On the Importance of High Expectations

In recent weeks, I’ve become acquainted with three Excel Center students who have received or will soon receive their high school diplomas. All three of these young adults have disabilities, were in “special education” during their childhoods, and failed to graduate from the large public high schools they attended. One of the three had tried in three different large high schools, but the results were always the same.

Yet, at the three different Excel Centers these students attended, all of them succeeded. They earned the credits they needed for a Core 40 diploma and passed the End-of-Course Assessments required by the State of Indiana. In addition, two of them have already earned post-secondary credentials that increase their employability and earning potential.

What made the difference?

As I’ve asked several members of our staff that question, two themes emerge. First, there are a lot of people who simply don’t expect much from a student labeled “special education.” Many times, such students aren’t challenged, and it’s often difficult for a large high school to provide the kind of individual attention that can sometimes help a student rise above generally low expectations and begin to realize his or her potential.

The second theme is that the small size and structure of The Excel Center; the team approach taken by the teachers, life coaches, and other staff; and the individual help that is readily available in each Excel Center are just what many “special ed” students need to make the most of their potential.

In addition, we believe our students can succeed, and we expect them to do so. Over the years, we’ve seen many examples of young people and adults who rose above the low expectations of others to accomplish what many might not have thought possible. One of the early graduates of the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School Goodwill started ten years ago is a good example. A “special education” student, his parents didn’t think he’d ever earn a high school diploma. He proved them wrong, went on to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, and is now employed by that college.

More recently, I saw a letter written by a 2014 graduate of Indy Met. In it, she describes how she had been ready to drop out of the large high school she previously attended. Her parents even expected her to do so. But, at Indy Met the teachers had more faith in her than she had in herself. As she stated, “Without Indy Met’s amazingly supportive staff, I would have given up a long time ago.” As it is, she’s enrolled in college and will begin taking classes this summer.

Far too many of the people we see every day have seldom had anyone who believed they had much potential. And if no one else has confidence in you, it can be very hard for you to have confidence in yourself. Failure can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In our work, we must be able to see the potential in every person and do everything we can to help them realize that potential. We won’t always succeed. But with the right kind of help over a sustained period of time, a lot of people will rise above their circumstances and accomplish far more than many others ever thought possible – and often, even more than they thought themselves capable of.

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The War on Poverty

In January 1964, President Johnson declared war on poverty. During the days leading up to and immediately following the 50-year observation of that declaration, many have commented on the progress, lack of progress, or outright failure of that “war.”

In the January 7, 2014 Wall Street Journal, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation noted that in the U.S., living standards among the poor are much improved over those of 50 years ago. He also pointed out that the “collapse of marriage in low income communities has played a substantial role in the declining capacity for self support.”

In the January 5, 2014 New York Times, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution also emphasized that “Children in single-parent families are more likely to be poor, fail in school, have mental health issues and be idle as young adults, all of which reduce self-sufficiency.” Haskins concluded his piece by stating that “we don’t need another war on poverty as much as we need to improve the programs we already have and create the conditions for more personal responsibility regarding education, work, marriage, and child bearing.”

In the same issue of the New York Times, Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute emphasized that “expanding opportunity for poor kids will require that we ‘incentivize’ the right behaviors, attitudes, and values, through economic carrots and sticks. Culture, not just economics, must be a front in the war on immobility.”

And in the January 9 New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff emphasized the importance of early interventions including parent coaching to get pregnant women to drink and smoke less and to encourage at-risk moms to talk to their children more. Among the successful programs he mentioned is Nurse-Family Partnership, which Goodwill is implementing in Indianapolis.

Kristoff also emphasized the importance of programs that encourage jobs for the most at-risk groups, and both he and Rector mentioned the earned income tax credit as a benefit to the working poor and for society. On a related note, Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw wrote in the January 5 New York Times that in efforts to help those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder, the most effective solution would be to increase the skills of those low-wage workers.

