Thursday, March 31, 2016

Informed Public Decision Making

The Bern?
The Donald?
The Hill?
The Cruzinator?

Perhaps you have a favorite; perhaps you have not yet decided.

The once-every-four-years politics as circus has revved up in spring 2016, with the media sometimes more focused on topics like Hillary’s email indiscretions and Donald’s portrayal of Ted’s wife than on the issues of substance that we as voters should seriously ponder.

The who certainly has a lot of importance at all levels of government. We should select competent public officials. But, in the long term, the how has significant importance as well. How do we determine the best course of action for a city, a state, a nation? How – by what means – do we establish wise policies that will enhance the quality of life for everyone in the most equitable ways?

At Wilder Research, we focus on the long term, seeking to improve the means – the how – by which public officials and the general public can make the best choices. We shed light on what programs work. We seek to understand social and economic trends and how they influence the well-being of residents of our communities. We assist others to build their capacity to effectively implement programs and to make policy and funding decisions that will move community trends in a positive direction. All of those activities take time. They don’t happen overnight.

Sound public decision making requires measured, careful combining of values with evidence. We at Wilder Research seek to collaborate with community leaders of all types, bringing relevant, trustable, non-partisan evidence into their deliberations.

These examples demonstrate how we’ve informed decision making at local and state levels: 
  • As part of the Minnesota Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration Collaborative, Wilder Research analyzed the impacts of parental incarceration upon young people and held forums to bring that information to the forefront. Now, state agencies use the research findings to educate the legislature. 
  • A Health Impact Assessment, done in collaboration with the Public Health Law Center, informed the revision of the Minnesota Department of Education’s Guide for Planning School Construction Projects. Historically, the guide has offered a compendium of design standards and state mandates for school districts doing new school construction or renovation. The HIA illuminated the many ways that school location and design can optimize student health. So far, at least one superintendent has used the HIA report to inform facility audits.
  • Our study of the return on investment in Supportive Housing demonstrated returns of $1.44 for every public dollar invested. Its very compelling findings have figured in multiple funding and legislative proposals. An additional study on this topic will come out soon. 
  • Minnesota Early Childhood Risk and Reach – in which we assembled, in partnership with the University of Minnesota and state agencies, key indicators of early childhood development in Minnesota – showed that Ramsey County is a high-risk county, resembling many greater Minnesota counties more than other metro counties. The project offers evidence that developmental risk levels will likely rise without concerted effort to rectify income and racial disparities. 
  • Regarding disparities, the disparities section on Minnesota Compass, along with other work at Wilder Research, has added to the rationale for the Governor’s recently-announced, $100 million dollar initiative to reverse racial disparities. 
  • Our research on the Safe Harbor Law and the No Wrong Door model raised awareness about sex trafficking in Minnesota. The Safe Harbor Law legally redefined prostituted Minnesota girls under 18 as crime victims. The study is now being used by government and non-profit agencies statewide to improve services and to educate and mobilize the public to end the prostitution of Minnesota girls. 
  • Our monitoring of mental health needs and patient flow through the health care system in the East Metro produced information used to support increased access to, and payment for, Crisis Stabilization Services, including the development of a mental health urgent care facility in Ramsey County; we expect further use of this ongoing study. 
  • Speaking for Ourselves, an innovative study of immigrants in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region, carried out with representatives of those communities, has shed new light on mental health (policies that improve access to culturally appropriate behavioral health services), health (dedicating resources focused on healthy eating, physical activity, and tobacco/alcohol/drugs for immigrant and refugee communities), education (improving access to culturally appropriate early childhood education, as well as a pipeline for immigrant and refugee students in the Twin Cities to receive teacher education so they can work in and diversify the Twin Cities teaching force). 
  • The State of the Infrastructure survey, in the field again this year for MnDOT and MN2050, examines whether asset management will most efficiently and effectively care for Minnesota’s infrastructure assets. 
In these efforts and more, we hope to enable public officials and other community leaders to apply the best possible knowledge to their decisions, to use data effectively, to learn from experience, and to continually grow in their ability to govern wisely. We don’t subscribe to a narrow partisan creed. You won’t find us collaborating with Super PACs or producing soundbites for shock value. We prize the strategy we pursue – seeking to provide compelling rationales and evidence for public decision making that benefits everyone.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

What is Equity?

