Hearing from Students: YouthTruth 3.0

Education is a focus area for many of this country’s foundations, and for good reason. Too many young people are not being well-served by their schools, and too many emerge unprepared for college or career.

But in much of the discussion of education “reform,” and improvement, the voices of students are missing. YouthTruth, launched in 2008 by CEP in close partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, seeks to change that by collecting the perspectives of students in a rigorous and comparative way. Fay Twersky, then of the Gates Foundation, Founding Director Valerie Threlfall, and my other CEP colleagues and I designed YouthTruth to inform education leaders, including district superintendents and school principals, as well as education funders.

YouthTruth surveys students in elementary, middle, and high schools about their classrooms and school climates, and YouthTruth reports have spurred change and improvement at hundreds of schools. This case study on charter management organization High Tech High offers an example of how YouthTruth is used to drive improvement.

We know from research conducted by the Gardner Center at Stanford University (and other studies) that student perceptions are a leading indicator of outcomes – meaning that, as Fay, Val, and I put it in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article last year, getting this kind of feedback “isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.” CEP launched YouthTruth because, after years of bringing the voices of grantees, declined applicants, and others to foundations, we wanted to see if we could do something significant to amplify the voices of those who should matter most: those whose lives funders and grantees seek to improve.

Research we just released this week shows that nonprofits see funders as out of touch with the voices of intended beneficiaries. We hope that, with YouthTruth, we will help to change that – at least for education funders. Our interest is in demonstrating the power of rigorously collected beneficiary perceptions to improve the effectiveness of funders and grantees alike.

In the early days, under Val’s able leadership, we created YouthTruth and tested and proved the concept. We raised considerable grant support from foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Stupski Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Houston Endowment, Stuart Foundation, W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation, and the Whitman Institute.

Since Val left CEP and YouthTruth in 2012, after the birth of her daughter, YouthTruth Executive Director Marny Sumrall has led this initiative to new heights.

Under Marny, YouthTruth has converted to an online, interactive reporting out of survey results that allows principals, district leaders, and education funders to engage with the survey data in new ways – probing differences along key segments on a real-time basis. We have also added new survey offerings, such as our elementary school survey, and seen significant growth in earned revenue driven by adoption of YouthTruth by schools and districts – 50 percent in the most recently completed academic year over the previous one.

Marny brought to YouthTruth a deep knowledge of the possibilities of harnessing technology to improve our operational efficiencies as well as the quality of our work that has served not just YouthTruth but the larger CEP organization. She stubbornly insisted that we could convert all our processes for creating YouthTruth reports and CEP assessment tool reports to a new system in a few months – and then proved all of us who wondered how that would be possible wrong by leading the successful effort to do just that!

Marny also oversaw the re-branding of YouthTruth and the creation of a new YouthTruth website, as well as the creation of improved marketing and sales systems. She rounded out the already strong YouthTruth team with great new hires. And she has been a close colleague to me and the other members of the Senior Staff, providing great counsel and insight on a range of cross-cutting organizational challenges.

Marny’s impact on YouthTruth, and CEP, has been lasting and profoundly positive, but she has decided that, after two-plus incredibly intense years, she will leave YouthTruth and CEP at the end of the year. She feels this is the right moment for her and for YouthTruth as we transition from one stage of development and growth to another. I expect to keep her engaged as at least an informal advisor.

I am deeply grateful to Marny for all she has done and the passion, dedication, and smarts she brings to everything she does. We will miss her leadership but, fortunately, we have an incredibly strong team, and great advisors and funders.

I have launched a search for YouthTruth’s next executive director and seek your help in finding the right person for this great opportunity. YouthTruth has demonstrated its value and ability to influence practice; it’s operationally incredibly strong with a great product that is superior to alternatives in survey design, interactive reporting back, and service and support; and it resides within a strong organization in CEP.

What we need now is the next champion of the value of student voice and of YouthTruth in particular, to take us to the next level of adoption and influence on practice.

We need to listen to the voices of those we seek to help.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP and a regular columnist in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @PhilCEP.

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