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A Comprehensive Professional Development Process Produces Radical Results

A Comprehensive Professional Development Process Produces Radical Results

In metropolitan Kansas City, practitioners get a chance to learn, test, and refine new teaching strategies that really work with youth

by Betsy Topper & Mary Beth Gordon
Young adult learners in General Educational Development (GED) programs in metropolitan Kansas City were dropping out: typically more than half left within weeks of enrolling. The practitioners who served them were sometimes more relieved than alarmed. The young people in their programs were, as a group, unmotivated and disruptive in the learning environment. And they seemed to be immune to every teaching strategy practitioners tried.

The Metropolitan Alliance for Adult Learning is an organization committed to strengthening the adult basic education (ABE) system in the five-county metropolitan Kansas City areab was not willing to abandon an entire population segment, especially one that accounted for more than half of all participants in 70 area GED programs. So Alliance staff researched, funded, and implemented an 18-month-long professional development process designed to give practitioners the skills and intensive support they needed to work effectively with young adult learners in GED programs. This effort has proven to be successful on several levels. It has revolutionized the way metropolitan Kansas's GED practitioners work with young adult learners, turned frustrated practitioners into highly motivated educators eager to work with youth, and substantially improved outcomes for young adult learners in our GED programs.

Identifying the Problem
A January, 1999, survey of the adult literacy programs with which the Alliance works produced, among other things, one statistic that startled us: 52 percent, or more than 10,000, of the participants in local GED programs, were young adults ages 16-24. This seemed to contradict conventional wisdom that more mature adultsb who after years in dead-end jobs understood the value of a GEDb dominated GED and other adult literacy programs. We confirmed our findings with area GED practitioners, including the eight members of our advisory group, the Professional Development Planning Work Group (PDPWP), which guides our professional development efforts. PDPWP members and other GED practitioners quickly oriented us to the realities of youth in the GED programs in our region.

According to local GED practitioners, the vast majority of young adults in Kansas City area GED programs are required to enroll in order to receive public assistance, qualify for job training, or meet a condition of probation.

Practitioners also told us that because young adult learners are not in GED programs by choice, they rarely seriously pursue studies that lead to a GED. Those who do try usually falter in the GED system of independent study. Most drop out within a few weeks after enrolling, according to attendance records.

Many practitioners confided that they had no idea how to motivate these reluctant learners.

The Search for Models
The next step was to assist GED educators in securing training that would enable them to better meet the needs of young adult learners. PDPWP members warned us that GED practitioners did not want to be inundated with educational theories. What they really needed was hands-on, practical experiences that would show them how to involve alienated young people in the learning process.

Finding a viable youth education model was much harder than we had anticipated. The adult education and literacy literature provided no suggestions. When we turned our attention to the youth development field, we found the resources we needed. The most valuable of these was the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), which carries out extensive research into best practices related to youth development.

We asked AYPF to help us put together a one-day workshop that would present an overview of some of the best practices for working with teens. About 40 area GED practitioners attended this event. In fact, when we ran out of seating, many practitioners were willing to stand for hours just so that they could hear what the presenters had to say.

A demonstration of a teaching strategy known as Youth Cultural Competence (YCC) by a representative of the Youth Development and Research Fund Inc., in Gaithersburg, MD, captured everyone's attention. The YCC strategy integrates elements of youth culture such as rap music, media images, and pop icons into the academic curriculum. What may sound superficial in theory turns out to be a powerful youth-oriented teaching tool in practice. As web Alliance staff and practitioners alikeb could see from the simple exercises demonstrated with youth volunteers during the workshop, YCC captured the attention of youth and engaged them in learning.

We were overwhelmed by the positive feedback from the practitioners who attended the workshop. Their consistent message: YCC training is exactly what we need to engage the young adults in our classroom.

We knew that practitioners were ready for something new. But we wanted to check with youth in GED programs to make sure we were moving in the right direction. We hired a consultant to conduct in-depth interviews with young people in area GED programs. The findings: traditional GED programming was not working for them. We decided to raise money and devote considerable staff time to see if YCC training for GED practitioners would result in significantly better outcomes for young adult learners. Critical to our eventual success was an early decision to give the effort our full support. If YCC failed, it would do so based on the limitations of the model and not because of haphazard professional development or because we lacked the patience and resources to see it through.