I suspect that most of us subscribe to the concept of equity in a general sense. But if pressed, could we define it unequivocally? Moreover, could we really commit ourselves to it and strive to achieve it? For example, how would you answer these questions?

A child born in one zip code in 2016 will likely live 5 years longer than a child born a few miles away in a different zip code in the very same city. Does this seem fair?

A black child born during the past few years in the United States will, on average, live to age 75; a white child born during the same time period will, on average, live to age 79. Does this seem fair?

A child living on one side of a street attends a school with a shortage of books, outdated facilities, and no access to music instruction; a child living across the street, in a different school district, attends a school with enough books, modern facilities, and a variety of enrichment classes. Does this seem fair?

Most people would respond that these situations are not fair. Few people take satisfaction in a status quo with sizable disparities based on where people live, their race, or a history of exclusion. But how would you respond to these possible remedies?

Certain groups of Christians, Jews, and Muslims have practiced gender segregation of various forms historically and to the present day. Should we accept such segregation as reasonable accommodation of diverse cultural norms, thereby equitable across varied cultural communities? Or, should we denounce it as a violation of our values, a barrier to gender equity?

A white applicant to an educational program does not receive admission, in favor of a student of color with lower admissions test scores, in order to rectify historical injustice. Does this seem fair? If it does seem fair, would you change your opinion if you knew that the white student’s grandparents had marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to end racial discrimination? What if you knew that the Nazis had murdered her great-grandparents in the Holocaust?

Should we merge school districts so that all children, regardless of where they happen to live, have equal access to the same resources?

When we consider remedies, it usually reveals great disagreement, even among people who proclaim a strong commitment to “equity.”

Social commentators of many different stripes have cited extreme income “inequality” as one of the most dangerous trends the world faces at present. I would agree that having a minuscule portion of the human population controlling a huge portion of the world’s wealth will very likely lead to trouble. But does it constitute only a severe disparity that we must live with in an imperfect world, or a morally indefensible inequity that we should seek to eliminate? Must the wealth of the world be divided into 7,300,000,000 equal shares (or thereabouts) to achieve equity, or can some people fairly have larger shares than others?

Does equity require equality?

If not, what’s the tipping point at which inequality becomes inequitable? A common twentieth century response involved distinguishing between equality of opportunity and equality of result. That provided temporary satisfaction to those wishing to reform the status quo, until we realized that a universal guarantee of eligibility to stand at the starting line doesn’t provide much advantage to people who lack training, a good coach, and proper running shoes.

Equity is something that decent people can love in principle, struggle to define and measure, and severely disagree in the identification of a means to achieve it.

So, where does that put Wilder Research, given our mission to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities through research – and our obligation to carry out this mission in an independent, nonpartisan, solidly-evidenced way?

We consider the movement toward equity an inchoate process at present – something that we understand enough to enter, but which we need to mold and shape with others based on what we learn as we all move forward.

We like the suggestion put forth by the Minnesota Department of Health that health inequities are avoidable disparities in health status based on social characteristics such as race, income, or geographic location. This implies that we can do something to influence them.

We shed light on disparities in educational achievement, homelessness, life expectancy, juvenile justice, and other areas, raising them up for careful examination.

We participate in activities to promote equity, so long as those activities remain inclusive and nonpartisan. Our endeavors in early child development and in education, for example, intend to promote full community efforts to enable all young people to thrive in their personal, family, work, and community lives.

Finally, we remain eager to collaborate, playing whatever role we have the competence to play – providing enlightening information, conducting methodologically rigorous research, convening groups to understand these issues – with partners who seek to take action to enrich the lives of everyone and make this world a better place.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

2016: Building Community

What do efforts to deal with global warming, the displacement of refugees, and the fight against terrorism have in common with efforts to address local quality of life issues such as failing physical infrastructures, the educational achievement gaps among racial and income groups, tensions over police shootings, and growing income disparities?

