A perspective on the GED and why the Excel Center is a more effective option for many

The following excerpt from How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2012) is one illustration of why I believe Tough’s book should be read by anyone who is seriously interested in finding long term solutions to a lot of persistent social problems.

“(James) Heckman wanted to examine more closely the idea that young people with GEDs were just as well prepared for further academic pursuits as high-school graduates. He analyzed a few large national databases, and he found that in many important ways, the premise was entirely valid. According to their scores on achievement tests, which correlate closely with IQ, GED recipients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he discovered that GED recipients weren’t anything like high-school graduates. At age twenty-two, Heckman found, just 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of post-secondary degree, compared to 46 percent of high-school graduates. In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes – annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs – GED recipients looked exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.

From a policy point of view, this was a useful finding, if a depressing one: In the long run, it seemed, as a way to improve your life, the GED was essentially worthless. If anything, it might be having a negative overall effect by inducing young people to drop out of high school. But for Heckman, the results also posed a confounding intellectual puzzle. Like most economists, Heckman had believed that cognitive ability was the single most reliable determinant of how a person’s life would turn out. Now he had discovered a group – GED holders – whose test scores didn’t seem to have any positive effect on their lives.

What was missing from the equation, Heckman concluded, were the psychological traits that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school. Those traits – an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan – also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life generally.”

Obtaining a GED is a successful completion of an event – passing a test. On the other hand, a diploma takes consistent effort over time to achieve. Students must earn credits, stick to their goals, set targets and deadlines, and work to reach the goals. It takes more persistence, grit, and motivation to achieve.

Part of the job of an Excel Center “coach” is to help students develop the traits that will improve their life prospects. Even after graduation, the ongoing relationship we offer with a Goodwill Guide is intended to reinforce those traits.

Excel Center students dropped out of high school for a wide variety of reasons. Our schools offer a new path to those persons and other older youth and adults who did not think they would ever have another chance. Not all will succeed, but many will.

Multidimensional impact

At a recent Excel Center graduation, 55 adults walked across the stage in caps and gowns to receive their high school diplomas. After the ceremony, the father of one of the graduates approached me to express his gratitude for the Excel Center. Not long after she dropped out of school, his daughter realized she had made a mistake, but was not able to find a way to return to school that would fit her life situation. Then she found out about the Excel Center. She not only earned a diploma; she also began post-secondary studies, which she is continuing at IUPUI.

Her father kept repeating to me how much he appreciated Goodwill for starting a school like the Excel Center. But then his wife entered the conversation and said that there was another reason why her family appreciated Goodwill. Over a year earlier, both she and her husband lost their jobs. They had gone through their savings and were on the verge of losing their house. Fortunately, they were also aware of Goodwill’s Outlet Stores, which sell merchandise that did not sell in Goodwill’s other stores. Most of the merchandise is sold by the pound, and the stores have been incredibly popular.

Many of the customers who frequent the Outlet Stores buy goods they then try to resell. The family of the Excel Center graduate began doing this – buying merchandise in large quantities and reselling much of it online. They were able to make enough money to keep their family fed and to make their house payments. As the mother said to me, “Goodwill helped us keep our house.”

As I thought about my conversation with the parents of that graduate, it struck me that both the Outlet Stores and the Excel Centers are relatively recent innovations at Goodwill. And while they operate in separate divisions of Goodwill, both have had a significant direct positive impact on that graduate and her family.

Another recent development at Goodwill is also beginning to have multidimensional impact. Early in 2012 we began operating Nurse-Family Partnership, a highly effective nurse-led home visitation program for first-time mothers in low income households. Registered nurses make weekly or biweekly visits with the mom and baby until the child is two years old. Their main areas of focus are on health related matters and the development of good parenting skills. Some of the moms are students in an Excel Center, and some are employed by Goodwill. Again, a multidimensional impact.

A few years ago we made a conscious decision to take a more holistic, whole family approach in our work. We also recognized the importance of long term relationships for lasting impact. Accordingly, we have made a commitment to maintain an active, supportive relationship with every graduate of our schools until he or she obtains a post-secondary credential, becomes employed, and remains in the workforce for at least one year. We have also developed a data warehouse that will help us track the progress of every graduate indefinitely. This, in turn, will help maximize positive outcomes for our graduates and help us continue to improve the effectiveness of the services we offer.

