ERIC Identifier: ED344978
Publication Date: 1992-03-00
Author: Hahn, Andrew
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
Managing Youth Programs: A Critical Gap in the Research.
ERIC/CUE Digest, Number 79.
Public and private agencies have invested billions of dollars in the past
twenty years on a wide range of programs designed to help young people deemed to
be "at-risk," such as dropouts, potential dropouts, and teenage mothers. The
range of efforts includes the federally funded Job Training Partnership Act
(JTPA) youth programs, mentoring, storefront learning centers, academically
enriched summer programs, and special foundation initiatives.
Federal agencies and foundations have invested additional millions in
research to evaluate these programs. Trying to understand why some program sites
succeed while others providing the same services do not, researchers and
policymakers debate (1) whether the right audience is served; (2) whether to
make incremental improvements or radical changes in program design; and (3)
whether data about program effectiveness were gathered or interpreted properly.
This focus ignores how the programs are managed.
Because neither researchers nor policymakers pay sufficient attention to
program management, youth programs remain largely paraprofessional, ad hoc
enterprises, given, of necessity, to improvisation rather than stability and
maturity. More often than not, local programs fail to reflect current knowledge
of effective practices, and well-designed programs are undermined by faulty
implementation. If researchers paid more attention to program management, much
more could be learned about why programs succeed or fail.
WHAT IS EXAMINED IN YOUTH PROGRAM RESEARCH?
are usually described in terms of the target groups served, the sponsoring
entity, or the type of primary service delivered. While these descriptions are
necessary and useful, they do not evoke the inner workings of the programs. Most
youth programs are, first and foremost, service organizations. They are
labor-intensive and require financing, marketing, staffing, and management
control. Their services are delivered by counselors, job developers,
instructors, and case managers. This is the system the client understands and
interacts with; to the client, this is the program.
The differences between successful and unsuccessful programs can be quickly
traced to the variable capacity of the programs to deliver their services. If
these differences are ignored, evaluators, policymakers, and funders are in
danger of ascribing success or failure to the wrong set of factors.
Researchers have not entirely overlooked management issues, but they are
typically subordinated to evaluative overall program effects. In multi-site
demonstrations, policy implications are drawn from the combined results of all
the sites. Yet if one site is dramatically better or worse than the others, the
results are skewed. For example, in Baltimore's RAISE mentoring program, only
three of the seven sites had positive gains, but those three were so successful
that they accounted for the overall positive results in the evaluation
(McPartland & Nettles, 1991).
AN EFFECTIVE SERVICE VISION
The information presented below
is drawn from evaluations of several youth programs operating currently. It is
organized around four elements that are considered to be essential for quality
program management: (1) a well-managed service delivery system, (2) effective
targeting and recruiting, (3) a well-articulated and consistent identity, and
(4) sound leadership and an effective staff.
Service Delivery. Most research on youth programs tries to determine "what works
best" by comparing various services, such as basic skills instruction, job
placement, and occupational training. Although this research demonstrates that
some programs are effective, it is possible (and likely) that successful
programs simply had more able staff and a better-run organization than other
programs. Researchers are beginning to study how service is "delivered" to
clients and how that delivery is organized, staffed, and managed. If the service
delivery system fails, the program suffers, no matter how good the program
Targeting and Recruiting. Even in the best of circumstances, targeting and
recruiting young people into programs is not easy. Since agencies have few
resources to devote to administrative functions, these tasks are frequently
carried out by the most poorly paid and least experienced of program staff. The
long-run results are detrimental; once a program loses its reputation in a
community, it can take years to regain the confidence of potential young
Although many people are trying to understand why some programs have
recruiting difficulties, most research concentrates on program designs rather
than on recruitment, outreach, selection processes, assessment, and intake
practices. Without more and better research on these critical management tasks,
policymakers have a painfully limited number of choices regarding programs with
recruitment problems: cut programs until there is more demand, or force people
into programs through Learnfare and Workfare schemes.