All of these issues require that we form strong social bonds if we want to make progress and improve our quality of life. Building community – in its broadest sense – demands our attention for this new year.

We, the inhabitants of this planet, share a common destiny. We will succeed or fail together to overcome ecological and social challenges at the global level. Nothing but working together – setting a worldwide vision and achieving it – will enable humanity to survive and thrive. Joint efforts have become a necessity for resolving economic, social, environmental, and other problems that transcend political boundaries and require us to forge social ties throughout a world community.

Closer to home, local quality of life issues related to infrastructure, education, housing, health care, and other parts of our lives demand reliance on our social groups – families, neighbors, community associations. The education of our children, for example, requires strong ties between parents and children, within neighborhoods, and between communities and schools. Each part of the community needs to stand up, do its part, and communicate with the other parts.

As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” By implication, we must nurture a cooperative spirit among the “all” in order to nurture the well-being of every “one” of us.

What practical implications does this reality have? Just a few examples, related to issues in the current press.

The achievement gap. For those who see the achievement gap as someone else’s problem, who feel that any mismatch between the competencies of our graduates and the needs of employers falls only on the shoulders of the business community to solve, please understand that all children are our children. We have a connection to them along with moral and practical imperatives to ensure their healthy development. If any of them fail, we all as a community fail.

Police/resident tensions. Recent police shootings have exacerbated already strained relationships between the police and some residents of our communities. One public official went so far a few weeks ago as to suggest that residents of his area should throw stones at the police. If we want to move forward productively, we need to resist the temptation to construct barriers. Community leaders should invite police officers to the next neighborhood barbecue, ask some of them to join in at youth clubs or school events to discuss their work, and take whatever steps possible to forge social connections that will build understanding and trust.

Immigration. We all come from somewhere else. Even our Native American residents migrated from another place. We serve as temporary caretakers of our land and our civilization, with generations of people to follow, some who look like us and many who do not. While surely we must protect ourselves from those who would do harm, we must put more focus on connecting with new arrivals. Efforts to foster continued success for today’s immigrants — private and public efforts alike, collective and individual — will pay rich dividends and honor our own immigrant pasts.

All of us can provide more examples. The theme is clear. Nurturing social connections, building community – we must focus on those activities during 2016 in order to achieve a better world for all.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Social Research - A Tool for Promoting Justice and Quality of Life

In this digital age, millions of people can tweet instantly about the issues of their choice: economics, jobs, racial disparities, violence, education, transportation, the environment, and so on. News media and advocates can raise awareness and provoke debates. Major social issues all seem to contain pressing challenges that demand solutions as quickly as possible.

In this era of instant information is social research still relevant? Does the laborious process of systematically gathering and interpreting information add value? That question focuses on the raison d’etre of Wilder Research and other organizations that do social research. I would suggest that we find social research motivating and fulfilling because we see it as a means to improve the quality of life for all people in a just way. Some of the features of social research that make it more important than ever include:

Addressing root causes to achieve long-term improvement. It’s frequently easy to see the symptoms of problems – someone out of a job, a student who drops out of school, a person victimized by violence. But understanding the underlying problems does not always happen easily. Research can dig in and discern those causes. We know, for example, that certain groups of people live longer and healthier lives than others. That’s why we have done research to understand what might account for that. We know that certain groups of children do better in school. That’s why we’ve done research related to academic achievement and early childhood development. We seek to understand what accounts for differences such as these and, more importantly, what we can do to eliminate them.

Separating facts from myths. George Soros of the Open Society Foundation has gone so far as to say that “the pursuit of truth has lost much of its appeal. When reality is unpleasant, illusions offer an attractive escape route. In difficult times unscrupulous manipulators enjoy a competitive advantage over those who seek to confront reality.” In the absence of information, loud voices gain credence, whether right or wrong. Interest groups along all parts of the political spectrum try to entice us to accept their spin. Prior to our studies of homelessness, for example, many beliefs existed about where homeless people came from, what put them onto the streets or brought them to shelters, and how employment, family background, and health related to homelessness. Good research debunked the myths and validated the facts.