Initial Planning
We spent the next few months designing an intensive, long-term professional development experience around YCC that would stimulate permanent behavior change among GED practitioners. We negotiated with officials at the Youth Development and Research Fund (YDRF), the organization responsible for creating the YCC concept. We provided them with information so they could restructure their basic YCC training program, which focused on youth job development concerns, to emphasize issues related to adult learning.

Our initial training plan, which was devised in consultation with our funders and the professional development work group mentioned earlier, started with a three-day workshop covering all aspects of YCC. We limited the workshop to 16 people so that participants could get the attention they needed to digest and practice teaching strategies that would be a huge departure from those they commonly used. To maximize the impact of this training, we also required that two practitioners from each participating GED program attend the training.

The intent was that practitioners who worked in the same program could support one another in implementing YCC strategies. And, we favored participants from GED programs with large numbers of young adult learners. As a result, the 16 participants in our initial training came from eight area GED programs that served 75 percent of the young adults in GED in our area.

During the planning process, our funders, who by this time had embraced the notion of YCC, wanted to make sure that training participants would have an opportunity to test YCC principles in their classrooms. They talked about how easy it is to get excited about new ideas presented in training only to become frustratedb and eventually give upb when faced with the difficulties of implementing those ideas. They requested that we put aside enough money to award a $5,000 mini-grant to each of the eight GED programs participating in YCC training. The mini-grants could be used, for example, to purchase boom boxes or other equipment needed to create lessons around rap or hip-hop music. They could pay for gift certificates for youth as incentives for regular attendance or academic achievement. They were to be awarded on the basis of a simple letter of intent from participants in YCC training.

The Process Begins
Our three-day YCC training was conducted by Josh Weber of YDRF (see his Focus on Basis article) in July, 2000. Participants were immersed in YCC principles and practices. They learned the theory behind YCC, including why conventional approaches to education are not relevant to young people in GED today. More compelling than the theory was the hands-on, down-to-earth instruction in YCC strategies. Participants learned, for example, how to use an ad in a youth magazine to capture the attention of their young adult students. They learned how to use the lyrics of a rap song to initiate a meaningful discussion about poetry and literature. Josh explained and demonstrated strategies and then the participants practiced these strategies under his supportive guidance.

The GED practitioners left this three-day workshop re-energized and committed to the principles of YCC. They talked about how eager they were to try out the new strategies they had learned. Their enthusiastic comments demonstrated that they believed that they had found a way to get through to young people in their classrooms.

Continued Support
The original YCC training plan called for an intensive workshop plus the mini-grants. However, before the July YCC workshop ended, everybody involved agreed that continuing formal support would be beneficial. As Josh explained, participants would likely encounter a host of external and internal barriers in trying to implement key YCC strategies. For example, YCC suggests conducting small group classes for young adult learners, but the eight programs participating were built around independent study.

The Alliance sponsored support sessions, which we called breakthrough sessions. The sessionsb convened at six-week intervalsb gave training participants an opportunity to talk with one another about how YCC strategies were working in the classroom. We hired a professional facilitator to conduct the two-hour luncheon sessions. We felt that someone skilled in stimulating honest, nonjudgmental discussion of YCC successes and failures could help bring participants' skills to the next level. The breakthrough sessions were well attended and always elicited lively, useful discussions of YCC issues. Over time, participants became a cohesive support team, encouraging each other with advice and powerful personal support.

Eventually, breakthrough session participants asked questions about certain YCC practices that they could not answer through collective wisdom. Several participants were overwhelmed by the response of students to their YCC efforts. For example, some young people were so pleased by the changing attitudes and behaviors of their instructors that they began sharing everything with them, including the intimate details of their sexual experiences. We agreed we needed more information about YCC implementation.

Six months after the YCC workshop, we arranged a video conference with Josh, our YCC trainer. Participants discussed their YCC concerns and problems with him, and he offered thoughtful answers and suggestions. Participants left the video conference upbeat and fully committed to making YCC work in their GED classrooms. Two additional video conferences, which featured groups that were successfully using YCC principles, proved to be very helpful in boosting the confidence and upgrading the YCC skills of our training participants.

