This blog was also posted on HuffPost Education.
Today, one in five children in the United States are poor, a proportion that hasn’t changed much in the last several years. More than half of three- and four-year-olds still do not attend preschool, even though enrollment has increased in recent years. And despite improvements in high school graduation rates, in 2015 there were still 1,000 “drop-out factories”–high schools that graduate 60 percent or fewer of their students.
Much of the work to improve these conditions falls to state and local officials who design, deliver, or oversee most children’s services within complex parameters set by federal and state laws, regulations, and funding.
To complicate things further, there’s never just one problem. Many of the risks facing vulnerable children and youth feed on each other. Poor children, for example, are less likely to attend high-quality child care and preschool, more likely to attend struggling schools, less likely to benefit from after-school and summer programs, and more likely to live in dangerous neighborhoods. Where should a public official begin?
I would answer that question with some good news and a note of caution. There is a growing body of evidence of proven and promising approaches, and lots of hard-won experience about how to implement programs and policies effectively. But this work isn’t for the faint of heart. When it comes to improving outcomes for children, dogged persistence and a willingness to make mid-course corrections are essential. As with many things in life, progress doesn’t happen overnight, and the path forward can be full of surprises, not all of them pleasant.
With that in mind, I offer three principles to policymakers seeking to improve outcomes for children and youth:
1. Start early, and stay the course. Across the fields of child development, neuroscience, and economics, we hear consistently that smart investments early in life yield big payoffs. So let’s start early, by preventing births to teens and young adults who aren’t ready to be parents; providing high-quality care for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers; and giving parents the knowledge and supports (like parental leave) to nurture their young children. Then, don’t stop once children start school. The brain continues to develop as children grow into adolescents, young adults–even old adults! If we want better third-grade reading scores, eighth-grade math scores, and high school graduation rates, then we need to promote well-being at every stage of development, and in all the important domains of life–education, health, and social-emotional development. There’s no part of childhood and adolescence that isn’t important, and no shortcuts on the road to adulthood.
2. Target the highest-risk children. This is a tough sell for many. Americans prefer universal benefits (like Social Security and Medicare) to income-based programs like Head Start, which, after fifty years, still only serves about a third of poor three- to five-year-olds. Nevertheless, nationally representative data suggest that most children in the US are developing well with the support of their families and communities. So let’s concentrate our limited public funds on programs and policies that target children and youth at the greatest risk of long-term disadvantage. The benefits of doing so will accrue to individual children, of course, but also to the larger society, in terms of a better educated populace, stronger families, and safer communities.
3. Embrace evidence, use data, and demand high performance. We take for granted that drugs have been rigorously evaluated before reaching the market and that our medical care is evidence-based. Successful businesses base decisions on carefully-studied data. Why would we settle for less when it comes to services for our children? In the past, good intentions might have been enough to sustain government and private agencies that deliver services to children and youth. But today, there is a growing demand–from the federal government, foundations, and nonprofit providers themselves–for child and youth services that are evidence based, data driven, and focused on continuous improvement. On the supply side, nonprofits that aspire to high performance are availing themselves of guidance, tools, and inspiration from initiatives like the Performance Imperative, launched by Mario Morino and others. It’s a brave new world that holds the promise of more effective services and better outcomes for our children and youth.
Improving child and youth well-being is as complex as addressing climate change or combatting terrorism. And like those challenges, the solutions are evolving in the face of new information. But we know enough to move forward and to measure our progress as we go. Do we also have the will to invest more wisely for greater impact? Do we have the persistence to keep at it and the integrity to alter our course when evidence tells us that we could do better?
I hope so. There’s too much at stake to do otherwise.