Message in a Bottle

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Written by Andrew D. Beadle and Jane Quinn, Originally published in Youth Today Newspaper

Sometimes you have to cross the ocean to get a clearer picture of what is happening in your own country.

I just returned from England, where I and some colleagues and trustees from The Children’s Aid Society got to study that country’s services for children during an era of exciting reform. These changes offer many important lessons at a key moment in our own history, as we struggle, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to understand how so many American children and families have been left behind.

With even our president overcoming his reluctance to acknowledge the gaping (and growing) inequality between rich and poor, we may at last be witnessing an opportunity to do right by all of our children.

First, let me provide a bit of background on youth policy and practice in England, then offer some thoughts on how we might apply the best ideas to realities here at home.

In 1989, as part of the Conservative Party rule under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the British Parliament passed the Children’s Act, which set in motion a variety of changes, including reforms in education, child welfare and health.

The educational reforms, similar to but more enlightened than our No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, mandated the adoption of a national curriculum; alignment of student assessments with curriculum and instruction; retooling of the educational work force; administrative reorganization of schools; and stronger accountability measures for schools.

Despite substantial progress on the “input” side, student outcomes did not improve as much as was expected or needed. And these reforms left the lowest-achieving children way behind.

The Labor Party takeover in 1997, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, brought about a serious reassessment, based on the recognition that the earlier reforms – which focused exclusively on teaching, learning and accountability – were necessary but not sufficient. So three years ago, Parliament enacted Every Child Matters (ECM), which gave local government authorities the responsibility for developing interventions and spending plans that combine academic achievement with broader youth development outcomes. That’s lesson one.

According to our British colleagues – whose assertions are corroborated by data on public spending – the government decided to back the ECM agenda with considerable funding, ensuring that local authorities did not face a series of stringent accountability measures combined with unfunded mandates. That’s lesson two.

ECM created several major national initiatives, including Sure Start (focused on improving early childhood education) and Extended Schools (focused on integrating academic reform with positive youth development practice).

The latter initiative has considerable relevance in the United States as we wrestle with the narrowing of the youth development agenda under NCLB. The Extended Schools strategy seeks to expand learning opportunities for young people by providing school-age child care for younger children (ages 6 to 11) and a broad menu of enrichment activities for older youth (ages 12 to 18); supporting parents through adult education and parenting classes; and involving community partners in helping schools and the youth service implement this expanded agenda.

The national government gives schools direction, guidance and support (including money) to help implement these mandatory reforms, and has set targets – lesson three – to ensure that all schools become Extended Schools by 2010.

The broader aims of ECM have been complemented by the publication of “Youth Matters,” revealing more government plans to improve outcomes for young people and create more “things to do and places to go.” (See www.dfes.gov.uk/publications/youth.)

In the United States, many education and youth development leaders are predicting that the pendulum of NCLB has swung as far as it ever will toward narrowing the education agenda and away from comprehensive youth development. Soon, perhaps, we will be ready to remember what we used to know: that cognitive growth is part of young people’s total development; that learning is a quintessentially social enterprise; that social and emotional development work hand in hand with cognitive achievement; and that we ignore this knowledge at our peril.

A recent study by Roger Weissberg and his colleagues at the University of Illinois and Loyola University brought this point home with great clarity. The team analyzed the results of more than 300 studies of social and emotional learning programs, and concluded that youth who participate in programs designed to enhance social and emotional learning demonstrate higher academic achievement than those who do not. In other words, academic achievement and social-emotional learning are complementary, rather than competing, efforts.

Our British colleagues have not only internalized that lesson but are doing something about it. Let’s interpret this trans-Atlantic message as a call to action.

Jane Quinn is Vice President for Community Schools and Director of the National Center for Community Schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.