The first question always stems from curiosity. What piques my interest or fries my butt? For instance, in my community, my sense is that we have a growing number of Latinos who are not thriving. And when I venture onto four-year college campuses, I see very few Latinos. Why is that? My guess is that Latino students are not thriving in the K-12 pipeline. So I mull on that for a while – and then I have to check it out. Is it true? Does the data show that Latinos drop out of high school in greater numbers than kids of other ethnicities? Turns out, the answer is, yes.
Then I’m at an inflection point. I have a phenomenon: a high Latino dropout rate. Now I have to ask myself some questions:
There’s another inflection point where I get very detailed about what this problem looks like. I ask myself: why is this happening? Why do poor Latinos drop out of high school more than kids from other families? And the answers come from asking the people who dropped out. Why do they drop out? What does the data tell us about their characteristics? (This can be harder than it sounds. If you find someone who understands the context in which their lives are unfolding and can talk about it, rejoice. Lots of people, from all tiers of society, can be terrible at describing causation in their lives.)
What do experts — ethnographers, sociologists, economists, pastors — say is going on? Are high-schoolers on the verge of dropping out poor readers? Are they unable to pass algebra? Do they have undiagnosed learning disabilities? Depression? Are they watching younger siblings? Are they contributing to the family wages?
Then comes a pause — and a bit more reading. This can be advocacy stuff, cognitive research, or even a biography or memoir. What has been written about learning English from Spanish? What is the debate about the cost and availability of childcare? What does the research say about the role of the family wage in immigrant communities?
At this point, I’ve identified a problem, outlined its scope, and gotten really close up to it. I’ve dug deeply into what I’m reasonably confident are the root causes of this problem.
So, then, who is working on this? Sometimes, you have one or two big players working to solve a particular social problem. Sometimes efforts are very fragmented and there are lots of little groups and even individuals beavering away to improve things. I ask myself: What is the difference in the way those organizations seek to address the problem? And do their approaches jive with my now solid understanding of the people who have this problem?
Now here’s a big one: What kinds of results are these fixers getting? Most of the time, results are modest. Be very careful about organizations that suggest that they are somehow changing the world, reducing the effects of poverty, getting every child into college. Nothing works all the time. Organizations that try to inflate the results — well, avoid them. Look for transparency. If you are not sure you are getting it, ask yourself: do their results seem at odds with the known world?
Then, there’s (another) hard question: What exactly is producing that result? Where is the special sauce in this burger? And how does it happen?
Look at what it costs—in terms of effort and in terms of money. Is it cost-effective enough to be scalable? Are they doing it more cheaply than others but delivering an inferior product? Sometimes, there are elements of a program that are super-interesting and jive with the research and your understanding of the problem but the rest is poorly executed. In that case, you can still report on the program and say what is cool about it – as long as you also note that another piece of it is not as good.
The object isn’t to promote a program that “solves” the problem. Nothing, really, will solve a problem in your community without awareness, attention, allocation of resources and consistent follow up. But a good story can contribute to a dialogue about approaches that are working in one place and might inform the thinking in another community. In short, this is not about telling people what programs work but telling them how and why particular programs work. Which is a lot harder.