Thursday, January 19, 2012

Extended Learning Time and More: An Interview with Karen Pittman, Part 1

Karen Pittman
By Sam Piha

Karen Pittman is President and CEO of Forum for Youth Investment and is known nationally as the leading advocate for youth development. Many credit her with launching the youth development movement and being an important thought leader promoting policies and systemic approaches to supporting young people's development, including the Ready By 21 initiative. See her full bio below. 

Q: You have recently cautioned us to think more clearly about diverting funds and efforts to expand learning time by expanding the school day.  Can you briefly summarize your concerns?

A: Ensuring that all young people are ready for college, work and life requires integrated communitywide commitments to learning. While the current push to expand learning time offers some great opportunities, it could actually have the opposite effect of decreasing overall learning time in communities. This is because if public funding currently available to community-based organizations through programs like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers is redirected toward schools, some CBOs will have to reduce their programming or even shut down.  

Also, a shift toward schools alone being held accountable for expanded learning time could destabilize effective collaborations that are finally in place, actively supporting effective community-school partnerships. But the most important thing to remember is simply that more time doesn’t necessarily equal more learning. Learning opportunities must be high quality if they are going to produce more learning – whether they happen in classrooms or CBOs. 

Q: The Learning in Afterschool Project is stressing the need to increase learning engagement in OST programs by promoting 5 learning principles that should characterize how we design activities in afterschool programs.  These principles are: learning that is active, collaborative, meaningful, supports mastery and expands horizons. Can you comment on which of these you think are most important?

A: They are all critical. Your principles reflect what our own field experience and research suggest about the characteristics of effective learning environments. They speak to both staff practices and program content, which is important. I think that working toward mastery, which goes right to the intersection of program content and staff practices – is something we need to be more intentional about in out-of-school time (OST) settings. Ensuring that young people have opportunities to engage in activities that build their skills and interests over time can be difficult in settings where participation and staffing patterns aren’t always as consistent as school.

Q: Do you have any advice of how best to get these principles better integrated in our expectations of afterschool programs?

A: In our experience generating data that give staff concrete feedback about the extent to which they are implementing these principles and the kinds of practices that support them is extremely  powerful. We know that professional development as usual – sending staff off to a training here and a training there – does not change organizational practice in sustained ways.  The Forum’s Center for Youth Program Quality is working with over 60 networks of OST programs around the country to build their capacity to do this kind of continuous quality improvement work. This kind of data-driven continuous quality improvement approach is the direction that education and other human services fields are moving as well.

Karen Pittman is a co-founder, President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment. She started her career at the Urban Institute, conducting numerous studies on social services for children and families. Karen later moved to the Children’s Defense Fund, launching its adolescent pregnancy prevention initiatives and helping to create its adolescent policy agenda. In 1990 she became a vice president at the Academy for Educational Development, where she founded and directed the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research and its spin-off, the National Training Institute for Community Youth Work.
In 1995 Karen joined the Clinton administration as director of the President's Crime Prevention Council, where she worked with 13 cabinet secretaries to create a coordinated prevention agenda. From there she moved to the executive team of the International Youth Foundation (IYF), charged with helping the organization strengthen its program content and develop an evaluation strategy. In 1998 she and Rick Little, head of the foundation, took a leave of absence to work with ret. Gen. Colin Powell to create America’s Promise. Upon her return, she and Irby launched the Forum, which later became an entity separate from IYF.

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