The democratization of information. Transparent, accessible information levels the playing field for all members of a community. Knowledge empowers. In making data freely available, through Minnesota Compass for example, we enable everyone the opportunity to understand trends in living conditions and needs and to monitor the effects of work intended to improve those conditions and meet those needs. No special training or resources are required for someone to obtain information to support themselves in democratic participation and decision making.

Anticipating what lies beyond the horizon. Research on trends can help us anticipate what the future might hold. In addition, needs assessments enable us to identify and quantify both positive and negative community conditions that exist, so we can prevent problems from becoming large and can build on existing strengths.

Increasing our effectiveness to improve our quality of life. We entrust government and nonprofit organizations to meet some of our communities’ needs. Program evaluation research provides a systematic means to obtain information to understand the effectiveness of those organizations and to improve their impacts.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that true education involves developing both intelligence and character. I like to borrow that thought to suggest that our character (our values, ideals, aspirations) motivates us to act to improve our communities; social research offers collective intelligence (information, insight) to make that action as effective as possible.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Generation Next: Key steps toward eliminating the achievement gap

Can we eliminate the achievement gap and make certain that all young people develop the skills they need for the 21st century? If Generation Next succeeds, Minneapolis and Saint Paul certainly have an excellent chance of doing so.

The Generation Next annual meeting, in mid-October, celebrated the initial steps that the initiative has taken and focused attention on what next steps we as a community need to take. In opening the meeting, President Eric Kaler of the University of Minnesota noted what Minnesota Compass has documented: that the gaps in academic achievement between white children and children of color result in a terrible ranking for Minnesota among the 50 states.

The situation might seem daunting, the problem intractable. The most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, show no narrowing of the achievement gap. However, Generation Next offers hope, for several reasons.

As Generation Next Executive Director R.T. Rybak pointed out, educational success relies upon joint action. He wants the initiative to provide tools to families, schools, and communities – all of which must work in concert in order for student achievement to occur. Generation Next has set a lot of joint action into motion.

Practical and tangible community steps

Generation Next has sorted the big issues into several goals within which the initiative can identify smaller, addressable community tasks. For example, it has worked in very practical and tangible ways to determine how many children lack quality child care or tutors for reading, raises awareness about issues like these, and develop strategies to link the children in need to resources effective for them.

Data informed programs

Generation Next has made excellent use of data to identify the timing and content of interventions to improve academic success. Eric Moore, Director of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment for Minneapolis Public Schools, described how 9th grade school behaviors (attendance and completing courses in 9th grade) constitute the most significant predictor of whether young people will graduate from high school. Generation Next intends to bring to our region an evidence-based program from the University of Chicago, which focuses on 9th-graders and which has demonstrated positive effects on high school graduation rates.

Professor Michael Rodriguez of the University of Minnesota (and an alum of Wilder Research) has done research showing that commitment to learning among African American males is higher than for whites. However, learning commitment tends to take a dip in junior high. Supplied with this knowledge, Generation Next can work with schools and others to intervene strategically to prevent that dip from occurring and thereby narrow the achievement gap.

Community investment

Generation Next has built coalitions of funders, providers, and volunteers. The United Way and the Bush Foundation have taken note of the momentum and announced at the annual meeting major new funding to sustain that momentum and promote quality care and services in the support of children’s education.

Will this all work?

We need to wait and see. The initiative has incorporated ingredients recommended by the National Education Association and by researchers who have spent years studying the achievement gap and its causes. Improvement of our children’s academic success will not result solely from efforts undertaken inside the school walls. Superintendents, principals, and teachers need to play their roles effectively to teach a changing population of young students. Generation Next can collaborate with those educators and with others to forge the symbiosis among families, schools, and communities that will make sure our children enter school ready to learn, succeed in learning, and lead fulfilling lives.

In sending us off from the Generation Next annual meeting, Kim Nelson, Senior Vice President at General Mills, reflected the excitement and energy embodied among those in attendance. She expressed hope. She noted: “We’re becoming aligned. We’re focusing on evidence based practice.” Through this alignment, she intends to help lead the community to our ultimate goal: eliminating the achievement gap and ensuring a great education for all of our children.