Schorring Up Youth Programs And Snapshots Of Success

David Richart
November 1, 1997

At a time when a bi-partisan Congress and the president seem hell-bent on dismantling many of the programs that help children and youth in the name of balancing the federal budget, two new books point the way for more thoughtful approaches to helping children, youth and families.

The first book, by Lisbeth Schorr of Harvard University, focuses on replicating and evaluating successful programs. In some respects, her 1997 works repeats some of the themes of her prior work. In 1988, during the first recent wave of anti-Washington sentiment, Schorr wrote Within Our Reach. Her 1988 anthem demonstrated that many of the Washington-supported programs that serve children, youth and families actually worked. For those of us working on children’s and youth issues during the late 1980s, Within Our Reach conveyed a sense of optimism sorely needed during that dispiriting period.

Since then, anti-government fever has moved beyond the beltway into the halls of almost every state legislature and city hall. Once again, Schorr rises to the challenges of the times by substantially increasing our knowledge about health, human service, and youth development programs and systematic change. Schorr’s book is essentially a book for true believers in the effectiveness of government programs. Or, for those on the fence about the role of government, her book is designed to persuade through logical, rational arguments about social, health, and education programs.

This book will be helpful to those in the youth development and juvenile justice fields who see the connections to other systems that serve younger children. While Schorr’s book also focuses on such programs as Beacon Schools and Youthbuild, which serve older youth, she is at her best when she documents the programs that serve younger children and their families. It is a must read for those people who are interested in reacting to some of the most venomous attacks on programs that offer children and youth a fair chance in life. She also includes an extensive discussion about the potential for shaping outcomes, the problems with bureaucracies, and the importance of reforming whole systems of care, as well as the nation’s public schools while revitalizing neighborhoods.

Where Are the Line Workers?

While I appreciated Schorr’s attention to detail and her ability to document what works, I do have several criticisms. First, she made some early decisions about who she was going to interview that eventually undercut her arguments. She seems to focus on interviewing academics, think tanks, administrators, and program directors at the expense of those more directly involved. It seems to me that most of the people with whom she talked have a bested interest in the programs she discusses, which obviously raises questions about their objectivity.

The countries emerging state-based child advocacy organizations might see these programs quite differently and might have added more depth to her discussion. Line workers, whether they work in these model programs or not, might not be quite as optimistic about the programs that she describes as the experts she interviewed. Talking with recipients of the services she describes might have raised some interesting observations. Even more significantly, discussing these programs with their well-tutored critics, might help those in the youth field better understand how such resistance to these programs is framed.

‘Other People’s Children’

My second reservation is that her book seems to have been written about a world without strong public feelings about what the psychologist, Kenneth Kenniston called “other people’s children.” From the perspective of many Americans, these children live across the street, across town, in a ghetto, barrio, reservation, or hollow far removed from their own experience. Schorr’s book seems to assume that logical arguments can persuade many Americans that they should turn from their radical individualism and adopt a more communitarian spirit that might prompt more attention to other person’s children.

Her book does not address fully the fundamental question of why—when the evidence about the effectiveness of programs is so clear—does the public fail to support programs that help other people’s children? As recent polling data from the Coalition of America’s Children and Public Agenda suggest, the answer to why many Americans ignore other people's children as a matter of public policy, may go much deeper than the public's simple resentment of government. By a voiding a direct discussion about how some Americans have an implicit bias about youth other then their own, Schorr misses an opportunity to expand the debate about how to overcome the animus that people associate with effective programs for other people's children.

Third, I think that a deeper discussion about economics and politics might have been helpful. For example, some Americans see social programs as disguises for solutions to the deeper-seated economic problems that affect families, neighborhoods, and communities. One of the questions raised by her book is the extent to which the public see social programs as pan of a covert plan to redistribute societal resources at their expense. If this assumption is correct, it might explain the public's resistance to many of the programs she describes-on political grounds, she scrupulously avoids a discussion of the barriers encountered by the country's child advocacy organizations who often might mount efforts outside of government to generate public support for the successful programs she champions.

In Black and White

Stephen Shames' book, Pursuing the Dream, takes a different tact. Shames' book, which was supported by the Family Resource Coalition, puts a human face on the many problems and programs that Schorr so aptly describes. Dream starts with two essays. The first was written by Roger Rosenblatt, a journalist and contributor to The New Republic, who provides the context for Shames' later photographs. Shames also weighs in with his own personal essay that concludes with his assessment of the seven most important characteristics of effective programs.

But the strength of this book are Shames' black-and-white photographs of families he captured through his extensive travels throughout the country. His photos humanize the families who are the subject of Schorr's more intellectual work. But Shames' pictures do more than illuminate the families; they cast new light on the successful programs that he saw in operation, As the book's subtitle suggests, he describes the programs that help nurture, sustain, and educate poor and working-poor families. For example, he highlights the Friends of Children program in Portland, Ore., by illustrating the important role that Zach Harris, an adult volunteer, played in helping T.R. Brown, an elementary aged youth, T.R. is on the brink of becoming a great success — or a disappointing failure. Mr. Harris' treatment of T.R. reminds all of us about the importance of a strong role model in children's lives.

Shames' book would make a wonderful holiday gift for your favorite foundation official, elected official, or administrator, at that special time of year his book reminds all of us why we chose helping and supporting families as our vocation — or as our lifetime's passion.

Richart, David. " Schorring Up Youth Programs And Snapshots Of Success." Youth Today, November/December 1997, p. 35.

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