Why It Matters To Link Research with Practice

I just heard that the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring has received nearly three times as many practitioner applications for the number of spaces they have open for this July! It's exciting to hear the growing interest in research coming from the program side - from the growing trend of Evidence-Based Practices to the always important need to share results with funders, research can help improve policies and practices without agencies needing to try everything themselves. And it looks like research may be having an impact in looking at what works (or really, what gets funded) from federal monies.

Last week, I attended a fascinating Regional Listening Session in San Francisco sponsored by a collaborative of 12 federal agencies designed to gather input to inform the development of an overarching strategic plan for federal youth policy. Once there, they asked our group of about 40 attendees from various organizations and settings to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the single most important thing we could do to make a difference in the lives of youth, related to positive youth development, youth engagement, youth enrichment, and youth mentoring?
  2. What are the needs of youth (10 - 24 years old) related to positive youth development, youth engagement, youth enrichment, and youth mentoring?
  3. What are effective programs and strategies regarding positive youth development, youth engagement, youth enrichment, and youth mentoring? Are there program or policy gaps?
  4. Do specific populations of youth have disproportionately poorer outcomes related to topics we have addressed? What are some ways to best serve them?
  5. What programs really make a difference in the lives of youth? How do you know this?
  6. What are barriers to collaborating on youth outcomes and how can these barriers be removed?
  7. What types of initiatives could promote collaboration and improve outcomes for youth?
  8. What can be done for all youth (not just those directly benefiting from program) in order to use resources effectively?
  9. What are your ideas for federal policy to improve coordination, effectiveness, and efficiency of programs affecting youth?

As you can imagine, there was a lot to say! I was heartened to hear so many attendees talk about the need for a caring and supportive adult in the lives of youth and how that single intervention can make so much of a difference. One attendee summed it up nicely: "I've never heard a young person say, 'That program made a difference in my life' - they always say, 'That person made a difference in my life.'"

In my responses, I was sure to emphasize quality, standards, screening, and the important link to research. I absolutely emphasized the existence of multiple published studies on youth mentoring in answer to #3 and, for the last question, the need to base RFPs with knowing what works from research.

A recent opinion from the Brookings Institution, Federal Programs for Youth: More of the Same Won't Work, argues for supporting programs with proven interventions at the highest level and less funding for strategies that have moderate or preliminary results with the promise of continued evaluation to decide if they would qualify for the top tier over time. Given the current economic climate and funding for social services either reduced or frozen, they argue that the best "alternative is to use rigorous evidence about 'what works' to evolve these federal efforts into truly effective programs, and to use simulation models, incorporating the best scientific findings, to trace their longer-term effects on participants' life prospects."

Mentoring practitioners know instinctively that mentoring "works." We also know that it doesn't work for every child or adolescent and it doesn't work with every mentor. From the programmatic side, we know as well that not just any program works. Recent efforts in Massachusetts and Minnesota are leading the way to implement the establishment of standards to "raise the quality of mentoring programs." Other statewide partnerships are in favor of "uniform, national standards to identify quality mentoring programs."

As long as these standards are exclusive enough to allow a wide variety of youth mentoring programs to be involved and inclusive enough to focus on the uniqueness of a mentoring relationship, the youth mentoring field - and youth mentees - will benefit greatly.

The Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs is seeking your input, too! Go to www.FindYouthInfo.gov and click on the Strategic Plan for Youth link on the right. You can enter your replies to the above questions there. They'll also be hosting seven other Listening Sessions around the country - San Francisco was the first - covering topics such as health and wellness, education, juvenile justice, safety, employment, and enrichment.


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