Age of Aquarius Meets Era of Accountability

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I recently participated in back-to-back meetings about outcomes of community schools and after-school programs. At each event, leaders in the field gathered to develop a set of measurable results to which practitioners can and should be held accountable. At each event, I was struck by how engaging the assignment was, how doable the task turned out to be, and how many of the participants were multi-decade veterans of youth work.

The meta-message of both deliberations is that, in today’s bottom-line world, the youth service field needs to reflect on the significance of its work and to ground its results in a set of deeply held values about human potential and social responsibility.

For example, youth workers need to push back on the high-stakes testing frenzy that is distorting much of our practice, and to offer a better alternative. That is why the Coalition for Community Schools and the Partnership for After-School Education (PASE) convened these conferences.

It would be helpful to call attention to the voices of the “elders” who guided the discussions at both events and to synthesize the meaning of their powerful messages.

• It’s striking that Marty Blank, who facilitated the community schools outcomes discussion and who is staff director of the Coalition for Community Schools, started his career as a VISTA worker in Missouri during the 1960s. Although he subsequently studied law, his professional soul is rooted in the soil of community organizing.
Blank urged the group to use a wide-angle lens as we thought about the intended results of integrating youth development with school reform through the community schools strategy. His urging helped us produce a draft set of results for youth, families, schools and communities that is more comprehensive, compelling and visionary than many of the measures now in use.

• Joy Dryfoos, a self-described “activist masquerading as a researcher,” reminded the participants about the equity dimensions of our work, recalling the spirit of the Kennedy and Johnson years that led American political leaders to create a War on Poverty. She encouraged us to articulate a set of school and community results that might increase positive opportunities for youth and families and offer a cogent contrast to the “fix the kid” emphasis of many current accountability measures.

• At the conference convened by PASE, Dr. Michael Carrera reminded practitioners that youth development work is a long-term enterprise with no quarterly earnings-type indicators of success. As the creator of a comprehensive youth development program with positive results from a rigorous multi-year evaluation – The Children’s Aid Society’s Adoles-
cent Sexuality and Pregnancy Prevention Program – Carrera called for persistence and responsive services, a “whatever it takes” attitude and a paradigm shift from “youth at risk” to “youth at promise.”

• The Rev. Alphonso Wyatt, vice president of the Fund for the City of New York, combined his considerable youth development experience with his powerful ministerial skills to remind PASE participants that the heart of their work is serving as “hope merchants.” Wyatt honored the work of practitioners and called on them to “starve the beast” of the prison system by ensuring that all young people – especially those facing the greatest challenges with the fewest resources – are given multiple opportunities to succeed.

These elders made it clear that youth work is a calling as well as a profession. Yes, they said, focus on results, but keep in mind the goal of our work: to help youth reach productive adulthood.

And, yes, develop short- and long-term indicators to show that young people are on the right path. But resist the urge to abandon the values that undergird our work. These include such universal values as respect, responsibility, honesty, generosity, fairness and justice, as well as specific values like protecting, guiding and developing the next generation, accounting for individual differences, believing in a social contract and the malleability of human potential, and sharing one’s resources.

Wyatt rallied the troops with an inspiring perspective when he said, “I believe I was born to live in a challenging time such as this.”

Let the church say, “Amen.”