What does it take to get young people ready for life?
It’s not often that you get to listen in as three high-level thinkers in the youth field gather around a table to tackle such a question. That’s what several hundred of us did yesterday.
John Gomperts, president and CEO of the America’s Promise Alliance; Karen Pittman, CEO and co-founder of the Forum for Youth Investment; and Sean Slade, director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD, sat down together at the Forum’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to ponder that question and its spinoffs: How do we define readiness? Who’s responsible for instilling it? How do we measure it?
Hundreds of people listened in by conference call, and many of us simultaneously posted reactions and questions on Twitter at #readyyouth.
Expand the Definition
Right off the bat, the trio pressed the importance of expanding what it means for a young person to “be ready,” because just getting through high school doesn’t cut it. The diploma doesn’t mean that someone is ready for college, work or the many other responsibilities of life. “It’s not showing that you’re ready as a citizen, or ready to take on the world,” Slade noted. “It doesn’t show that you’re a problem-solver or collaborator. What is the ready that we’re looking for?”
Readiness is “broader than education,” Gomperts said. “There’s readiness to enter the workplace, to behave properly, to adapt.”
“In some ways we’ve duped young people into thinking they are ready” because they have a diploma, Pittman said. Then they start college or a job, she says, and find that they don’t have life skills they need for communicating, teamwork and self-regulating.
So where do they get these skills?
Go Beyond the Classroom
While all three said schools can and should do more to teach these competencies, they stressed that the skills are best learned and practiced beyond traditional classroom instruction. “They’re learned in other activities, they’re learned in life, from the people around you,” Gomperts said. “But a lot of young people are growing up in challenging circumstances, where they don’t have all of that surround sound that helps people observe behaviors, develop them and get corrected.”
There is no shortage of lists about the life skills, soft skills, etc., that kids need to succeed. Here is the challenge for the youth field, Pittman said: “What do we need to do to name them, to provide ample time for young people to practice them and get feedback on them?”
Answering that challenge, the trio agreed, requires pressing society to recognize more universally that young people learn many things in many places, and in many ways – not just in school. We need to give kids more high-quality learning time, wherever that learning happens.
Strengthen Partnerships & Relationships
They discussed several ways to achieve that, from greater school/community partnerships, report cards that reflect personal skills rather than just academic achievement, and making sure every child has strong, positive relationships with adults wherever they learn – from schools to out-of-school time programs.
On school/community partnerships, for example, Slade said educators need to send the message to local organizations, leaders and parents that “you have a role to play. You have a purpose in this. It is not just six hours a day in this school in this environment.”
While each pointed to specific laudable efforts, what they stressed was a holistic, child-centered approach that broadens the definition of readiness and the responsibility among stakeholders for helping young people achieve it.
What’s needed, Gomperts said, is “a national reframing of what it means to be ready.”
Patrick Boyle is communications director at the Forum for Youth Investment. firstname.lastname@example.org.