Thursday, March 21, 2013

Moving Past Our Fear of Data

Last week, I had the opportunity  to attend the National Youth Employment Coalition’s 2013 National Forum and while I learned an incredible amount, I did have one thought in particular that I thought might be worth sharing with the blog’s readership.(Shout out to other DC orgs, LAYC and See Forever Foundation who were also in attendance!)

The very first discussion session I went to at the forum was about data and not surprisingly this session drew quite a crowd. The discussion leaders, Susan Curnan from the Center for Youth and Communities at Brandeis (aka the people who evaluated SYEP a few years back), and Jennifer Brown Lerner from the American Youth Policy Forum who recently published a paper and did a briefing on using data for continuous program improvement asked everyone in the room to give examples of their best and worst experiences with data. Perhaps this would have been less shocking to direct service providers, but I was a little surprised to hear that so many organizations were struggling to collect and utilize meaningful data. This is not at all meant to be a knock on those who struggle with this, because data can obviously be quite tricky. However, I was genuinely struck by the number of practitioners in the room, some of whom represented organizations who have been doing youth development and youth employment work for a long time, who reported less than stellar past and ongoing experiences with data.

I look at best practice models from other cities a lot for DCAYA and resultantly sometimes I succumb to the “grass is always greener” mentality, so it was actually kind of refreshing to hear that other organizations in other cities struggle with a lot of what organizations in DC struggle with. That being said, as our discussion evolved over the course of the session, it became clear that maybe my envy of the way other cities deliver youth services was not totally unfounded. I say this because even though the organizations in the room knew data collection and evaluation were onerous and resource intensive and even though some of these organizations expressed feelings of nervousness, anxiety and even outright fear about data, they still all seemed to place an incredibly high value on it and its role in improving youth outcomes.

We all know that DC has a number of organizations and agencies that want to help young people, but are not currently realizing their full potential because they are not collecting data at all or because they aren’t using the information they do collect in a way that helps them achieve their intended outcomes. Sometimes this is due to lack of resources, but other times its because organizations/agencies fear the repercussions of collecting information that is less than flattering. This is especially true when the repercussions could mean decreased funding.

I get why this is scary, I really do. I fully understand that resources for young people in this city are scarce and that so many organizations are struggling right now to stay afloat. I understand that service providers are often stuck between a rock and a hard place with the decision to reach as many young people as possible with at least some services rather than provide intensive services to just a handful. I get the argument that if we’re spending money on things like data collection and outside evaluation that means we’re spending less money on providing services to young people. However, I cannot agree with that argument because at the end of the day if the services we are providing aren't quality ones and we cannot prove or measure that quality, then we are failing our young people.

This point seems to be something DC is a little behind on. That doesn't mean we can’t start to make up some ground though. I find it unlikely, that frequent readers of Youth-Friendly DC will be shocked to find out that I think the primary place we should be focusing our attention is the Department of Employment Services, specifically the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). The lack of data from a program that serves upwards of 12,000 youth every year will never cease to amaze me, but there are of course other places we can look for improvement. Think of the programs at your organization, whether you’re an Executive Director, front line staff or even a volunteer. What data are you collecting and is that the right data to collect to ensure your organization is meeting its goals? Is the information you collect just satisfying a grant or contract or is it actually supporting your mission? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but they are necessary ones for the entire youth serving community to ask if we ever want to make true progress towards being a city that values quality.

This blogpost was written by DCAYA policy analyst Anne Abbott. A copy of the new AYPF report Beyond the Numbers: Data Use for Continuous Improvement of Programs Serving Disconnected Youth is available here.

