The Algebra of Development

Karen Pittman
July 1, 1998

"Youth development is what you'd do for your own kid on a good day. We don't need a fancy definition to know what to do." This practical advice was offered recently by Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League. He's right. We don't need a fancy definition. We need a functional equation.

There is an algebra to youth development that parents and young people intuitively use, one that we have yet to translate into powerful, policy-adaptable equations. We talk lists, but we need to talk equations. Why? Because youth development requires multiple inputs from multiple sources over a sustained period of time. It requires formulas to show concrete interrelationships between multiple variables. Lists inform, but they do not instruct. They also give funders, practitioners and policymakers a false sense that they can support their favorite outputs, inputs or settings at whatever levels they feel comfortable.

For example: A CBO with a "good fuel" output of three units a day can complement the mix offered by an adequately functioning school or family. But it cannot compensate for the toxic fuel mix dosed out by a poor functioning school, family or neighborhood pumping out 25 units. Equally important, that CBO may not have the capacity (even with increased funding) to provide the right mix of volume to make a difference.

Geographic communities are combinations of settings — families, neighbors, schools, faith and civic organizations, businesses, public and private services which include basic places like parks and ballfields. What we need are concrete ways to gauge how key settings interconnect to improve or contaminate the overall fuel mix for youthful travelers. Once assessed, each setting should be 1) held accountable for providing inputs needed to produce the outcomes it claims are its primary goal; 2) pushed to provide other inputs that could be added without averting resources from that goal; and 3) monitored to ensure that they are doing no harm.

Growing fully prepared youth isn't as simple as A+B=C. But it isn't quantum physics, either. There are six steps most parents or guardians take to support their children and that most young people take to protect, prepare and promote themselves.

1. Reality Check. Where are they developmentally — cognitively, emotionally, physically, spiritually?

2. Goals Check. What knowledge, attitudes, skills, behaviors do parents and children want to achieve? Avoid?

3. Progress check. How well are they doing? What progress has been made toward these goals? Are they still realistic targets?

4. Inputs Check. Are they getting what they need? Is the fuel supply adequate? Is the fuel mix correct?

5. Settings Check. What are the possible sources of needed fuels? Are they adequate? Marginal? Dangerous?

6. Overall Community Check. Is the overall settings mix right? Is it easy to piece together a steady diet of needed inputs or is it necessary to compensate for major settings (like schools, deteriorating neighborhood blocks) that are not functioning well?

One of the primary reasons that families move is to improve the natural fuel mix available to their children. We have to find ways to help families that can't move by assessing the fuel mix supplied by all of the community fuel sources (families, schools, CBO, peer groups, faith organizations, gangs, etc.) and advocating for positive adjustments. Youth development is a function of the quality, quantity and congruence of inputs offered by formal and informal settings in which young people spend their time. We need to think more broadly than youth organizations — which even on a good day can offer only some young people some of what they need — as well as think more specifically than "community." We do not have the measurement precision needed to define and solve equations. But we can pose some basic relational formulas that would give us the traction needed to get out of the mud in which we are currently spinning.


Pittman, Karen. "The Algebra of Development." Youth Today, July/August 1998, p. 55.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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