea of communities coming together to support young people. With this mindset, organizations can focus on what they do well and then work with other agencies to help to fully support youth in all areas of development.

What do you think? Should programs be responsive to needs or scalable? Should we focus on the success of individual programs or the collective impact of many?

Does any of this matter? Yes. If we know that many children are not getting what they need, it does matter. In fact, it matters a lot.

-- Samantha Grant, evaluation director

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  1. Samantha – A very thought provoking blog. You make a number of points that deserve more attention and discussion.
    What does working harder look like? Is it creating more and more responsive programs that potentially don't make a difference or add up in any impactful way?
    Does working smarter mean working together to scale up and reach some single and narrow set of outcomes we share and assess using data?
    Or do we in fact need to work both harder and smarter? And perhaps in a more balanced and aligned way rather than choosing one or the other.
    To me working harder involves two things –
    > Quality processes -- processes that are not only responsive but engaging and where youth have voice and choice
    > Intentional focus -- being clear not just about how we do things but also why and to what end
    We need to work harder at improving the quality of what we offer and its intentionality - including outcomes we seek for and with youth.
    But we also need to work smarter -- especially smarter together. Together as the youth or OST sector AND together across sectors to help ensure and support the learning and development of OUR young people -- collective impact. This means both working at and beyond the program level. Youth develop and learn from the cumulative experiences they have – not just form one program.
    A common problem, and perhaps a reason for the lack of progress can be seen in the combination of each of these points. If we do not work together to improve quality and impact we are unlikely to get the collective results we need. If we do not work harder and smarter at both the program and community levels it is unlikely to add up to the change we need.
    Perhaps the answers lie in learning to work hard in smart ways that add up!

  2. Sam, this is a great topic for our sector! Thanks for bringing this to the fore.
    I agree with Dale that an investment in quality is where we might be able to work both harder and smarter to the best ends. I see our work as offering a menu of options for youth development - what is tried and true - the foundation of our work, activities that we know work well with youth (e.g. guided inquiry for learning, consistent opportunities for meeting, social events, etc.) but with each individual diner (program/group of youth/individual youth) being able to tailor a recipe as needed or desired - that being the youth voice and choice part.
    I think that I'll stop here for a snack and some tea!

  3. Dale and Heidi,
    Thanks for the thought provoking discussion. I agree that we need to be working both harder and smarter. As you said, a focus on quality is one way that we can ensure that youth are having high quality learning experiences in multiple contexts.
    I see a need for more cross-collaboration between programs that serve youth, both in school and out of school to make this happen. You both touch on this. We have some models emerging in Minnesota and certainly nation wide there are some cities that are investing in an emphasis on collective impact. What have you seen in your practice?


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