Skip to content Skip to navigation

From Data to Action: A Community Approach to Improving Youth Outcomes

June 4, 2013
In the Media
Milbrey McLaughlin and Rebecca London

Policy discussions about how to improve academic, social, and physical outcomes for today's youth typically take place solely within the domains of many individual youth-serving sectors. For instance, much of educators' current deliberation considers responses to the new Common Core State Standards and how to increase students' high school graduation and college attendance. Health professionals may focus on asthma management or obesity reduction. In social services, providers may talk about how to create seamless transitions for foster youth. Despite their common focus on young people, these youth-serving sectors typically are disconnected from, and uninformed about, each other's programs, policies, and approaches to serving youth—when in fact, local youth are constantly moving between them. These so-called institutional "silos" can result in unintended gaps in the web of supports that youth need, duplication of services, poorly aligned goals, and missed opportunities to be mutually reinforcing. How the community as a whole, rather than any one agency or program, meets the developmental needs of children and youth is important for supporting their pathways to productive adulthood.

One way to improve coordination and learning among youth-serving organizations is through data sharing, but this rarely occurs due to practical, technical, or legal difficulties. Each youth-serving organization collects and maintains a wealth of information on its "own" participating youth, without the ability to consider the other developmental areas the organization may be influencing or the broader set of community supports and services that shape child and youth outcomes.

In a new book, From Data to Action: A Community Approach to Improving Youth Outcomes, we argue that new cross-sector tools are necessary and available to support cross-institutional community youth development. We, along with our coauthors, describe the Youth Data Archive, a project of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University. The Youth Data Archive (YDA) is a cross-agency, integrated, longitudinal data system containing the data that public institutions and nonprofit community agencies collect on young people who are participating in their programs. The archive is developed through university-community partnerships with researchers at the Gardner Center and participating community agencies and stakeholders. The goal of the YDA is to provide cross-sector, community-level analyses that allow contributing agencies to examine questions that combine information about the children and youth they serve with data from other agencies, often for the first time. YDA analyses enable local policymakers and practitioners to look across institutional boundaries and develop joint responses to shared concerns and a cross-agency agenda aimed at improved youth outcomes.

The YDA acknowledges the broad community contexts that young people experience and the resources and challenges for positive youth development that exist across agencies and institutions. Instead of viewing youth within individual sector-specific contexts, such as school or out-of-school programs, the YDA creates a "virtual youth sector" to provide a comprehensive view of the opportunities and resources available to the community's youth. To support the youth sector, Gardner Center researchers work with existing community collaborations or provide capacity building for the formation of new collaborations with multiple community stakeholders around a common issue or concern. This cross-sector lens enables policymakers and practitioners to see where youth-serving investments are mutually supportive, where they overlap, and where there are gaps.

From Data to Action provides several examples of this youth-sector perspective on youth policies and its consequences. For instance, in a chapter coauthored with community partners, the partners discuss how their language has shifted since working collaboratively with the YDA. In their prior experiences, the partners note, agencies tended to act independently, seeing young people as "theirs" when associated with a particular system, instead of through coordinated cross-agency actions. Through collaborative efforts informed by YDA analyses, partners have changed their vernacular to "ours" and their approach to their community's youth policies to be more comprehensive and integrated, and they have expressed joint responsibility for the youth they serve.

With its focus on actionable research, the archive has provided information that policymakers have used to change policy or practice. For instance, YDA research focused on alignment between students' academic performance in San Francisco Unified School District and their placement test results at the City College of San Francisco led the community college to consider and pilot new placement strategies in math and English. Research conducted with the Redwood City School District (RCSD) K–8 students, the Sequoia Union High School District, and the San Mateo County Human Services Agency found that chronic absenteeism is a problem for both the youngest and oldest students in the community, and it tends to be a persistent problem for students across school years. The elementary district reacted with a host of interventions, including more information provided to parents about their own children's attendance and the importance of attending school regularly. A project linking participants in the Preschool for All program with early elementary outcomes in RCSD has been used countywide to advocate for the reinstatement of funding to support high-quality preschool for vulnerable children.

By focusing on community-initiated research questions with a cross-sector lens, community capacity building, and establishing long-term relationships with contributing partners, the Youth Data Archive has generated actionable knowledge to support improvements to youth policymaking and practice in several San Francisco Bay Area communities. From Data to Action highlights processes necessary to establish the Youth Data Archive and the key actionable research findings resulting from it.