Staff Education Grows, but What’s the Payoff?

Print More

Cambridge, Mass. – Do youth workers need academic credentials?

That and other big questions were raised at the first Northeast Regional Higher Education Colloquium on a recent Saturday at Cambridge College.

The colloquium’s title suggests tea and bureaucracy. But while there wasn’t much fist-shaking amid the white-board easels, promoting youth work as an academic discipline is still a radical idea.

Certificate and degree programs in youth work, youth development, after-school education, community education – the names vary – have begun popping up at colleges around the country. But this nascent educational system, to the extent there is one, remains “chaotic,” said colloquium co-organizer Jacqueline Fischer, a program consultant for Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt.

The 11 participants represented academic programs and other institutions in Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, along with Youth Today. The gathering was sponsored by the National Community Education Association in the hope that it will lay the groundwork for a regional coalition within the NCEA.

First up on the agenda: figuring out what each program is doing. As notes in orange and green markers multiplied across the boards, the tangle symbolized the chaos of the field. But the energetic discussion also touched on many key debates.

Are certificates meaningless?

As in many professions, job training in youth work often yields a certificate. Sometimes that training amounts to little more than occupying a seat for a few hours. In other cases, students earn college credits for a longer commitment. Regardless, a certificate carries far less weight than an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

For colloquium co-organizer David Frisby, “certificates are meaningless.” Frisby, a Goddard faculty member in the education department and regional director of the NCEA, said in a follow-up call that when the funding “grows slim” at agencies, having a certificate doesn’t protect anyone’s job or help find employment elsewhere.

Frisby described his early efforts to train staff for one of the first community mental health centers in Philadelphia in the 1960s. At the time, he said, “I met all these talented people who didn’t have degrees.” Decades later, Frisby told the room, “I’d like to see their knowledge legitimized as an academic career.”

One benefit of certificate programs is that they get youth workers through the college door. Once they start attending classes, the thinking goes, they’ll be hooked.

For example, since 2001 the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts in Boston (UMass Boston) has offered both a B.A. with a youth-work concentration and a youth-work certificate. Students who get the certificate (earning 18 credits) often go on for bachelor’s degrees, said Faculty Coordinator Joan Arches. She noted that getting the certificate allows students to enroll in a degree program without “going through the formal admissions process.”

How do you give youth workers a leg up?

Academic credit has become the new “currency,” some participants claimed. Racking up credits for learning outside the classroom can be especially motivating. For youth workers, that can provide the extra push to complete a degree.

Students often submit a portfolio of their educational and work experience in programs that give credits for “prior learning,” as it’s called at UMass Boston. At Goddard College, Frisby said, they can include certificates from past job trainings in their portfolios, earning up to 45 credits.

At Charter Oak State College in New Britain, Conn., students compile a “Professional Resource File,” based on coursework done in classes, for the Credential in After School Education. According to Carole Weisberg, coordinator of early childhood and youth programs, this portfolio includes letters from supervisors verifying a worker’s hours and written assessments of job performance.

But problems can arise when transferring to another school’s degree program, especially across state lines or when there are no articulation agreements between institutions to accept credit. Mainstream academia is far from thrilled by credits for on-the-job learning, said co-organizer Joel Nitzberg, director of the Institute for Lifelong Learning and Community Building at Cambridge College.

Frisby of Goddard said that in 30 years of teaching, he’s “never had a student come to me and say ‘I can’t transfer my credits.’ ”

“Come to Massachusetts,” Nitzberg countered. “It’s a mess.”

How do you sustain these programs?

Filling classrooms is still an issue. Weisberg pointed out the hurdles in running small classes. Since the Charter Oak after-school program’s inception in 2005, she noted in an e-mail, more than 140 people have taken the courses. But only seven have graduated with a credential. Creating online courses like those at Charter Oak could attract and retain more students, she said – one way to appease budget-minded bureaucrats.

Do these programs improve youth work?

Surveys indicate that staffers at youth-serving agencies like to take professional courses and that it improves their self-esteem. But colloquium participants emphasized the need to gather more and better data.

Nitzberg and Arches described their work with yet another training program in the Boston area: the SAYD (School-Age and Youth Development) Credential. This pilot involves classes taught at three local colleges, including UMass Boston, and is worth nine credits; about 80 youth workers are set to graduate this month. In evaluation interviews of the program, workers have talked about the professional benefits they’ve garnered.

“But we didn’t measure the outcomes for kids” served by those workers, Nitzberg noted – the ultimate “so what?” for funders and agencies.

The growth in youth-work classes echoes the changes in early-childhood education that began in the 1980s. Today, some states require early-childhood workers to take a minimum number of college courses. Even in states that don’t have mandates, early-childhood is years ahead of youth work in developing standards.

Leslie Roesler, project manager for community initiatives at Pennsylvania Key, which among other things provides staff development support for early childhood education, noted that while “early-ed folks do lots of portfolios” to gain a credential, these “students don’t necessarily go on to college.”

Roesler said she’s working on a school-age credential, too. But she asked other participants point blank: “Why are we doing this, supporting higher-ed credentials?”

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, there was no one answer, beyond the higher-education belief in learning as a vehicle for personal empowerment. It’s an appealing worldview, one that emphasizes expanding minds as well as career possibilities. Yet connecting this view to the practicalities of training youth workers, many of whom are unprepared for college, is a challenge.

On the flip side, the cachet of higher education may be what it takes to gain youth workers the respect and compensation they deserve.

“There’s pretty much no one I’ll turn away to work for us,” said Sandra Habe, director of the Westford Partnership for Children, a fee-based after-school program in Westford, Mass. But while Habe added that she doesn’t care if individual teachers have particular credentials, she underscored how pumping up the educational level of her staff helps when she makes pitches to her affluent community and funders.

“People making decisions in this country have elite educations,” she said. “What do they respond to? Education.”