Under the Radar: A Closer Look at a Surprising Underlying Cause of Unemployment

On October 23rd, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted an event, entitled “Common Core & Curriculum Controversies,” it featured a series of discussions regarding Common Core math myths, Common Core aligned texts, and Common Core implementation. During one session Dr. Tim Shanahan, Professor of Urban Education at the University of Illinois Chicago, noted that most teachers (roughly two-thirds) place students according to reading levels and not grade levels. Furthermore, he elaborated that students’ rankings are often decreased by one or two levels.

Far too often, students are assigned to reading levels that are below their current grade levels and are rarely given the opportunity to catch up with other students who are consistently progressing within the areas of literacy and reading comprehension. Due to this phenomenon, countless students are not offered opportunities to interact with challenging materials and concepts that they may be capable of learning and understanding, because most of them are promoted throughout the years without gaining the necessary basic literacy and reading comprehension skills (for examples, look at the New York City Department of Education, the Saint Louis Public Schools, or a new law in Florida). Ultimately, this practice brings about issues within the spheres of workforce development and education which lead to further problems pertaining to employment.

Students who graduate high school lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills are likely to encounter difficulties when entering the workforce– in fact, many individuals with low literacy skills are more prone to drop out of school prior to graduation. Concerning unemployment, studies show that approximately 27 million American are unable to complete forms necessary for employment, such as job applications. In addition, people with literacy-related deficiencies are more likely to have limited job options and lose their jobs.

Many workforce development and education organizations, while directly assisting individuals with low literacy skills in obtaining employment, are tasked with the responsibility of helping individuals to improve their literacy and reading comprehension skills as a means of helping them to effectively and efficiently join the workforce. Due to funding structures and reporting requirements that emphasize impossibly quick gains, organizations with the goal of catching individuals with low literacy skills up to sufficient literacy levels are finding that their objective is hampered from the start.

In many cases, even when individuals with low literacy skills do obtain jobs, they are often categorized by employers as individuals of lower qualification and skill levels, therefore often earning lower wages. This is partly a result of the fact that individuals with a limited number of qualifications and skills are often hired to perform low-paying jobs that don’t revolve around complexity and skillfulness. Furthermore, in the long run, people with low literacy skills are 16.5 times more prone to rely on welfare and other forms of income support. They are also more likely take on jobs that lack social benefits, to experience more barriers when attempting to exercise socio-economic mobility, and to be victims of poverty. In fact, 43% of adults who live in poverty are of low literacy.

Many of the potential issues that individuals face, in regards to employment, could have been avoided in the early stages of their adolescence. It is no secret that one’s life is often decided for them by their educational placement in elementary, middle, and high school. In order to prevent the future generation from experiencing these reoccurring dilemmas, it is pivotal that parents, teachers, policymakers, and other organizations work together to ensure that every student is able to reach their full potential and showcase their abilities before they are assessed and placed incorrectly.

Focus on Reducing Spending Is Ruining Goal of Good Programs

A recent event at the Brookings Institution discussed the post-election landscape for programming that impacts low-income populations. Often current discussions on reform focus on simplifying programming through only supporting activities that have an existing evidence base illustrating success. While promising and proven practices should be a goal, unfortunately many legislators link this model to the assumption that such reforms will automatically save much money. Therefore, those policymakers often attach up-front spending cuts to any proposals to improve programming. Trying to combat this perspective, there was an expressed desire among speakers at this Brookings event to find a way to separate attempts at cutting federal spending from attempts to reform and improve programs. Reducing spending through efficiency is an admirable goal, and hopefully reforms do make programs more efficient. But savings through simplification of service delivery should not be assumed outright and without regard to potentially increasing need. This focus on spending reduction is a key sticking point preventing legislators from finding common ground on reauthorizing or updating legislation, which would provide much-needed reforms to programs that assist youth and young adults.

