Youth Work’s Unexpected Allies

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Written by Jane Quinn, Originally Published in Youth Today Newspaper

A recent issue of Education Week carried a front-page photograph of a studious octogenarian and urged readers to turn to an inside page, where they found a box with large type that said, “A lifetime of research has led Edmund W. Gordon to the conviction that it is the out-of-school extras that nurture children’s intellect.”

Meanwhile, Richard Rothstein, a nationally recognized expert on school finance, has been traversing the country giving lectures on “using social, economic and educational reform to close the black-white achievement gap.” One of his key recommendations is to expand youth development opportunities, particularly through summer and after-school programs.

Furthermore, three leading child development scholars – Joseph Mahoney, Reed Larson and Jacquelynne Eccles – recently joined forces to edit a new volume on out-of-school-time learning.

All of this signals a powerful phenomenon: Senior researchers from multiple disciplinary backgrounds are taking youth work seriously.

So are more federal lawmakers: Both houses of Congress recently established caucuses on after-school programs, aiming to increase public funding for such efforts.

After toiling in the vineyards virtually alone for decades, many youth work practitioners, myself included, welcome this attention from the research and policy communities. It’s not that we crave recognition, but that we understand the power of “triangulation” and see an opportunity to forge a powerful connection between research, policy and practice.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening.

Ed Gordon is a renowned psychologist whose half-century of child-centered work now focuses on a concept he calls “supplementary education.” Gordon tells Education Week that he created the term to refer to “the whole gamut of out-of-school educational experiences that shape children’s intellectual development – the hours parents spend reading to their children and engaging them in dinnertime conversations, the programs run by the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA, school-based after-school programs, tutoring services, music lessons.”

Gordon observes that such experiences are so readily available to most middle-class children that their families take them for granted. This invisibility inspired the subtitle of Gordon’s new book, Supplementary Education: The Hidden Curriculum of Academic Achievement.

The Rothstein argument – advanced in his new book, Class and Schools – is that instructional reform is a necessary but insufficient remedy if American society is really going to leave no child behind. He posits that two additional strategies must be pursued concurrently: expanding crucial out-of-school-time learning opportunities, and generating social and economic policies that remove nonacademic barriers, such as poor health care and inadequate housing, to children’s school success.

Like Gordon, Rothstein cites the value of experiences offered by Boys & Girls Clubs, the YMCA and Scouts, noting that these programs offer opportunities not only for academic enhancement, but also for training in such critical areas as leadership, teamwork and conflict resolution.

Several other nationally recognized researchers have expanded their scholarly agendas to encompass youth development. The work of many of these leaders was recently compiled in a fine volume, Organized Activities as Contexts of Development: Extracurricular Activities, After-School and Community Programs, published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Although the writers use different terms for it, a common message emerges from their work: Youth development matters.

As the team led by Mahoney observes, “The past 100 years of scientific research has tended either to ignore this time or to focus selectively on the risks present during the out-of-school hours. More recently, however, there is increased interest in viewing out-of-school time as an opportunity for young persons to learn and develop competencies that are largely neglected by schools. Researchers are beginning to recognize that, along with family, peers and school, the organized activities in which some youth participate during these hours are important contexts of emotional, social and civic development.”

These same characteristics are beginning to capture the attention of policy-makers as well, in large part because the youth development outcomes cited above match with the skills that policy-makers recognize as important in the workplace – such as the “new basic skills” described by labor economists and those cited by a blue-ribbon panel of corporate leaders through the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Youth work practitioners now have unexpected allies in the research and policy communities. Working together, we can take bold action, such as reforming high school structures and curricula, and creating new kinds of credentials for entry into the labor force. This will help ensure that all young people have access to critical supports, services and opportunities as they make their way toward adulthood.

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.