To stay current on youth issues in the District check out the DCAYA website. You can also Follow @annieabbott ; @DCAYA on Twitter and make sure to LIKE us on Facebook.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why Adult Education Applies to Our Youth Population

Since the Snowstorm that wasn’t closed down District government last week, the Committee on Education’s latest round of performance oversight hearings has been re-scheduled for this Friday, March 15th. DCAYA will be delivering testimony on the performance of the Bullying Prevention Task Force (which our Executive Director Maggie Riden served on), as well as the process for changing DC’s graduation requirements that is currently being undertaken by the State Board of Education (SBOE). Our testimony will also recognize the numerous successes our State education agency, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education, has had in the past year, as well as offer up some guidance as to how operations at OSSE might be further improved.

We bring this up on the blog because we only have three minutes to speak on Friday morning and there is a big chunk of our testimony that focuses on our support for adult education programming, a little known, but very important function of OSSE. At this juncture, one might be wondering why the DC Alliance of YOUTH Advocates is talking about adult education programs. It’s not that we don’t have enough going on in the youth advocacy front- trust us. However, like most things in the youth realm, these two issues should never be considered in isolation.

But why you ask? For starters, we know that a big predictor of student success is a parent’s level of literacy, so we support adult and family education efforts that help to end the intergenerational cycle of poverty. We also want ALL DC residents to have opportunities to lead healthy, productive lives which in today’s economy requires high levels of literacy, numeracy, English proficiency and at the very least a high-school credential such as a diploma or GED. Finally and here is the profoundly self-interested part, the District’s system of “adult education” actually serves a pretty significant portion of (dun dun dunnnnn) YOUTH!

How is this possible? Well, mainly because federal funding streams and program models (which set the tone for many programs) are currently lagging well behind neuroscience research that proves human brains are not fully developed until about age 25. Researchers and front-line workers in the youth field have long considered youth to extend up to this age, however it takes time for things like science to filter into a collective mindset and sometimes even longer to make it into legislation.

That being said, the adult education funds that OSSE oversees are one of the primary funding sources for programs that offer individuals a second chance for success, so it is not especially surprising they serve a large number of youth. OSSE oversees both federal and local funds that support individuals over age 16 in everything from basic literacy and numeracy education (ABE), to English language services (ESOL), to GED preparation and testing services. Needless to say the programs this funding supports serve a pretty wide swath of individuals. In fact, over the last three years, ‘adult learners’ aged 19-24 were the second highest population (twenty two percent of all participants) served by funds granted out through the OSSE Office of Adult and Family Education. An additional six percent of the total, or 201 adult learners served were between the ages of 16 and 18 . While 25-44 year olds were still served in the highest numbers, we cannot dismiss almost 1000 young people being served every year by the “adult” system.

The District also helps to fund a handful of charter schools and the DCPS STAY programs that technically serve “adults”, but really target the youth and young adult population. These include: YouthBuild PCS, The Next Step PCS, the LAYC Career Academy and the Maya Angelou Young Adult Learning Center. Other charter schools like Booker T. Washington and Carlos Rosario also serve young people ages 18-24 in addition to older adults.

Given all these schools/programs it seems pretty obvious that “adult education” plays a large role in providing supplementary education services to young people here in the District, but what is less obvious is that these programs operate with far less District funding than the traditional K-12 system. If schools serve “adult” populations (remember that is anything over age 18) they receive about $3,700 less per student than a traditional high school would. This is an incredibly large burden on programs that operate on a full-time schedule and seek to offer an alternative to the high school experience. Many of the same barriers that prevent young people from graduating high school and earning a diploma still exist when they go back to obtain an alternative credential and students cannot overcome these barriers with far fewer resources.

We testified at the DCPS oversight hearing a few weeks back that DCPS should allocate more resources to the goal of re-engaging individuals who have dropped out and while this is certainly true, we also need to dedicate more resources to the second-chance system of adult education. Friday’s hearing will likely focus on topics like data collection, teacher evaluation and test scores and while these are important we should also remember adult education is a piece of educational reform as well.

This blog post was written by DCAYA Policy Analyst Anne Abbott. You can follow her on twitter at @annieabbott.