We evaluated our YCC efforts in several different ways. We held two focus groups consisting of young adult learners in programs served by YCC-trained instructors, facilitated by a professional consultant who had no stake in the outcome. Focus group participants were unanimous in their praise of the positive changes taking place in GED programs. Said one youth, reflecting the attitudes of his peers: "It's like I'm not invisible anymore. My teachers accept me for who I am. I can tell they really want to help me learn."

About nine months after the initial training, Josh returned to Kansas City for several days to observe YCC trainees in their classrooms and to provide one-to-one coaching. He also led a workshop in which he identified specific ways in which GED practitioners could make YCC even more effective. By late summer 2001b after YCC had been implemented in Kansas City area GED programs for more than a yearb Weber distributed in-depth surveys to YCC training participants as well as to the young adults they served. He returned to Kansas City in September to provide an overview of results and to explain how GED programs must change if they are going to be successful in attracting and keeping young adult learners. Based on the growing positive buzz about YCC, some 50 GED practitioners and program directors attended this event. A new round of YCC training for the uninitiated has since begun. Seven GED programs are participating.


Here are a few specific examples of positive outcomes experienced between July 2000 and December 2001:

  • North Kansas City Adult Education and Literacy: GED graduation rates among young adults seeking GEDs more than doubled from barely 10 percent to about 25 percent.
  • Kansas City, Kansas, Community College ABE: Retention rates among young adults grew from 40 percent to 75 percent.
  • Family Literacy Center: Attendance among teens and young adults increased 30 percent.
  • Genesis School: GED pass rates reached an unprecedented 90 percent among young adult learners in the school's GED prep classes.
  • Kansas City ABE: Enrollment among young adult learners has climbed 68 percent due to a peer-to-peer recruitment effort implemented by enthusiastic young adult learners.

A Sea Change
YCC training participants have changed in ways we would have never predicted. Seemingly staid practitioners who appeared to be mired in traditional GED teaching methods eagerly embraced YCC. They were willing to try "guerilla teaching tactics," as some described them, to get through to youth who had given up on education.

GED programs utilizing YCC principles have been transformed. That is what GED practitioners tell us and what we have observed during site visits. Before YCC, young people in Kansas City area GED programs were too often sullen figures, sitting silently at a table or desk, hunched half-asleep over an open book. Today, young people in GED classrooms led by practitioners trained in YCC are excited and energized. They are sitting together at tablesb perhaps enjoying snacks or beveragesb engaged in the experience of learning. They are talking about math, literature, history, and more b all in the context of issues relevant to youth.

Although the collection of data has been spotty until recently, the information available documents a substantial improvement in outcomes among young adult learners served by YCC-trained practitioners. In general, GED graduation rates have increased and dropout rates have fallen.

Successes, Challenges, Missteps
Our original, 18-month, intensive YCC training and support effort (July, 2000, through December, 2001) is now complete. Many things worked; some things did not. The basic YCC training, as well as the support systems that evolved, worked very well. We now know that the continuing breakthrough sessions were critical. YCC training would never have transferred so comprehensively to the GED classroom without them.

An essential element of YCC is the establishment of small group sessions or classes designed specifically for young adult learners. YCC will not work unless young people are given an opportunity to express themselves in a youth-friendly setting. Therefore, administrators must be brought on board, because policies and procedures have to change at the GED program level to make YCC viable. This ranges from the organization of space for young adult learners, to the scheduling of classes, to the attitudes of the people who oversee GED programming.

Site visits and one-to-one coaching by YCC trainers led to some extremely valuable adjustments in YCC practices. For example, the YCC trainer noticed that some practitioners using YCC principles failed to connect the learning occurring in the GED classroomb a math lesson tied to the cost of a two-pack-a-day smoking habitb to the math concepts covered on the GED. Once this was pointed out, practitioners routinely related lessons to the GED.

We could never have sustained this effort without the support of 10 local funders who gradually came to embrace what initially seemed like an extreme, unproven approach to education. The reason they supported YCC: nothing else had worked well with Kansas City area youth.

