When discussing how to close the achievement gap, typically the focus is on what happens in the classroom. But a narrow focus will not succeed. It ignores reality, which is that: a) youth spend twice as much time outside of the classroom as they do in the classroom; and b) learning occurs outside of the classroom as well as inside the classroom. We have more than an “‘achievement gap.” We have a “learning gap.”
Any teacher will tell you that factors away from the classroom greatly influence performance in the classroom. If we expect youth to achieve in the classroom, all who work with youth and who advocate on behalf of youth need to start talking about the learning experiences that occur beyond the classroom. This includes social workers, youth development workers, parents, law enforcement, counselors, civic and business leaders, philanthropic leaders and educators.
Closing the learning gap is analogous to a space mission. An astronaut does not venture into space alone. A highly trained team with different skill sets makes a successful space mission possible. Like an astronaut being sent into space, a student needs a diverse team to support his or her learning ventures with the target being success in the classroom.
Out-of-school-time programs provide learning experiences and structure that youth need to be prepared for classroom learning. High-quality programs help youth develop self-confidence and provide them with connections to a broader network of caring adults. They help youth feel part of something larger than themselves. Connecting youth to these programs is working toward eliminating the achievement gap and building stronger communities.
A positive sign that policy makers may be ready to broaden their vision is the establishment of Youthprise. An intermediary formed by the McKnight Foundation, Youthprise is focused on promoting the importance of learning beyond the classroom. This includes making sure youth have access to high quality out-of-school-time learning and that these programs are part of discussions on what is needed to support youth in becoming productive adults.
Youth intervention programs are an important part of the solution. Generally provided outside of the school setting, these programs meet the needs of youth who have lost sight of the need to learn and falling out of favor with the broader community. Youth intervention can take many forms, ranging from mental-health counseling to mentoring to court diversion. They even include programs that entice the entrepreneurial spirit within a youth. By intervening with these youth, we reverse the likelihood of them becoming a burden to society and help them become caring, productive tax paying members of the community.
Youth intervention programs are not just dollars being thrown at youth. They are cost effective in producing positive change. A benchmark social return-on-investment study conducted by the University of Minnesota and the Wilder Research demonstrates a $5 return on every $1 invested. And, if state grant money is considered, the return on investment is $15 to $1.
Better grades, improved behaviors
The positive changes in behaviors that youth intervention programs are bringing about have been documented. In a recent survey conducted by the Minnesota Office of Justice Program, 80 percent of the youth surveyed in intervention programs did not reoffend. Better grades and improved behaviors in school and community were reported by 50 percent of the youth. Additionally, 61 percent reported abstinence from alcohol, 67 percent reported abstinence from marijuana and 85 percent reported abstinence from other drugs. Youth intervention works, it saves money, and we need more of it.
Clearly good teachers, engaged and supportive parents, and an excellent educational environment are all important factors that will close the learning gap. But we can’t stop there. Learning beyond the classroom prepares youth for learning in the classroom. To focus on the classroom as if it exists in a vacuum will never allow us to close the learning gap.
Paul Meunier is the director of services for the Minnesota Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a statewide association with more than 100 youth serving agencies across Minnesota.