Changing the Odds for Youth: Creating Opportunities that Really Matter
May 1, 2017
I don’t want to go to any more celebrations in which young people are given “beat the odds” awards to acknowledge the individual commitment they have made to overcome obstacles. This is not because these young people don’t deserve our attention and awe. They absolutely do. It’s because we should not in any way settle for individual successes when there is so much more we could have done to ameliorate mass struggles.
I want to go to celebrations where adults and youth are reporting on the concrete work they have done to “change the odds” for young people. The difference between these two words– beat vs. change – is huge. And it is mirrored in the differences between three other popular word pairs.
Equality | Equity. Equality is a good goal given where we are, but it is not at all a sufficient one. Equity is achieved when all kids have a shot at getting the essentials they need to succeed because 1) the differences in their starting points have been taken into account, and 2) the systemic or institutional barriers to their success have been addressed. People often use a baseball analogy to get at equality vs. equity. Equity is achieved when the playing field is leveled and the fences are taken down, providing young people with real opportunities to get into the game.
Access | Quality. Access is necessary, but far from sufficient and sometimes harmful. Providing young people with opportunities to get into the game is only useful if these opportunities are appropriately structured to support youth success. Opportunities that are mismatched to youth’s capacities and motivations significantly reduce the chance that young people feel that they matter and want to put in the effort to master the game.
Completion | Readiness. Grades and diplomas have become necessary tickets for youth success, but they are not sufficient. 40 percent of employers report that high school graduates lack the competencies they need to succeed at entry-level jobs – such as responsibility, initiative, problem-solving, teamwork and a strong work ethic. When learning opportunities lead too heavily with content and don’t create safe and engaging contexts, youth may gain rote knowledge but miss the opportunity to name, practice and master the skillsets and mindsets that economists now confirm are more important for adult success than academic grades.
Readiness, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is defined as 1) being willing to do something, and 2) being prepared to do something. This dual definition is important. To embrace the opportunities and survive the challenges that come their way, young people need to be willing and prepared to tackle things they cannot anticipate. This means that every opportunity to learn new content (e.g., how to bake a pie, hit a double, build an engine) is also an opportunity to use the skills and knowledge they have. Young people who “hit the wall” when trying to learn something new have not only internalized the idea that they can’t learn, they have missed the opportunity to use and improve the skills employers are looking for.
Young people who have repeatedly hit the wall and found that no one notices, no one is surprised, or no one helps tune out, act out or drop out. Ultimately, they lose out on opportunities they could easily have been prepared for. The cost to them, and to the country, is absurdly large. This is not just because these young people are more likely to earn less or stray into trouble more. It is because these young people are the ones best suited to change the odds in their communities. They are willing, if asked. They can be ready, if supported. History shows that they are able.
To tackle the country’s readiness problem, we also have to address equity issues. And when the path to readiness goes through quality, young people not only build skills and competencies, they develop a sense of agency and a sense of urgency to take action to change the odds for themselves and their communities.