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Can Summer Jobs and Character Education Help At-Risk Chicago Teens?

From the White House to CPS, some of the oldest ideas in American schooling are at the vanguard of education.

Destini Hall, 16, plots yearly goals during a OneGoal class at Prosser High School, 2148 N. Long Ave., Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013.   Photo: Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune

I’d missed this when it came out late last year, but a tweet from Yale sociologist Andrew Papachristos—whose research on Chicago crime I’ve written about before—alerted me to it: a piece by University of Pennsylvania prof Sara Heller, recently of the University of Chicago, detailing early returns on a summer jobs program for CPS students. It’s ongoing, but some of the results are promising:

On the other hand, we find an enormous proportional decrease in violent-crime arrests. As shown in Figure 2, participants experience 3.7 fewer arrests per 100 youth than their control group counterparts – a decrease of 51 percent. We find no differences in other types of crime.

The program targeted students at considerable risk for failing or dropping out, or worse:

Applicants were recruited from 13 public high schools with students at high risk of violence involvement. Study youth had missed, on average, 18 percent (about 6 weeks) of the school year before the program, and about 20 percent had been arrested before the program started. They also lived in neighborhoods where over 30 percent of households were below the poverty line and 19 percent of adults were unemployed.

As a result, the program was considerably oversubscribed, by more than 100 percent, 1,634 applications for 700 slots, allowing the investigators to implement a lottery to randomly create test and control groups. Besides suggesting a need for such a program, it’s significant in and of itself, since the study of summer-job programs is lacking in randomized controls.

But it’s not just a job program; it includes mentorship, and a cognitive-behavioral therapy component, teaching participants “recognize and analyze how their thoughts and beliefs lead to certain behaviors, and how to slow down that often automatic process to make more reflective, rather than reflexive, decisions.” It’s one basis of the Becoming a Man program, which, after a large randomized clinical trial—Heller was the lead author—received $3 million for implementation and a visit from the President. It also influenced the “My Brother’s Keeper” project, promised by Obama during the State of the Union and officially announced today.

I’ll have much more on this next week, but the One Summer Plus program that Heller (and lead investigator Harold Pollack) are studying indicates an interesting turn in American education, a synthesis of two very old trends in a new, data-driven era: character education and vocational education.

New research, by Heller and many others, indicates that these forms of pedagogy, which were dominant in American public education from its origins until well into the 20th century, are interrelated. Having a job is character-building; building character is crucial to finishing school and taking those cognitive skills into the workforce or into higher education. Vocational education became something of a dumping ground, part of the reason for its demise, but the pendulum is swinging back—CPS has, in the past couple years, announced high-profile initiatives in STEM education and computer science.

And the pendulum is swinging back from the peculiarly abstracted curriculum that American education has evolved into. As James Heckman and Tim Kautz write in the new book The Myth of Achievement Tests:

The most promising adolescent programs integrate aspects of work into traditional education. Such programs break down the rigid separation between school and work that characterizes the American high school.

High schools create an adolescent society with values distinct from those of the larger society and removed from the workplace. [Here, the authors site the immensely influential University of Chicago sociologist and NORC director James S. Coleman.] Even in affluent communities, the adolescent society has an anti-academic, anti-achievement bias. It was not until 1940 that more than half of each birth cohort graduated from high school. In earlier times, adolescents took apprenticeships and jobs where they were supervised and mentored by adults. Mentoring involved teaching valuable character skills—showing up for work, cooperating with others, and perservering on tasks.

But far from the vanguard of research and in the city’s career academies, there are tremendous hurdles. In a long, excellent piece for Catalyst Chicago, Rebecca Harris documents how career-ed enrollment in Chicago has been in decline, by almost a third in the past few years. If career education is going to expand, proving that it works is merely the first step.


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