Every innovation – in fact, every major step we have taken – especially over the last twenty years – has built on what we had learned from earlier experiences. Constant learning, wonderfully talented staff, and a strong financial position made possible largely by donors of goods, retail customers, and donors of money to the Goodwill Foundation have produced a recipe that is yielding increasingly positive, often multidimensional, long term benefits for many individuals and their families and for the communities in which we operate.

 

The Excel Centers

The Excel Center, Decatur Rd. location

In 2010, we designed and launched a high school for older youth and adults who had dropped out of school. We did this in response to a request by the Mayor of Indianapolis to see if we could find a way to help adults who lacked a high school diploma to earn one. There are a lot more people in that situation than I had imagined – over 15% of the adult population of the United States, including over 100,000 in Indianapolis – and because existing adult education programs left a lot to be desired, those individuals have had very limited options.

We designed the school to fit the life circumstances of the prospective students. The Excel Center is open year-round, and schedules can be arranged to accommodate students’ work or family obligations. Supports are available to help keep students on track and to address factors that might hinder education attainment. There’s a free child care center for the children of our students while they are in class, and many of our students are able to take post-secondary courses for dual credit and begin working toward a post-secondary credential that will increase their employability and earning potential.

We opened the first Excel Center in September 2010. Although we did no advertising, by the following spring there were over 2,000 prospective students on the waiting list. Nothing we have ever done has resonated so quickly with so many people.

The Excel Center, Meadows location

In September 2011 we added two more sites, and in August we will open two more to bring total enrollment to approximately 1,400 students. We are also packaging the model and developing a licensing option so that qualified organizations in other communities and states can open Excel Centers and become part of an Excel Center Network that will enable thousands more adults to raise their education attainment levels.

All of the schools in the network will have access to a portal with curriculum materials and other educational resources, a data system that will permit “deep dives” to see what’s working best and enhance efforts to improve student success. A communications platform will enable lateral communication among staff across the network as they seek to improve their effectiveness. The model will not be static. Rather, everyone in the network will be in a position to help improve it.

Fifty-five percent of our students are 24 years of age or younger. We also have many parents who are in their 30s and 40s. We have even had a few students who were in their 60s. Many of the parents have told us they are doing this so their kids won’t have an excuse not to finish school. Some of our students and their school-age children even do their homework together around the kitchen table.

We know our graduates will benefit from earning their high school diploma and obtaining a post-secondary credential, as they will then qualify for better jobs than they’ve typically had. But we believe their children will benefit even more, as they have seen their parents going to school, doing homework, and in many cases having a renewed sense of purpose and excitement in life.

There are many reasons why students in our Excel Centers didn’t finish high school when they were younger. Some admit they just made a mistake. As we’ve seen, though, there are a lot of adults eager for another chance to improve their circumstances and those of their children.

Goodwill’s Directions

Over the past decade, Goodwill in central Indiana has developed and now operates several small high schools. More recently, we have launched services for very young children and their moms. These are not areas in which Goodwill Industries around the country have typically been directly involved, and I am occasionally asked why we have moved in those directions.

At Goodwill, we have an overriding desire to help improve lives and communities and, as best we can, help solve serious social problems. We generally prefer to:

  • Strive for long term impact
  • Take a holistic approach with individuals and, in many cases, with their families
  • Enhance education levels and the attainment of credentials that will improve an individual’s employability and earning potential
  • Prevent problems and develop potential rather than engage in remediation

Strategic planning in our organization has morphed from a discrete event we used to do every few years into a strategic thinking process that is continuous. Changes in our environment are occurring at a very rapid rate, and we find ourselves with more new opportunities than ever before.

Every major step we have taken over the past twenty years has been a result of (1) what we have learned from previous experiences, (2) what we know about the communities in which we operate, and (3) how we believe we can have the greatest possible impact in the lives of people and in the larger community.

