The American Youth Policy Forum recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and assembled a panel of national experts in education, youth, and workforce policy to reflect upon what has and hasn’t worked to help underserved youth be successful. Tony Carnevale, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, representing the workforce perspective, Karen Pittman, Forum for Youth Investment, representing the youth perspective, and Andy Rotherham, Bellwether Education Partners, representing the education perspective, engaged in a lively and wide-ranging discussion that touched on many varied strategies to help youth, as well as a few that have not had much impact. The following is a quick recap of that conversation, which unfortunately does not capture the full interplay of ideas and discussion in which the panelists engaged.
I first asked the panelists what one or two policies, in their opinion, have had a significant impact on improving the life chances of underserved youth. Given their different perspectives and experiences, their responses differed quite significantly.
Karen Pittman did not hesitate to say that the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program has had a major impact on increasing the availability of enriching and engaging afterschool and summer learning activities for children and youth who live in low-income communities. Pittman said the 21st CCLC program has not only helped expand access to poorer communities, but has also helped to improve the quality of afterschool and summer learning programs resulting in better outcomes for youth. High quality afterschool programs, she said, have been shown to improve school attendance, academic performance, and result in reduced negative behaviors by providing support, guidance, and skill development in the non-school hours.
Andy Rotherham discussed two policy areas that he thinks have made an enormous difference to improving youth outcomes. The first is the use of disaggregated data in school accountability systems to identify and measure the performance of certain groups of students, such as students with disabilities and English language learners. Accurate, disaggregated data can lead to honest conversations about how certain groups of students are performing and be a call to action for change. The second policy that Rotherham identified was the creation and implementation of charter schools, which he said has resulted in much greater personalization of education. Charter schools have the flexibility to develop unique variations in school design that can help meet students’ individual learning styles, interests, and needs.
When asked to name the policy or policies that have helped young people in the workforce arena, Tony Carnevale was not nearly as optimistic as his peers. Carnevale said that our policies to help young people be ready for the workforce have not worked well because the U.S. does not prioritize youth policy and workforce preparation for young people. He said there have been issues of quality and tracking of students in vocational education that we are still wrestling with in many places. Lastly, Carnevale said we are hampered in teaching youth the workforce skills they need because there are so few employment opportunities for them to learn from.
Following along with the theme of skill development, I said it is clear that young people need to develop skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork, creativity, and comfort with diversity and ambiguity in order to be successful in a career and in today’s society. I posed the question to the panel of how might we do this?
Carnevale suggested that we do not really know how to develop these skills very well, and that educators in many cases do not know how to make the teaching of certain skills explicit. He also said that most educators do not do a very good job connecting classroom knowledge to real-life applications. Finally, he added, since we do not do a very good job preparing high school students for careers after twelve grades, the new norm now is for every student to have two more years of postsecondary education.
Pittman said that afterschool and summer learning programs can be great venues for youth to learn many of these employability and social and emotional skills, but not all afterschool professionals are explicit about the skills they are helping youth develop, agreeing with Carnevale’s observation. Pittman went on to mention research by Barton Hirsch that aims to improve minority high school students’ marketable job skills by explicitly calling out specific skills being taught and learned (e.g. teamwork) and then having youth reflect on how they learned those skills and why those skills matter to jobs.
Rotherham added his take on this topic and said we have been wrestling with the balance between knowledge and application since Plato’s day. He said you must have a knowledge base to be able to apply it, but educators could do a better job of drawing connections between theory and application.
Many of the themes that emerged in the panelists’ discussion are closely connected to AYPF’s policy priorities, which include building smoother pathways to college and careers, personalized learning, and expanded learning and skill development for traditionally underserved youth. As we enter our next quarter century, we recommit to our mission of educating, engaging, and informing policymakers about the research, policies, and practices that help underserved young people be successful.