United Way Charts Course Following Teen Survey Print
News/Features - Local News
Tuesday, 04 April 2006 18:00
The United Way is taking two approaches to improving teenagers’ chances of success in adulthood following a survey that found that 91 percent of Quad Cities teens lack sufficient “developmental assets.” But some teens are skeptical of both the survey and its findings.

The Search Institute, an independent, not-for-profit organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in December conducted the Attitudes & Behaviors survey – sponsored by the United Way of the Quad Cities Area – of nearly 8,000 seventh-, ninth-, and 12th-grade students from schools in Scott and Rock Island counties. The results showed that only 9 percent of youths surveyed had at least 31 (out of a possible 40) “developmental assets” – external and internal experiences and qualities in teens’ lives. That’s the amount the Search Institute feels gives youths the best chance of moving successfully through adulthood.

The United Way’s first response to the survey is spreading asset awareness to Quad Cities-area businesses, organizations, and citizens. The organization hopes that if the community understands what assets are and why they are important, that will help increase assets in young adults over time.

“We’re going to try and get in front of 40 groups to present on the assets in the next two months,” said John Kiley, president of the local United Way, on February 22.

On February 28 and March 1, the Search Institute trained about 30 Quad Cities residents, who will make presentations to community groups and help them implement assets in their own organizations.

“We want to get a kind of group of apostles ... or missionaries to go out there in the community and make sure people know how this [raising assets in youths] can be done and why it’s important to do it,” Kiley said.

The second step in the United Way’s plan is a youth-advisory council. The council will consist of area youths from every school district in the Quad Cities, and it will help the United Way organize events and generate ideas to respond to the survey results.

“We’re not going to have a bunch of adults sit around and say, ‘What are we going do about kids?’” Kiley said. “We’re gong to have some young people do that for us.”

The United Way also plans to conduct the survey in another three years to see how much has been accomplished. Its goal is to raise the average number of assets from 19 to 21. The 2005 survey results are available at the United Way Web site (http://www.unitedwayqc.org).

Several teenagers who participated in the survey raised questions about its credibility, and said that the United Way’s actions probably won’t increase the number of assets.

For example, Cole Walton, a freshman at Central High School in Davenport, said that one problem with the survey is that it can’t track individual teens and compare their assets to their success or failure later in life. He said the Search Institute should do follow-up studies of specific teens who have participated in the survey to see if its assumptions about assets and success are correct.

“If the whole point of the test is to see your outcome later in life, then I’d definitely check the credibility of the test,” Walton said. “I think they should check how people are doing afterwards. It’d make more sense.”

The Survey

The Attitudes & Behavior survey and the 40 developmental assets were created in 1989 by Search Institute President Peter Benson. The developmental-asset framework is categorized into two groups of 20 assets – external and internal. “External assets are the positive experiences young people receive from the world around them,” the Search Institute Web site (http://www.search-institute.org) states. “The 20 internal assets identify those characteristics and behaviors that reflect positive internal growth and development of young people.”

The survey asks teenagers 156 questions that tie into the 40 developmental assets. The questions include teens’ experiences at school, such as how much time they spend on homework each day and the average grades they earn. It also asks about family support, high-risk behaviors (drinking, drug use, sex), and activities at and outside of school. For example, the survey asks how often they drank alcohol in their lifetime, in the past 12 months, and in the past 30 days, and how much they consumed.

Dr. Tracey Schuster, psychology professor at St. Ambrose University, said the survey touches on a variety of key development issues, such as how well teens get along with their families, how they’re doing in school, and what sort of activities they’re involved in.

“The important part is to look at the survey data in the form of trends,” she said in an e-mail. “So we can say, ‘If A is true ... then most likely B is true,’ but we cannot say, ‘A causes B.’”

In other words, the survey doesn’t say 91 percent of teens won’t be successful as adults. Instead, it says that teens with fewer assets are more likely to have less success in adulthood. And the Quad Cities has a large percentage of teens who are not on-track for adult success.

Art Semsa Jr., applied developmental researcher for the Search Institute, said in an e-mail that the relationship between certain behaviors in adolescence and future success is well-established. Furthermore, he said, “We do have a longitudinal study which shows that youth with these assets in middle school look better in high school across a range of outcomes (e.g., risk behaviors like alcohol use and positive behaviors like leadership).”

According to the Search Institute, the survey is used to measure the success of a community in raising children. Kiley stressed that the survey is used to evaluate the community, not to judge teens.

He compared that analysis to employees and management – employees being youths and the community being management. He said that employees have responsibility for their actions, but if management doesn’t give them the necessary tools to do the job well, they aren’t going to succeed.

Teens’ Response

One question about the survey’s validity relates to whether the teachers who administered it followed instructions provided by the Search Institute. Several teens, when asked if they participated in the survey, referred to it as “the sex survey” or “the drinking survey.” All of the six teens (from five different schools) questioned by the Reader said the survey wasn’t explained to them, and they weren’t given a reason why they were doing it.

