Iowa Leads the Way in Building a Case for Quality Youth Programs

July 25, 2007

Named for the Native American Ioway people, this Midwestern agricultural state is perhaps best known for the Iowa Caucus, and the pivotal role the caucus plays in determining the national presidential candidate selection for the country’s two major parties.

As the state that holds the first presidential caucus in the nation, Iowa has influence beyond its relative size as only the thirtieth most populous state in the nation. Iowa’s influence as an early comer in politics may well apply in an entirely different arena as the state launches a comprehensive demonstration of program quality assessment.

"We want to move the quality issue into the accountability discussion. How can we measure the right things, and things that are more malleable and concrete than long-term outcomes?"
— Carol Behrer, Youth Policy Institute of Iowa

In 2007, Iowa is continuing a quality assessment begun in 2006 that covers an intentionally diverse sample of publicly funded agencies and programs serving children and youth—including after-school, juvenile justice, residential care programs. To do this, it will use the Youth Program Quality Assessment developed by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation.

Iowa’s launch of a broadly administered quality assessment is a significant action step as it works toward its strategic vision that all Iowa youth are safe, healthy, successful and prepared for adulthood. Through a voluntary network of state agencies known as the Iowa Collaboration for Youth Development (ICYD), the state is testing how broadly and deeply the program quality question can drive policy considerations in a diverse range of settings and systems that serve the state’s 500,000 children and youth.

Sensing that the timing is right, Carol Behrer, Director of the Iowa Youth Policy Institute, and a key player in ICYD, is helping to shepherd and shape the quality discussion in Iowa. Behrer explained, “We are trying to push quality as a policy issue, which has been on the early childhood agenda for some time, and now it’s emerging in conversations about programs for older youth as well.”

The 4 M’s of Quality: Quality Matters, is Measurable, Moveable and Malleable
As Iowa acts on an interagency agenda to promote the use of positive youth development principles in state policies and programs, it is seeking to build a case for quality. The Forum for Youth Investment’s 4 M’s framework asserting that quality matters, quality is measurable, quality is moveable, and quality is malleable offers a useful lens for understanding how Iowa changemakers are launching a four-part case:

  • Quality matters. ICYD’s strategic plan places quality front and center. Though quality is only one piece of the overall plan, key stakeholders are leading with quality as a means for building capacity in other areas. Over the next year they will establish a baseline and promote program quality and the use of best practices across locally-run and state settings. In this first round effort, youth policy advocates are hopeful that quality can be put on the table as part of funding and other policy decisions.
  • Quality is measurable. Recently, Iowa invited High/Scope to introduce its Youth Program Quality Assessment (Youth PQA) to the state. The Youth PQA is a research-validated instrument designed to evaluate the quality of youth programs and identify staff development needs. In April 2006, sixty individuals participated in training to administer the Youth PQA. The instrument will be used in a broad sampling of publicly-funded programs across the state. In using the tool in a diverse range of settings—from traditional after-school programs to juvenile justice settings—the state is investing in the development of shared language, and creating a baseline for measuring quality across systems and within systems over a period of time.
  • Quality is moveable, across youth-serving contexts. Iowa is exploring the use of common performance measures that reach across all of their publicly-funded youth-serving settings. Carol Behrer states, “Through the Collaboration, we are hoping to agree on common performance measures for youth program settings ranging from after-school to residential to substance abuse programs.”

    Behrer continued, “There are a whole host of areas where state funds are used for youth programming and we want to see if we can’t start to move toward a consistent set of performance measures regardless of the funding stream an agency receives money from.”

  • Quality is malleable. Once it has made a case that quality matters, and assessed it using common measures across settings, Iowa is banking on a fourth M—that quality is malleable. In other words, once it is known that improvement must occur, can anything be done to change quality? The answer is yes, according to research by High/Scope and others. Further research suggests that many of these changes need not be costly.

Increasingly, state policymakers are ready to turn to the quality question. Behrer states, “We want to move the quality issue into the accountability discussion. How can we measure the right things, and things that are more malleable and concrete than long term outcomes?”

Can Quality Drive Big Picture Change in Iowa?
Iowa knows it takes a lot to move the dial on positive change for kids. Quality improvement serves as a lead-in for a comprehensive strategic plan which includes strategies for aligning policies, building youth-serving capacity, engaging youth, and mobilizing Iowans.

Quality improvement is one lens through which Iowa is seeking to act on an integrated set of strategies to create long-term change for children and youth. Armed with a strategic plan that mirrors the Forum’s Ready by 21 Challenge, they are trying to advance a big picture change agenda, including a focus on quality. Assuring that there is a foundation of quality programming available will provide momentum for the other strategic areas.

More than just an audit of the quality of programs and services, Iowa’s current effort is a push to change the conversation that the state has about what and how it provides for young people.

The assessment itself will be used as an educational tool to get policymakers on the same page with providers and advocates about what a quality program looks like. The goal is to place quality among the key considerations in funding decisions, and make the case for additional resources in support of quality. Reflecting on the opportunity that the audit will bring, ICYD staffer Amy Croll stated, “We’ll have the hard data to back it up, and we will be able to make the case for additional resources.”

Behrer added, “The policy-quality issue is not so much a legislative matter, but one that has us asking, how can we work this into program expectations? How can we start thinking about quality across systems that receive public funding?”

The advocates for quality expect some challenges as they move forward. The first challenge is a capacity issue. In their first run-through of the quality audit, Iowa will use staff of community programs that have been trained in the administration of the Youth PQA to rate peer programs. Making sure that they have a solid core of individuals that are anchored in the Youth PQA tool will be critical to their initial success.

Seeding the quality conversation in to the policy arena will be no small task. While the initial audit is paid for through existing monies, raising the bar on quality over the long-term will eventually come with some costs attached to it. “Once we open up this conversation, we are going to get challenged about the cost—not just of doing it, but what are the cost implications of having quality programs and staff? Does that make the program more expensive? And, ultimately, what is the return on that investment,” Carol Behrer predicts.

Banking on an Investment Pay Off
Will Iowa’s investment in using a common set of measures to assess quality pay off? That is the question that local and state stakeholders are seeking to answer over the next year. The research presented by High/Scope and others that some things can be done to move the dial on quality gives them good reason to believe that they can build a strong case across youth-serving contexts.

Steve Michael from the Division of Juvenile Justice and Planning, an ICYD member agency, is optimistic: “This is a big opportunity. The more ammunition we have to provide high quality programs, and link them to better outcomes, the better.”

ICYD saw an opportunity to put quality front and center in policy discussions, and found a tool and process to get started. Over the next several months, they will be establishing a program qulity baseline for a sampling of their programs. This baseline will be linked to related outcome data. These will serve as the basis for a state-wide process for assessing quality and seeding quality into ongoing decision-making about publicly funded programs.

For more on this and similar state initiatives, visit the Forum for Youth Investment's Ready by 21 site.