It would help program managers if research would point to recruitment and
targeting strategies that work best. A few studies have begun to look
systematically at these strategies; one found that direct outreach is highly
effective, and that streamlined enrollment and assessment procedures were
helpful (Feldman, 1988). But the glue that holds the entire targeting and
recruitment effort together is the skill and motivation of program staff
(Public/Private Ventures, 1988).
A Consistent Program Mission and Identity. Generally, youth organizations fail
to articulate their mission or identity fully or clearly. But every organization
has an identity, shaped by how it approaches its clients. This unique approach
is called the "service concept."
The service concept is communicated by the way the program delivers its
services. A heavy dose of self-paced individualized instruction says one thing
about a program's service concept; a series of experiential group and
empowerment activities sends another message. "Little things"--such as the style
of counseling, the way the phone is answered, and even the physical
layout--either reinforce or contradict the concept. The program evaluation
literature does not study these elements independently.
Leadership and Staffing. Far more than is usually acknowledged, an effective
staff accounts for good program performance. Staffing is given "lip service" in
the literature, but training the nation's trainers rarely appears high on
anyone's list of policy implications or program improvements. Attention remains
riveted on program design issues, largely ignoring the people who make the
designs work or fail.
Meanwhile, the challenges faced by practitioners are growing, not only in
terms of the multiple problems of at-risk youth. The funding stream almost never
allows for long-term, stable staffing. Funders expect services to begin as soon
as the grant is made, ignoring the fact that the staff needs to be hired and
trained. The pressure managers feel to "hit the ground running" comes at the
expense of quality services to clients. Chronic underfunding and cash flow
problems force senior staff to pursue more projects and "soft money," leading to
further deterioration of staff functioning and morale.
Sadly, many youth programs are poorly run, an admission made by many senior
program managers. Ad-hoc hiring is fairly common in second-chance programs;
except for a generic college degree (not always required), staff are typically
not required to have significant professional counseling or teaching experience
with at-risk youth. This is not surprising in light of the lack of professional
standards for most front-line jobs in youth agencies--or even serious
discussions of what the qualifications of youth workers should be.
Only one national study has directly addressed these issues--an assessment of
personnel practices in JTPA programs (Berkeley Planning Associates, 1990). The
study revealed that low salaries and workers' perceptions of a lack of
advancement in the field contributed to high turnover. But program managers
reported that they preferred to hire more staff than invest in training for
An exciting new research literature on public management demonstrates the
absolute centrality of effective leadership. These studies offer convincing
evidence that innovation is not the sole domain of charismatic leaders, that the
skills necessary to launch successful initiatives can be taught and learned
(Levin & Sanger, 1991).
The message of this digest--that management
factors are central to youth program successes and failures--has largely eluded
the youth development field. Unless the field matures and organizes itself,
youth programs in the U.S. will continue to flounder, succeeding or failing
almost by chance.
Although there is room for optimism, many mistakes of the past have
reappeared in new forms. In 1988, community service was the fashion; in 1989, it
was mentoring; in 1990, it was apprenticeship. But running these programs is
just plain hard; the field cannot absorb new program ideas, and no design will
really work, until youth organizations are staffed and managed in a
professional, competent manner. When the field takes the training enterprise
seriously for itself as well as for its clients, it will be taken seriously by
both the public and the clients who need to benefit from it.
Berkeley Planning Associates. (1990, August).
JTPA staffing and staff training at the state and SDA levels. Berkeley, CA:
Feldman, D. (1988). Model youth programs in the 1980s: Four national
projects. Forum: Evaluation (4).
Levin, M. A., & Sanger, M. B. (1991, February). Move over, policy
analysis; it's management that counts. Governing: Newsletter of Congressional
Quarterly, Inc., 3(5).
McPartland, J. M., & Nettles, S. M. (1991, August). Using community
adults as advocates or mentors for at-risk middle-school students: A two-year
evaluation of Project RAISE. American Journal of Education, 99(4), 568-586.
Public/Private Ventures. (1988). Youth motivation: At-risk youth talk to
program planners. Philadelphia: Author. (ED 300 486)
This digest is based on an unpublished paper, Inside youth programs: A paper
on the limitations of research, by Andrew Hahn, Center for Human Resources,
Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02254.