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From data to action: Community approach to improving youth outcomes

Milbrey McLaughlin
Milbrey McLaughlin
Rebecca A. London
Rebecca A. London

From data to action: Community approach to improving youth outcomes

A new book details how the John W. Gardner Center's Youth Data Archive represents a new direction in university-community partnerships.

Why do students in a local school district rack up so many absences? How can a community college improve student success? Clues may abound within academic records and family services or law enforcement case files. Yet solutions are elusive unless the people with a stake in solving a problem share what they know.

It takes time and trust, say the authors of From Data to Action: A Community Approach to Improving Youth Outcomes (Harvard Education Press, April 2013), but when data talk, people eventually listen. “Data are the engine of collaboration,” said Milbrey McLaughlin, co-editor of From Data to Action alongside Rebecca A. London. “They ignite the conversation and focus partners on specific issues.”

The book’s title refers to a trajectory that really starts with building relationships over many months, even years, through the Youth Data Archive (YDA), a research tool of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. The Gardner Center has long conducted high-quality actionable research in northern California, and the YDA continues the tradition with a twist: It links longitudinal data gathered on individual youth across public and nonprofit agencies to tackle otherwise unanswerable questions. McLaughlin is the Gardner Center’s founding director, and London is a senior research associate there.

From Data to Action reveals how the YDA model brings together practitioners and policy makers in education, health, child welfare, and other sectors and encourages them to replace rhetoric with the common and dispassionate language of data. Once trust blooms, the partners slowly pull back from their own agendas and focus on youth as the common denominator. They look at the system functioning as a whole and rationally and effectively begin to collaborate to improve their communities.

With the YDA acting as an embedded, neutral partner, the team — emphasis on team — then moves from goal setting and data collecting to data linking and analysis. The YDA staff takes a dynamic, iterative research approach to help promote capacity building and surface new questions or concerns. The data feedback loop allows schools and community groups to respond quickly. “In a time when important research often sits on a shelf or takes years to trickle down to the ground, the YDA process is very appealing,” said London, who oversees all YDA analyses. “It empowers agility.”

Throughout the process, the findings belong to the partners with the local experience to decide how to best convert them to action. “The ability to drive and control a project all the way through means everything to community stakeholders,” said Amy Gerstein, executive director of the Gardner Center, who along with associate director Kara Dukakis, works shoulder to shoulder with community leaders to inspire their leap of faith in the YDA. “We never underestimate the value of ownership,” Gerstein said.

The authors of Data to Action’s nine chapters, all veterans of the YDA process, share their distinctive and instructive journeys from data to action. They identify hurdles such as data gaps, personnel turnover and organizational regulations, to name a few, and offer insights on clearing them. Finally, they describe incremental changes on what everyone recognizes as a continuum.

An analysis of chronic absenteeism in Redwood City, California, for example, led to district outreach activities targeting kindergarten parents. In San Francisco, a study of individual-level data helped map alternative routes for incoming community college students to complete their core requirements in the first year, with the aim of boosting graduation rates. “These outcomes and others show the potential of linking data across contexts,” Dukakis said. “The opportunity for replication is huge.”

In the book’s conclusion, McLaughlin and London reflect on the YDA as a resource for strengthening the local youth sector. They note that its university-community research partnership model, and others like it, push current notions of scholarship and raise tension within academic institutions. Yet they hope, as evidenced by the projects profiled in From Data to Action, its value is clear in advancing the field of youth development.

Pamm Higgins writes for the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities.

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