The Enigma of Scientifically Based Youth Work

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The Enigma of Scientifically Based Youth Work

From the strangest quarters, “scientifically based research” leading to government funding decisions is now all the rage for the nation’s public schools and youth-serving programs.

Take, for example the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which sets federal K-12 education policy over the next six years. Signed by President Bush in January, the law invokes “scientifically based research” more than 100 times as the basis for decision-making. Spelled out are the criteria for evaluating a host of programs, including reading and after-school programs, as well as dropout, drug abuse and violence prevention efforts. The research results would then dictate eligibility for future funding.

So what’s wrong with this? In part, nothing. Anyone who has been in the youth service field for very long has observed the squandering of precious funds on some politically sanctioned program while a manifestly more worthy venture down the road struggles with too many kids and too little money. Setting minimum performance standards — such as, do the kids actually show up? — enjoys at least lip-service support from politicians to practitioners.

Alas, the heart of good youth work is not reducible to scientific equations. Best practice in communicating and guiding kids, especially elusive teenagers, is far more an art than a science. When seasoned youth service managers consider their programs’ star youth workers, they’re as likely to be ex-cons as MSWs, handymen as psychologists.

This does not mitigate the need for standards in staff qualifications and program performance, nor does it lessen the importance of vigorous pre-service and in-service training.

But to search with the tools of social science inquiry alone is to search in vain for the soul of effective youth work. Many educational and instructional activities, such as the teaching of reading, do lend themselves to measurement through testing.

However, assessing the social and emotional development of children and the contribution of a particular program almost always delivered in a group setting is extraordinarily more elusive. Evaluators can easily quantify the statistical “benefits” of cops in the hallway, but what of the skilled youth worker on a nearby street corner?

Much of this growing ardor for “scientifically based research” comes from the halls of Congress and the student-testing obsessed White House. Isn’t this the same Congress that earmarked over a half-billion dollars in spending for various programs, often without a shred of evidence that these groups meet the very criteria that Congress now foists on the nation? On what “scientifically based research” basis did Congress award, for example, $273,000 to the Blue Springs, Mo., police department for a program “combating Goth culture”?

Of course, you’d have to believe that the Easter Bunny delivers candy to think Congress could live by the standards of performance that it dictates for others. The only science most members of Congress care about is political. And it is political muscle alone that anoints the winners and stiffs the losers.

During the 1990s, the Carnegie Corp. and the federal government spent millions underwriting the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado’s review of stringently evaluated interventions that prevent anti-social behavior. So far the effort, led by respected researcher Del Elliott, has endorsed just 11 programs. Only one of these “scientifically based” programs (Big Brothers Big Sisters of America) is included among the hundreds picked by Congress to receive non-competitive funding. Some, like the Quantum Opportunities Program for high-risk teenagers (developed by the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America) are fighting for their very existence.

For an example of a canary in the coal mine test, consider DARE, the cop-in-the-classroom drug (and violence, too!) prevention program that has flunked numerous scientifically based evaluations. Its expensive but shabby track record should make it as welcome on Capitol Hill as a campaign contribution from Enron.

Leading the charge for scientifically based decision-making are Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.). Stevens is one of the Senate’s most successful pork procurers. This year he earmarked $110,000 for a single DARE staff position in Alaska. When the House voted in 1995 to eliminate all spending under the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act, Castle, who now chairs the education reform subcommittee of the House Education and Workforce Committee, rose on the floor of the House and successfully urged his colleagues to spare just one “highly successful” program – DARE. Research findings notwithstanding, Castle said DARE “may have had a more positive effect on dealing with the problem of young people using drugs than any other program.” Both Stevens and Castle supported a $2,750,000 earmark this year for DARE’s Los Angeles headquarters for “continued restructuring and improvement.”

Does anyone really think that Stevens, Castle and their colleagues in Congress are going to defund DARE in favor of, say, the thoroughly evaluated LifeSkills Training program developed at Cornell University Medical College by Gilbert Botvin? And what of the thoroughly researched and evaluated increase in recidivism that results from sentencing juvenile offenders to adult prisons? Has that resulted in a policy reversal in Congress?

One pillar of the Bush administration youth policies is to achieve parity in funding (at $135 million) for abstinence-only sex-ed with its comprehensive approach rival. Even though there is, to be generous, a dearth of “scientifically based research” studies demonstrating the superiority of the no-sex-until-marriage approach, who really believes its proponents in the White House and Congress are going to abide by future research findings?

If the DARE (and its ilk) canary does die in the coal mine, then “scientifically based research” will have found a more useful role in youth development programming decisions. Otherwise “scientifically based research” will be little more than just another jobs program for America’s educated elite.