• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 06th April, 2010

How will they know if their children are in the zone?

Just before Christmas, the US House of Representatives passed legislation to make funding available for up to 20 experiments in local community action to combat poverty, crime and poor student attainment.The $10m initiative centers on Promise Neighborhoods, which will qualify for that description by their determination to engage children and parents in a multi-faceted “pipeline” strategy to meet several familiar child outcomes, such as good physical and mental health and enrollment in and graduation from college. They will also set about securing economic self sufficiency for parents.There is an element of familiarity, too, about the selection criteria. The Federal Urban Policy Building Neighborhoods website is advising planners considering bidding for a share of the funding that they will have to demonstrate they are capable of collecting and analyzing impact data using experimental evaluation methods.As US Child Trends researchers explain, measuring the effectiveness of Promise Neighborhoods will be critical: “Are parents better able to nurture and support their children? Are communities stronger and more supportive of families? The extent to which these questions can be answered well will tell us much about the potential of ambitious, community-based efforts to change the odds for poor children in disadvantaged communities.”But how will anyone ever know for sure? So far, the Child Trends contribution has been to compile a state-of-the-nation assessment of indicators of child well-being to inform the progress of Promise Neighborhoods. Key considerations include their consistency, uniformity and comparability.On all those fronts, the news is mixed, Kristin Anderson Moore and her colleagues report, “On the one hand, significant progress has been made at national and state levels on using information to assess child well-being. On the other hand, when it comes to smaller geographic levels, our capability to track indicators is weaker. “While some information is routinely available at the city level, and several cities have built rich, albeit unique data resources for their own jurisdictions, there are few indicators comparable across cities.”In backing the community action initiative, Barack Obama has been championing the achievements of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) in New York City. That started out in the 1970s as an anti truancy initiative, has prospered under the charismatic leadership of Geoffrey Canada, and now provides a system of supports and services across a 97-block neighborhood. Royal visits to the Zone from the UK and presidential ones from the US have become routine.The HCZ core goals are the ones that have been incorporated into the Building Neighborhoods submission guidelines.Child Trends acknowledges Harlem’s achievement. “Having a core set of goals for children and families rallies the broadest possible cross-section of community members around goals that no single organization can achieve by itself. Results explicitly promote common purpose, support collaboration, and provide a guide for decision-making. “When linked with a set of indicators that objectively measure progress toward these shared goals, a results-based system provides a powerful strategy for community change.”The question is whether a neighborhood in Detroit, Denver or Chicago will ever be able to compare its progress to Harlem’s using similar criteria, and whether the experience of all four can be meaningfully combined – or contrasted with the experience of non-Promise neighborhoods who may or not be running initiatives of their own.“There are special challenges in linking a comprehensive, system-wide approach to progress on broad social goals,” the Trends team say. “The first is that attributing cause-and-effect under these circumstances is complex, since multiple factors, many outside of the control of any initiative, influence condition.” It is arguable, for example, that a goal as broad as reducing poverty is beyond the scope of what Promise Neighborhoods can accomplish. Better, they argue, to concentrate on mediating factors such as poor nutrition and low-grade child care.But such adjustments will not compensate for the lack of reliable indicator data at neighborhood or even city level. “It is only in the past two decades, with the lead of the Kids Count project and similar efforts, that useful state-level indicator data have been regularly available. Data systems to regularly report on well-being at a city (let alone neighborhood) level are in their infancy.” The meat of the Child Trends report is an account and appraisal of the various data sources available across the Promise Neighborhoods outcome spectrum. But the researchers warn that the landscape for indicators of child and family well-being, available broadly and uniformly for potential Promise Neighborhood sites, is sparse. Communities might of course collect their own data, Kristin Anderson Moore and her colleagues add. They have access to a wealth of administrative data collected from schools, municipal services, and health and social service agencies, and many communities will have undertaken special-purpose surveys of residents or service-providers. “However, securing the appropriate data-sharing agreements, organizing and managing the data, and undertaking the collection of new data are all tasks requiring significant resources. And, because of the lack of standard measures and definitions (eg. for what constitutes child abuse or neglect, what crimes are reported, or how to assess readiness for school), what supplemental indicators communities are able to assemble could not easily be used for cross-site comparisons.”

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