Pennsylvania Uses Evidence-Based Approach to Improve Outcomes for Youth

National program trains localities to conduct needs assessments so young residents get the services they need

Pennsylvania Uses Evidence-Based Approach to Improve Outcomes for Youth
Pennsylvania
Andrea Zanchi

Editor's note: This analysis was updated on Aug. 17, 2018, to clarify the details of the Communities that Care training.

State and local leaders in Pennsylvania are taking a strategic, evidence-informed approach to choosing programs that address problems facing youth, and they are seeing the benefits. Communities are conducting needs assessments before selecting which programs to use to make sure the choices address the underlying causes of specific local problems.

These assessments provide vital information to determine whether a proposed intervention is a good fit for the specific problem and community. They include data about target populations, the prevalence of certain conditions within those populations—such as delinquency, violence, substance use, and school retention—as well as associated risk factors such as family conflict or academic failure. Some assessments also evaluate what are known as protective factors—such as attachment to family or opportunities for positive involvement in school—that can help prevent these conditions.

In 1994, Pennsylvania adopted the Communities That Care (CTC) approach to build local-level capacity to perform needs assessments and to use the information to help communities select and implement appropriate programs for youth. The program focuses in large part on mobilizing and training community leaders. Local coalitions—typically including residents, law enforcement, and local agency and school district representatives—learn to use data to identify three to five priority risk and protective factors. They then are trained  to select and implement interventions that address these factors to ensure youth get the services they most need.

The University of the Washington's Center for Communities That Care encourages CTC communities to reassess these factors every two to three years to measure how programs are working and to identify emerging priorities. Over 60 localities in Pennsylvania currently use the approach, which has helped bring sustained decreases in risk exposure and youth problem behaviors.

To acquire data on youth behavioral problems and the associated risk and protective factors, CTC communities use results from the Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS). This anonymous and confidential survey is administered biennially to sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders. Results are aggregated at the county and school district levels, providing a valuable resource to help communities identify needs.

For example, the Norristown Area CTC in the Philadelphia suburbs has assessed PAYS data every other year since 2001 to determine the prevalent local risk and protective characteristics. Frequently conducting this analysis has allowed community leaders to reprioritize factors over time based on changes in youth problem behaviors. And that helps ensure that they continue to offer critical services as needs change.

“A key success in analyzing risk and protective factors over the years is the ability for our community to understand how priority factors have changed over time so that we can adapt accordingly and ensure that youth are getting services they need most,” said Viviann Schorle, community engagement director for Family Services of Montgomery County and CTC mobilizer for the Norristown area.

In the western part of the state, the Karns City CTC relies on PAYS data to identify risk and protective factors that have an impact on local youth, but it also uses public record data from state and local agencies to measure risk characteristics and problem behaviors not covered by the survey, such as the number of liquor stores in the area. Karns City uses the assembled data to select appropriate evidence-based programs and to set outcome goals.

For example, a 2015 analysis showed that 21.6 percent of eighth-grade students reported ongoing drinking of alcohol, compared with a state average of 9.5 percent. The CTC decided to try to reduce this statistic to 10 percent by 2023 with the targeted use of effective programs.

“By using PAYS and public record data, our coalition has been able to identify the two programs—‘Strengthening Families 10-14’ and ‘Positive Action’—that best meet the needs of youth within the community,” said Jeff Hogan, executive director of the Karns City CTC. “We are excited to implement these two programs and hopeful to see positive, measurable changes in the PAYS data over the coming years.”

The CTC approach is empowering Pennsylvania communities to identify and address problems affecting their youth. Access to PAYS has been a vital resource for the needs assessments, not only helping to identify local trends, but also providing guidance for adapting services to meet the most pressing needs.

For more information:

Sara Dube is a director and Darcy White is an officer with the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative.

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Issue Brief

Implementation Oversight for Evidence Based Programs

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Issue Brief

There is a growing consensus that rigorous evidence and data can and should be used, whenever possible, to inform critical public policy and budget decisions. In areas ranging from criminal justice to education, government leaders are increasingly interested in funding what works, while programs that lack evidence of their effectiveness are being carefully scrutinized when budgets are tightened. As the use of evidence-based interventions becomes more prevalent, there is an increasing recognition that it will be critical to ensure that these programs are effectively delivered. A large body of research now shows that well-designed programs poorly delivered are unlikely to achieve the outcomes policymakers and citizens expect.