Ronald GallimoreEveryone's a teacher to someone (John Wooden)

Targetting Settings in Interventions Instead of Individuals

Robert Granger is retiring September, 2011 from his post as President of the William T. Grant Foundation. On his departure he posted a parting essay which continues an idea worth trumpeting. I’ll quote from his essay, because he makes a better case than I can for why interventions ought to target settings of individual behavior instead of focusing solely on individual behavior.

For a PDF of Bob’s essay, click here

Here are some key paragraph’s from the essay:

One of the first changes the Foundation made after I became president was to shift the focus of our research program from the strengths and abilities of young people to the settings that—in theory— produce those strengths and abilities. I came to the Foundation following 11 years as a senior vice president at MDRC, a social policy research firm. There, I developed a great appreciation for the importance of consistent, positive findings as a lever for change. The prime example was MDRC’s studies on welfare reforms in the 1980s, which consistently showed that relatively low-cost changes in practice, such as job clubs or job search assistance, could help low-income mothers move from public assistance to employment. When you find such robust and repeated success, especially for low-cost interventions, few care why they work. It is, however, very unusual to identify approaches that produce consistent improvements across a broad range of situations. As a case in point, the MDRC work I led on education and youth interventions produced fewer winning strategies—in most cases, attempts at reform did no better than current services in the community.

At the Foundation, our thought was that interventions focused on individuals might be too weak or transitory to withstand the other influences in their lives. Hence, we shifted to settings. While our primary motivation was a desire to produce better results, we were also being strategic. This shift was designed to leverage federal funding for research and evaluation on youth policies and programs. Much of that funding remains focused on individual outcomes (e.g., student achievement, at-risk behaviors) and on the individual differences in skills, attitudes, and biology that influence those outcomes. Our thinking was that while improved individual outcomes were (and remain) our goal, an important path to those outcomes is through the social settings in which young people spend their days—classrooms, households, youth programs, and neighborhoods. If the federal evaluations showed mixed results, we wanted to create a body of work to help explain why so that we all could do better.

While I remain convinced that it is intellectually and practically powerful to focus on these daily environments, I and my colleagues have found it surprisingly hard to communicate our interest in settings clearly. At first, I saw this as a routine product of change. When a funder shifts its focus, applicants push the boundaries to see if there is a match between their interests and what the funder will support. That is a normal aspect of the philanthropy “market,” and we anticipated our shift in priorities would cause some confusion. But, that confusion endured long enough to warrant a closer examination. Part of the cause is that the focus on settings is atypical in certain disciplines. Many applied developmental scientists are experts at theorizing and studying individual-level phenomena: how motivation or self-concept affects subsequent performance, how individuals respond to differential incentives, how intervention programs affect individual outcomes. They are, however, much less comfortable thinking about how organizations and systems help shape those outcomes. In addition, measurement and quantitative analysis techniques are much further advanced at the level of individuals than at the level of settings or groups of individuals. Part of the problem may be how we view the world. Clinical psychologists have learned that one of the “fundamental attribution errors” humans make is to assume that the behavior of other people is largely determined by their individual tastes and capacities, even though we believe that our own behavior is affected by our current circumstances.