Key factors that have heavily influenced our recent directions include:

  • A recognition that many major social indicators have become worse over the last 30-40 years, despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations. Many existing systems have not adapted well to changes that have taken place in our society. The silo structure of the public sector and the fragmented structure of the not-for-profit sector are part of the problem. Fragmented approaches have not worked and will not work to solve complex social problems, regardless of how much money is made available. Neither will highly bureaucratic, overly prescriptive approaches. One size does not fit all.
  • A belief that there are no quick fixes to many of our society’s problems, and we must not allow ourselves to be satisfied with gradual, incremental progress. We need long term thinking and long term solutions. We also need a strong sense of urgency.
  • A recognition that many of the pieces needed to solve societal problems exist, but in relative isolation from other pieces that could also be part of a long term solution.

I believe that two of the most important elements necessary to reduce generational poverty and its accompanying social problems are:

  • Raise the education levels of children, youth, and adults in low income households. This is why we developed and operate the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School and The Excel Centers.
  • Ensure that children are behaviorally and cognitively ready when it is time for them to enroll in kindergarten. There is powerful evidence of the enormous positive long term impact of high quality early childhood development programs for children in low income households. We must greatly increase the availability of such opportunities – and there must be a strong sense of urgency to do so. Goodwill has taken a major step in this direction by launching Nurse-Family Partnership in Marion County.

It’s also important to emphasize that on all of these initiatives we are working with a lot of other organizations that have compatible interests and complementary resources. In some cases, those relationships are evolving into networks that I believe will play an increasingly important role in developing human potential and reducing serious social problems.

What goes around comes around – a brief historical perspective

In the late 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, the small Goodwill organization in Indianapolis was offering the following services:

  • A kindergarten
  • A pre-natal clinic
  • A dental clinic for school children
  • In conjunction with the Marion County Medical Society and Methodist Hospital, a home-based health care program
  • Classes for female heads of households. Topics included childcare, food preparation and purchasing, and how to run a household when a spouse is in prison
  • A library with books that mothers could read to their children

And yes, the organization also provided jobs in Goodwill stores. While the available resources and number of people served were small, the approach Goodwill took in those days was – using current terminology – holistic and dealt with the whole family.

When the U.S. became involved in World War II, Goodwill’s primary emphasis shifted to employing people – particularly people with disabilities – who previously had few, if any employment opportunities. Following the war, an emphasis on vocational rehabilitation was added. For the next forty years, Goodwill’s primary mission could be paraphrased as helping people – primarily, but not exclusively people with disabilities – prepare for, find, and keep jobs.

By the early 1990s, major societal changes – some of which began gaining momentum in the 1960s – prompted Goodwill to become involved in several initiatives designed to address growing social problems. Eventually, we launched efforts to try to improve education outcomes for young people who had struggled or failed in other settings. Those experiences, in turn, made us increasingly aware of the need to work with students and their families in a much more holistic manner.

Simultaneously, we began seeing a great deal of dismaying data that vividly illustrated the long term negative trends of a number of significant social indicators, despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations. We also began searching for programs that have demonstrated long term positive impact reducing social problems.

As a result of all of this, we have begun implementing Nurse-Family Partnership in Marion County. In addition to the basic, nurse-led services offered under this highly regarded, evidence-based national program, each mom or mom-to-be will be linked with a Goodwill Guide who can assist her in accessing education services (e.g. through Goodwill’s Excel Centers) and/or employment opportunities (e.g. in Goodwill’s retail system). The Guide will also advise the mom on financial matters, housing and transportation, child care, and health care. It is a holistic, whole family approach that we believe can help reduce generational poverty.

With and for parents who so desire, we intend to take a similar holistic approach with the children of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School students and graduates, Excel Center students and graduates, Goodwill employees with barriers, and families of all of these individuals. To the extent possible and desired by the parents, we intend to maintain these relationships for a long period of time – ideally, until the children are grown.

As this approach develops, it may increasingly resemble Goodwill’s approach in the late 1930s – only with much greater scale, current information and technology, and, hopefully, long lasting impact – in the lives of people and in the larger community.