Don’t forget to “Follow” and “Like” DCAYA on Facebook and Twitter for all of your up-to-date information on youth issues in the District.

For more information on DCAYA’s work around disconnected youth and educational re-engagement please visit our website

Friday, March 08, 2013

We Can't Keep the Status Quo:The Mayor's Plan for Health and Human Services

Last week DCAYA and a number of fellow advocates met with Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero to discuss current priorities for the Health and Human Services cluster, as well as possible uses for current and future revenue surplus and the District’s sequestration plan. Our friends over at DCFPI already have a great explanation of what’s going on with this year’s revenue surplus and with sequestration up on their blog, so we thought we would report out on what was said about the plan for the agencies overseen by Deputy Mayor Otero.

To begin, the Mayor’s plan for Health and Human Services for the rest of 2013 and 2014 has two main goals: 1) Create Integrated Services and 2) Improve the  Quality of Practice. Both of these things are great areas to focus on given that this cluster includes agencies that serve some of the District’s neediest populations (DHS, CFSA, DYRS, DMH, DOH), but what do “integrated services” and “improved quality” really mean? Keep reading for some insight!

1) Integrated Services:  This is something we hear a lot about but do not necessarily see very often from our government partners, which is troubling, but hopefully rectifiable. In last week’s blog post we talked a little bit about the need to look at homeless youth across a continuum of programming and services, and this is exactly what “integrating services” means.  We need systems and supports that recognize when individuals and families are at a high-risk for a negative outcome (like homelessness or extended unemployment) and intervene proactively so negative outcomes do not begin to snowball. Our current system is one in which individuals and families have to hit rock bottom to obtain support (e.g. homeless families at DC General) and this system is not doing the District any favors.

Mayor Gray’s plan for integrating services also envisions a system where we do not punish  individuals or families who seek support by forcing them to navigate a tangled web of enrollment and case management that makes sense to almost no one. A major goal within the plan is that families or individuals involved with multiple services or agencies (TANF, CFSA, DHS, DYRS) will be able to work with a single service team that supports them in navigating each of these systems and their respective requirements/case plans. While shared intake and case management will take a lot of time and planning to implement, it is assuredly a step in the right direction and we applaud the administration’s dedication to easing the burden we place on those in need.

 2) The Focus on Quality of Practice: The term quality may seem straight forward, but it leaves a surprising amount open to interpretation. In Mayor Gray’s terms though, improving the quality of practice at District agencies means a few things. First it means that there will be a renewed focus on staffing quality and professional development for frontline workers (the ones who actually deal with people). For instance, the positive youth development framework and advancing youth development training offered by CYITC are currently being conducted with agencies like MPD School Resource Officers. Expanding this training to include staff at DPR, CFSA and DHS will ensure that staff is equipped with the skills needed to work effectively with youth.

The focus on quality improvement also extends to data collection. Efforts are currently underway in agencies to developing internal dashboards with agreed upon performance metrics that identify if/when interventions are having a positive impact. This effort is actually very similar to what is going on in the education world with SLED. Lastly, we all know that quality is not just the responsibility of individual agencies but also those they chose to partner with. As a part of quality improvement for agency partners and contractors, agencies are now working with Deputy Mayor Otero to reexamine contracts with external vendors to ensure that previously awarded contracts  are appropriate for the needs of the agency  and that contracts are actually leading to intended agency goals.

Given these two focus areas, Mayor Gray and Deputy Mayor Otero should be proud of the plans they have put forward to strengthen the city’s service provision. Simplifying access, prioritizing prevention and elevating quality are all interventions that will have a direct and meaningful impact if both our District agencies and their partners are ready and willing to implement true reforms. It is important to recognize though, that plans are just that and it is the responsibility of the advocacy community (as well as our agency partners) to ensure that these plans turn into action.

This blog post was written by DCAYA’s Executive Director Maggie Riden.

For more information on DCAYA and our policy/advocacy work, please visit our website.