“They [teachers] kind of said take the survey and be done with it,” Walton said. “It wasn’t important. It wasn’t graded, and it wasn’t checked or anything.”

After the survey results were announced, none of the six teens was informed.

Kiley said the United Way gave district superintendents instructions on conducting the survey. According to the Attitudes & Behaviors classroom-administration instructions, students were supposed to be told the purpose of the survey was to “better understand the needs of our young people.” They were to be instructed that they survey was anonymous, that booklets could not be traced back to individual students, and that the survey was voluntary.

Kiley acknowledged that there might have been some unevenness in how well the instructions were followed by teachers.

After the results were announced, schools decided whether to share them with participants.

The teens the Reader interviewed also felt that the survey makes assumptions that certain situations or behaviors automatically reduce a person’s chances of success in adulthood, not taking into account that every person is different.

For example, the survey asks about families and how involved they are in young adults’ lives. The survey calculates fewer assets for teens with less family involvement.

“I really think it [a person’s future] depends on each individual situation,” said Meghan Patch, Moline High School freshman. “I know people who come from broken homes, and they’re doing really well for their situation.”

Sesma said that objection reflects a lack of understanding about what the survey means. “We have found is that, on average, youth from difficult family and other contextual circumstances report fewer assets than do youth from more privileged circumstances,” he said. “Obviously, this does not mean that all youth from poorer conditions are consigned to a life of hell, nor that youth from affluent situations are going to have smooth sailing the whole way.”

St. Ambrose’s Schuster agreed. “There are exceptions to rules and trends,” she said. “Yes, there are some who have few assets but still succeed in life. There are probably more, however, who have few assets and struggle in life.”

But Patch’s concern shows that the survey hasn’t been adequately explained to the people who took it. And the United Way doesn’t presently have plans to go into schools to discuss the survey with them.

Other teens wondered if people answered the survey honestly, which would affect the validity of the results. “You have to think about the kids that take the test,” said Havalah Jones, a freshman at West High School in Davenport. “They are very immature, so they are not going to answer the questions very truthfully, or they’ll answer the opposite of what they actually do.”

Because the survey is anonymous and cannot be traced back to the person who took it, one could argue that there’s no reason for students to lie. Jones disagreed. “They want to be stupid, and they know it’s a random survey, and they’re like, ‘Cool. I want to do something like this [lie]. It’s going to be messed up,’” she said.

Kiley said that the Search Institute throws out surveys with inconsistent responses. Surveys are also thrown out if they are missing data on 40 or more items; report unrealistically high levels of alcohol or other drug use (such as drinking or using drugs several times a day); or were completed by a teen in a non-designated grade. Among the 8,000 Quad Cities surveys, 845 were discarded.

Patch, one of the teens interviewed, questioned the survey asking seventh- and ninth-graders about their futures.

Schuster said that’s a valid concern, but also said younger students’ perspectives on their futures can be revealing. “It is common for some teenagers to be uncertain about their futures,” she said. “Based on the changes they are experiencing developmentally (physically, cognitively, and socially), of course there’s uncertainty.”

But the answers are meaningful, she added, because they show whether young adults are thinking about their futures.

According to the survey, 72 percent of the youth surveyed saw a “positive view of personal future.” Schuster and the United Way said that result was encouraging, particularly given the grim overall results.

“One must have a positive outlook, even in the face of economic instability and uncertainty,” said Scott Caldwell, United Way Success By 6 director. “This can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Naturally, optimism needs to be balanced with good planning skills.”

But Sarah Schroeder, a senior at Rock Island High School, didn’t look at the finding so favorably. “A lot of kids think that they’ll be okay and nothing bad will happen to them,” she said. “They can do drugs and get drunk all the time, but, oh, they’re going to be successful in the future.”

The United Way’s Plan

As of April 3, the United Way has presented to St. Ambrose University, Scott Community College, Illinois Retired Teachers Association, Bettendorf Chamber of Commerce Education Forum, and Safe Schools Healthy Students Advisory Council, along with 14 other organizations for the community-awareness campaign.

The United Way also plans to team up with law-enforcement, labor, and media organizations that will work with trained facilitators to identify what they can do to help spread asset awareness.

The youth council, however, won’t be officially up and running for until the beginning of the 2006-7 school year. So until that time, the United Way will be deciding what can be done for kids.

The number of youths who will participate in the council has yet to be determined, but Kiley estimated it would be between 20 and 30. He added that finding a diverse group of youths to participate – including those with a low number of assets – will not be a problem. Kiley said the United Way funds organizations such as Martin Luther King Center, Friendly House, Family Resources Incorporated, and Youth Service Bureau, which have programs for at-risk teenagers and could contribute teens to the council.

“We’re like a handshake away from them or in some cases we already know them,” Kiley said.