With such intense focus on evidence-based practices, program evaluation is now explicitly tied to funding. Subsequently, service providers are often reluctant to let researchers in because they fear a bad evaluation, which could effectively eliminate any funding for their programming. As noted by researchers involved in evaluation during a September panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, evaluation is meant to help programs improve their services for the future, not as a judge and jury to determine whether a program receives funding or not.

While speaking at the Brookings event, Gene Sperling, Director of the White House National Economic Council, similarly advocated for evaluation and data collection to be disconnected from funding decisions. A model that emphasizes evidence-based practices can be useful, but should not be taken so far as to determine the role of government in the employment training and education field. As Mr. Sperling pointed out, there should not be a double standard to programs for disadvantaged populations. He mentioned, for example, when particular medical research does not result in a cure for cancer, people do not respond by saying that the government should not dedicate resources to cancer research. Yet programming specifically designed to help disadvantaged populations must constantly face this funding-oriented obstacle.

National Youth Justice Awareness Month Event Highlights Need for Rehabilitative Perspective in Juvenile Justice System

On October 12th, the First Annual Justice for Youth Summit was held at American University in Washington, DC. The event featured a variety of presenters (formerly incarcerated youth, affected family members of (formerly) incarcerated youth, nonprofit service providers for incarcerated youth, lawyers, and a professional photographer.

An overarching theme was that far too often youth are being incorporated into the adult criminal justice system, which can be ineffective in reducing recidivism. Emphasis was placed on rehabilitative and treatment approaches like counseling, community service, education, treatment, and restitution. Post-release employment and recidivism are usually the two possible outcomes for formerly incarcerated individuals, and treating youth in the same manner as adult criminals unfortunately can direct young people towards the latter.

Advocacy for this issue is just as important as the work itself, because of general stigmas often placed on (youth) offenders. The federal government, however, has limited involvement – most juvenile justice policies are determined at the state level. Therefore, concerned citizens, activists, and advocates should educate themselves about their own state’s policies in regards to the treatment of youth and young adults within the criminal justice system.

Standing Room Only at the Capitol: Disconnected Youth Briefing Draws Crowd

On Tuesday, September 25th, disconnected youth were the focus for practitioners, advocates, and legislators alike. A Congressional briefing sponsored by the United Way Worldwide and the Campaign For Youth, entitled “Reclaiming Our Nation’s Disconnected Youth,” emphasized prevention and re-engagement strategies for individuals who were in danger of or had already dropped out from high school. The packed room (individuals had to be turned away at the door because the turnout was so great) heard from a five member panel that included representatives of the education, youth development, advocacy, and workforce development fields. Highlighting the importance of breaking down barriers between the multiple agencies, organizations, sectors,  etc. that provide essential services to youth and young adults, the guest speakers were able to provide concrete examples of what was working across the country. Later, some of these successes, along with the vast challenges facing disconnected youth and service providers, were brought to life by a group of young adults. Three young men elucidated the positive impact that targeted programs had on their life courses.

Rallying Behind Disconnected Youth: Opportunity Nation Summit 2012

The campus of George Washington University was abuzz on September 19th with the Opportunity Nation Summit 2012.  Opportunity Nation is a bi-partisan, cross-sector campaign with a nationwide focus on a population labeled “opportunity youth,” which coincides with “disconnected youth.” The Summit served as an opportunity to all involved individuals (young people, service providers, policymakers, journalists, researchers, businesses, etc.) to come and rally together to promote promising practices and share challenges and lessons learned. Equally important was the opportunity to re-energize one’s passion for this work in the company of a multitude of dedicated individuals, given the challenges on this front.

The full day of events included breakout sessions that tackled issues ranging from strategies that employers can use to positively impact “opportunity youth” to the role of the media in covering this issue. In addition, the Summit served as a release event for multiple platforms. Not only did the Opportunity Nation campaign release a plan to keep the American Dream alive for all individuals, the National Council of Young Leaders promoted their Recommendations to Increase Opportunity and Decrease Poverty in America. Finally, the 2012 edition of the Opportunity Index was unveiled. This tool evaluates opportunity at the state and county levels according to a variety of indicators within the economy, education, and community arenas.