While there is general agreement that more needs to be done to reduce poverty, there is certainly no consensus on what should be added, increased, modified, or eliminated. Bringing this closer to home, though, reading these and numerous other commentaries has reinforced my belief that the directions we have taken at Goodwill are on target. The older youth and adults who enroll in our Excel Centers represent “low hanging fruit” in efforts to raise education attainment levels. In addition, our emphasis on continuing to support our graduates until they earn post-secondary credentials and become established in the workforce is likely to play a major role not only in helping our graduates become economically self-sufficient, but also in ensuring a quick economic return to society for its investment in our schools.

Nurse-Family Partnership is part of a long-term solution to generational poverty that also has a strongly positive economic return to society. In addition to improving pregnancy outcomes, NFP helps parents learn how to provide competent care that will enhance the health and development of their children. NFP also helps parents improve their economic self-sufficiency by developing plans for their future, continuing their education, and finding work.

Everything we do at Goodwill ultimately plays a part in helping individuals and families increase their economic self-sufficiency. Cumulatively, these efforts can – at least in our small corner of the world – begin to reduce generational poverty and the various social problems that accompany it.

Big societal investments with big returns

In 1944 Congress passed what became known as the G.I. Bill, which provided a number of benefits for returning World War II veterans. From the time the bill passed till 1956, 2.2 million veterans used the G. I. Bill’s education benefits to attend colleges or universities. Most of those veterans would not have been able to afford college otherwise. My dad was one of those, and he became the first person in his family to graduate from college.
The G. I. Bill was a massive public investment that made possible a huge increase in the number of Americans with post-secondary degrees. The country has benefited from that initial post-war investment ever since.

In 1956, thanks largely to the efforts of President Eisenhower, Congress passed legislation that enabled the creation of the Interstate Highway System. We continue to benefit from that massive public investment in physical infrastructure that greatly reduced travel time in the U.S. and made possible substantial increases in productivity.

In 1961, President Kennedy issued a challenge to NASA to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade. The massive public investment that followed President Kennedy’s challenge resulted in Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” in July 1969. The new or improved technologies that resulted from the research and development needed to accomplish that goal led to numerous other developments that continue to provide benefits to our society.

Contrast those large public investments in higher education, physical infrastructure, and research and development focused on a specific goal with similarly huge amounts that have been spent since the 1960s on a wide array of social programs and supports to alleviate poverty. Despite the enormous expenditures, the official poverty rate is higher today than it was in the late 1960s.

Is there anything we can do that might enable us to start reducing poverty? While there are no quick fixes or panaceas, we have become increasingly convinced that, given the current situation, an important piece of a long term solution would be a sustained, substantial investment in high quality early childhood development opportunities for children in low income households.

According to Ready Nation, a business partnership for early childhood and economic success that is part of America’s Promise Alliance:

  • “Disadvantaged children can be 18 months behind their peers by the time they start kindergarten.
  • Children not ready for kindergarten are half as likely to read well by third grade.
  • Children not reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out.”

In a September 14, 2013 Opinionator piece on NYTimes.com, Professor James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate economist at the University of Chicago who has studied this issue for decades, wrote, “Quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children more than pay for themselves in better education, health, and economic outcomes.” There is an enormous amount of data supporting that statement.

We see the need for such opportunities every day in our work with low income moms in the Excel Centers and Nurse-Family Partnership. If we made a large enough commitment in the U.S. over an extended period of time to expand the availability of high quality early childhood development programs for kids in low income households, there is a strong probability we would substantially reduce generational poverty and a lot of the social problems associated with it. And, as with the investments in higher education, infrastructure, and research and development in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, our country would benefit from those investments for decades.

Second Chances

It’s not unusual to hear someone speak of America as a land of second chances. In this country, most people tend to be reasonably forgiving and willing to give a person another chance – most of the time and within limits, at least.

Neither is it unusual for me to hear people at Goodwill talk about how we or someone in our organization gave them a second chance. I frequently hear this from students in our Excel Centers. Our students are older youth and adults who, for any of a variety of reasons, had dropped out of school. While many of them later wanted to complete the work required for a diploma, the options available to them just didn’t fit their life circumstances.

