Whatever Happened to Youth Development?

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When something occurs once, it’s a phenomenon; twice, it’s a pattern; three times, a definite trend. Well, three times in as many weeks, I have participated in meetings at which someone has asked “Whatever happened to youth development? You really don’t hear much about it any more.” One of the questioners observed that youth development “used to be sexy” (really?) and another noted wistfully that funders “used to throw money at it” (how did I miss that?). Despite my skepticism about some of these views, I found myself pondering the fundamental question.

Youth development is at once a term, an approach and a field. The use of the term itself seems to have less salience in 2010 than in 1995 or 2000, while the approach has gained traction in multiple venues, including outside the confines of what might be considered the youth development field. The hallmarks of the approach are represented by four A’s – young people’s need for ongoing Access to supports, services and opportunities that promote healthy development; young people as Agents of their own development; Adults as partners in this process; and recognition of young people as community Assets with strengths, knowledge and abilities.

Both the term and the approach are, of course, central to the work of community-based youth organizations, and that work has benefited greatly from studies sponsored by the National Research Council and the William T. Grant Foundation, which have served to ground the field on a base of credible science. At the same time, selected aspects of federal policy have integrated both the term and the approach – notably, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program of the U.S. Department of Education, which supports after-school and summer activities that focus on academic enrichment and youth development, and efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that seek to combat adolescent pregnancy through the use of a youth development strategy.

However, these policy examples represent notable exceptions. Because America really has no overarching youth policy (unlike many other countries), education policy in our country has a disproportionate impact on the lives of young people. There is no question that our current national education policy, No Child Left Behind, has had a major deleterious effect on the daily experiences of American students, with its narrow definition of what matters and gets measured. But all of this may be about to change, because much of what is proposed in the recent Blueprint for Reform issued by the Education Department in mid-March takes a youth development approach that emphasizes educating the whole child, expanding social and emotional learning in schools and preparing youth for college and careers.

These days, policymakers are tending to start with the end – productive adulthood – in mind rather than allowing themselves to become fixated on third- or eighth-grade reading scores. The Blueprint establishes college and career readiness as the No. 1 priority for reform of the K-12 education system. And an opening letter from President Barack Obama cites the importance of encouraging families, communities and schools to work in partnership “to deliver services and supports that address the full range of student needs.”

This vision is consistent with the goals and priorities of leading philanthropies, including the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corp., that are supporting efforts that explicitly integrate youth development principles and practices into school reform. According to Peter Kleinbard, head of the Youth Development Institute in New York City, “In our work that involves education and older youth, we are seeing much more attention to youth development than in the past. For example, the New York City Department of Education incorporates it as part of its Requests for Proposals. On the other hand, youth development is not funded as a separate category. It is incorporated into broader initiatives that address outcomes such as academic or employment skills.”

Kleinbard explains, “Youth development principles are seen as essential in these efforts because they provide teachers and youth workers with concepts and a toolbox that help them build engagement and commitment from young people. The approach is infused into our education work in specific ways – through high expectations in classrooms, positive ‘primary person’ relationships with adults, and active, participatory roles for young people.”

In other words, to paraphrase an American literary icon, Mark Twain, apparently the rumors about the demise of youth development have been greatly exaggerated.