In retrospect, we would make three changes. Some GED program directors who voiced support for YCC training balked when YCC-trained practitioners under their supervision tried to introduce new ideas. For example, a few were reluctant to separate young adult learners from more mature learners or to permit rap or hip-hop music to be played in GED facilities. A potential solution to this: Secure, prior to training, a written commitment from program administrators to support key YCC components and strategies.

The Alliance charged a modest $125 for the intensive, three-day YCC training, which did not begin to cover our costs. (See sidebar on page 13 for information on funding a YCC training.) We no longer charge even nominal fees for YCC training. Our rationale is that we are asking people to participate in a long-term professional development effort that will lead to programmatic and instructional change. We do not want to give them any reason to refuse.

Although we have an enormous amount of anecdotal information, we lack a large body of consistent statistical data documenting the success of our YCC efforts. We should have been (as we are now) more intentional in setting up a data-tracking component. This is especially difficult because we work with myriad independent GED programs that maintain statistics in different ways.

Funding a Professional
Development Program

Our Costs
The Metropolitan Alliance for Adult Learning spent nearly $44,000 on its Youth Cultural Competence (YCC) professional development program, or $2,750 per participant for 18 months of intensive training and support services. This relatively small investment led to a sea change in youth-oriented teaching strategies among ABE practitioners and substantially improved outcomes for their young adult learners.

Close to a quarter of the YCC budget involved training fees ($7,000) and travel costs ($3,000) to bring a trainer to Kansas City for three training or coaching sessions. Another $10,000+ was for professional consultation services, which included facilitating the breakthrough sessions and conducting focus groups and one-to-one interviews with young adults in ABE.

Other costs included more than $2,600 for meals and refreshments served during training and breakthrough sessions (about $10 per person per meal); $20,000 for the mini-implementation grants to ABE programs; and $400 for brochures about the training.

The $44,000 YCC professional development budget does not include Alliance staff time (about 25 percent of the director's time over an 18-month period) or the space and technical equipment required for the training presentations, breakthrough sessions, and video conferences. One of our fundersb Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundationb provided free space and state-of-the-art equipment for most YCC-related activities.

Duplicating this Training
The Youth Development and Research Fund, Inc., in Gaithersburg, MD, developed the YCC training model that we used. However, groups with more limited financial resources can probably find a local organization especially skilled in working with youth to put together a viable, YCC-like professional development program for ABE practitioners. The Alliance can advise you on this. (See contact information below.)

Securing Funding
Here's a suggestion for ABE programs in communities where there is no Alliance-type organization that supports system-wide ABE efforts: Join forces with several ABE programs in your area. Identify local funders who fund, or might be open to funding, education or youth development programs. Send a few of your most articulate and persuasive representatives to meet with each potential funder.

You can make this arguement: Every year, thousands of kids in our community drop out of high school. Most will face a host of problems, ranging from very limited job opportunities, to chronic poverty, to a higher-than-average risk for involvement in crime and substance abuse. The best way to change their bleak future prospects is to help them earn a GED through local ABE programs. Unfortunately, ABE programs nationwide have failed dismally with young adult learners. But now there's a practitioner training model, tested and proven in Kansas City, which dramatically improves the success rate among young people in ABE. Will you help us to fund this effort in our community?

Contact Information
Betsy Topper, Director
Metropolitan Alliance for Adult Learning
c/o Heart of America United Way
1080 Washington
Kansas City, Missouri 64105
Telephone: (816) 474-5111

In Conclusion
The Alliance was able to implement a long-term, intensive professional development effort that fosters and supports radical behavior change over time among GED practitioners. It was not easy. To duplicate a professional development program like this, which gives practitioners a chance to learn, practice, and eventually fully integrate new teaching strategies, requires a lot of planning, resources, commitment, and creative thinking.

Read Further
To read how research and literature support the features of MAAL professional development on YCC, see Connecting Research and Practice....

About the Authors
Betsy Topper is the director of the Metro Alliance for Adult Learning. She spearheaded the Alliance's effort to bring Youth Cultural Competence training to area GED programs.

Mary Beth Gordon is a freelance journalist with 20 years' experience writing about the not-for-profit sector. For the last four years, she has written extensively about adult literacy issues, including editing "News," a regional adult literacy publication.