Youth Today: Good, Better, Best. Have We Let it Rest?

By Karen Pittman, September 1997

What is best practice? This was the question put to us by a group of South African programs recently convened to discuss the topic. It turned out to be difficult to answer.

To many abroad, the United States is known as the land of programs. “Best practice”, as exported from the United States, is often seen as synonymous with “best programs.” Defined this narrowly, the idea of promoting best practice has a right-wrong quality that sounds less about building on what works than about replacing what exists. Understandably, grass-roots programs, in the U.S. and abroad, see themselves being assessed or franchised out of business.

This was certainly the case for the South Africans. They came to the workshop, which kicked off an initiative begun by the Youth Development Trust (YDT), IYF’s South African partner foundation. In the face of pervasive need, tightening philanthropy and crystallizing national policies, they came not so much to learn about the latest U.S. programs, than to be reassured that they were doing good work and rallied to take new steps to demonstrate their impact.

Most were relieved to learn that there would be no lectures about “best programs”. But if best practice isn’t about best programs, what is it about? Many hours and diagrams later, we had some answers:

Best practices are not synonymous with best effort. As one participant put it, “Should I be happy because more and more youth come through the program, even if they come back again six months later?” Common standards firmly linked to theory and research were seen as critical.

Best practices are not synonymous with best outcomes. The concept of best practice is quickly distorted if youth outcomes become the only indicators. The result: A black box approach to programming which leaves us unable to explain why we get good results when we do. The what and how of the work (the inputs) can and should be independently defined.

Best practices are about establishing agreed upon standards and indicators for building better programs. The definition should start with, but not be limited to practices which are directly linked to improved youth outcomes (e.g., providing stimulating activities). Also important are best practices for working with and for families and communities, building organizational sustainability and capacity to go to scale.

And most important, best practice standards and indicators are best developed through participatory networks of established programs that are not stellar but strong. Jessica Mates from the Fund for the City of New York’s Networks for Youth Development shared the story and the success of nine NYC-based youth programs that voluntarily embarked on a three-year participatory process to define youth outcomes and program standards and engage in peer assessments. This, by far, was the hardest but most powerful message in the workshop — the idea that YDT was not proposing just to assess, but to encourage the programs to join in the development of assessment tools and plans — a message that, unfortunately too few U.S. programs have had the opportunity to hear.

Few in the U.S. really believe the franchise method to replicating what works is the only answer. But too often, what gets talked about, written about, visited and funded are complex programs with multiple components. The upside is a richness of examples. The downsides are a paucity of well-organized lessons and an institutionalized timidity to use them. There are some encouraging attempts to define best practices for youth programs and youth workers (e.g., the National Youth Employment Coalition’s PEPnet). But there is a pressing need to signal programs that they will be supported not penalized for striving together to ascertain if what we know works is what they actually do and to determine how to improve their efforts.

Pittman, K. (1997, September). "Good, Better, Best. Have We Let it Rest?" Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
September 1, 1997
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