Since we opened the first Excel Center, the demand for space in these unique high schools has been phenomenal. From 300 students in one location just three years ago, we now have nearly 3,000 students in nine central Indiana locations. All of our students have enrolled voluntarily, and most are grateful to have another chance to complete what they didn’t finish the first time around. Better yet, their opportunities don’t end when they receive their diploma. If they have the desire and are willing to put forth the necessary effort, Goodwill will continue to work with them until they attain a post-secondary credential, become employed, and remain in the workforce for at least a year.

There’s another group at Goodwill that is benefiting from a second chance. Over 300 of our employees have criminal records, and many of them have had a very hard time finding an employer who would give them an opportunity to start life anew. Does it always work out? Of course not. But most of the time, it does. The benefits – to the individuals who have been given a second chance and to our society at large – are huge.

Throughout its history, Goodwill has employed a lot of people few others seemed willing to hire – whether because of a disability, a criminal history, a low education level, or some other barrier. In many cases, rather than a second chance, Goodwill has given them a first chance to become productive, contributing citizens.

There are limits, of course. While we are happy to work with those who put forth their best effort and try to do a good job, those who make it difficult or impossible for us to trust them will seldom find another opportunity in our organization. Neither will those who demonstrate a pattern of treating others poorly.

On the other hand, employees who demonstrate good work habits and a good attitude, consistently treat others with respect, have a genuine desire to improve their education and skill levels, and are willing to put forth the necessary effort to do so may qualify for assistance from Goodwill that can lead to better career opportunities with us or with another employer. The options available through Goodwill or other entities with which we have strong relationships are greater than ever.

One of Goodwill’s historic values is that we provide opportunities, not charity, and foster development, not dependency. That value is just as strong today as it was when Goodwill was founded in the early years of the 20th century – whether it’s a first, second, or maybe even a third chance.

Networks – Part II

In my February 15, 2013 post, I wrote about Goodwill’s implementation of Nurse-Family Partnership as an example of a “network” approach to better align and leverage resources to improve lives and help break a cycle of generational poverty. It is a holistic, whole family approach that teaches and reinforces good parenting skills, helps improve pregnancy outcomes and the health of the child, and results in changes in parental behaviors and the environment in the home in ways that are highly conducive to the proper nurturing and development of the child.

Goodwill and other members of the Nurse-Family Partnership network also offer education and employment opportunities for the parents and provide assistance in dealing with housing, transportation, and other issues that are common in low income households. Overall, this approach is helping build stronger families and preventing a lot of social problems from developing later.

The network we have developed that supports and enhances Nurse-Family Partnership’s effectiveness in central Indiana is one of several networks Goodwill has been developing in recent years. In fact, our organization is evolving into a network of networks that are supported by and often linked by shared services.

We have a business development/employment network that includes a number of companies that contract with Goodwill for services that are performed in large part by Goodwill employees with disabilities, criminal histories, and/or low education levels – people who, in many cases, have few vocational options. We also have relationships with companies that hire individuals who are prepared and want to move into situations elsewhere that might offer better long term opportunities for them.

In addition, we are developing two new networks that will further enhance education options for young people and adults. One of those is a network of organizations in other communities and states that will operate Excel Centers under a licensing arrangement with us. The Excel Center model is unique, and those that become part of the Excel Center Network will have access to a lot of materials and services we have been developing over the past three years. They also will be able to shorten their learning curves and become effective more quickly as a result of our experiences.

Finally, we have recently launched the Indiana Network of Independent Schools (INIS) to offer services to other schools that do not currently have access to the level of academic, data analysis, and back office support services we have at Goodwill. By using services offered by INIS, the staff of those schools will be able to utilize their time more effectively to help children succeed.

Supporting all of these networks is an infrastructure that has developed to support Goodwill’s retail operations, commercial services, community-based initiatives for individuals and families, and the growing number of schools we operate.

This development of this “network of networks” is largely a result of two factors. One is the number and quality of relationships we have with many organizations in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. The other is a lot of talented staff who see how the resources and capabilities of others can be

combined or leveraged, sometimes in very creative ways, with our in-house resources and capabilities to substantially increase our overall effectiveness and impact and make better use of the total resources available in the communities in which we operate.