Preventing youth violence and improving schooling outcomes for disadvantaged youth remain two of our nation’s most urgent challenges. While we have made dramatic strides in addressing many of the leading public health problems in America over the past 50 years, there remains one notable and particularly devastating exception—homicide. Homicide rates today are almost exactly what they were in 1950, or even in 1900.1 Nationwide, homicide is by far the leading cause of death for black males 15-24 and is responsible for more deaths than the next nine leading causes combined.2 The high school dropout problem, which in many ways is the flip side of the violence problem, has been similarly difficult to solve. Graduation rates of black and Hispanic youth remain far lower than those of their white counterparts, and we have made little progress toward closing these gaps over the past 40 years.3 Finding approaches that work to keep kids—particularly our nation’s most disadvantaged—safe and on a path to success will improve the lives of individuals and families and help communities thrive.
Chicago nonprofit Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man (BAM) program holds great promise for helping Chicago’s most disadvantaged youth succeed in school and stay safe. BAM is a violence-reduction program that offers youth weekly group sessions for one hour during the regular school day and a counselor they can seek out individually throughout the week. BAM counselors help youth recognize their automatic responses and slow down their thinking in high-stakes situations using elements of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Standard activities in the curriculum include weekly “check-ins” to begin each session, role-playing, and team-building and problem-solving activities.
The University of Chicago Crime Lab has partnered with Youth Guidance and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to study BAM in two separate evaluations—in 2009-10 and again in 2013-15.4 In both studies, the evaluations were structured as randomized controlled trials (RCTs); RCTs provide gold-standard evidence of effectiveness in fields like medicine, but have not been the norm in social policy. In the 2009-10 academic year, the Crime Lab worked with CPS to identify over 2,500 7th through 10th grade males attending 18 disadvantaged CPS schools who were at an elevated risk for dropout and crime involvement. The students were randomly assigned to be offered the chance to participate in BAM or to a control group receiving status quo school and community supports. During the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years, the Crime Lab, with generous support from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA), conducted a second evaluation, again identifying over 2,000 adolescent male youth (this time only 9th and 10th graders) at 9 CPS high schools in low-income and high-crime neighborhoods and again randomly assigned youth to be offered BAM or to a control group. Findings from these studies suggest that it is possible to substantially and cost-effectively improve the academic and behavioral outcomes of disadvantaged youth, even once they reach adolescence.
BAM has been highly effective in addressing the sorts of impulsive, automatic responses that can lead to violence. In the 2009-10 study, the University of Chicago research team found that participation in BAM reduced violent crime arrests by 45%, in just one school year—put differently, the effect was equal to about 8 fewer violent-crime arrests per 100 youth per year (Figure 1). Program participation also had lasting impacts on school attainment: youth who participated in BAM in 2009-10 were 19 percent more likely to graduate from high school on-time (within four years) than their peers who did not participate in the program (Figure 2). Researchers found no statistically significant effects on property or drug arrests.
The University of Chicago team replicated these findings in their second study of BAM (2013-15), which found a 50% reduction in violent-crime arrests and similarly positive impacts on school engagement (Figure 3).
These large behavioral impacts suggest that BAM’s benefits far outweigh the program costs, with up to $30 in societal gains for every $1 invested in the program, from realized reductions in crime alone. In addition, since individuals with a high school diploma often have higher future earning potential than individuals who drop out, Crime Lab researchers suspect the economic returns of BAM may ultimately be even greater.
Implications for Policy and Practice
CBT-informed activities show promise for helping youth slow down and make better decisions in high-stakes situations. Previous research in psychology suggests that automaticity plays a large role in people’s decision-making (including decisions about dropping out, becoming involved with drugs or gangs, or how to respond to confrontations that could escalate into serious violence).5 BAM builds on the idea that because deliberate decision-making and conscious cognition (what psychologists call “system 2” thinking) require effort, people rely heavily on automatic responses that are adaptive to commonly encountered situations (“system 1” thinking). However, problems can arise for youth in disadvantaged neighborhoods where high-stakes situations occur frequently and where being aware of the dangers of automatic thinking can mean the difference between life and death.
Crime Lab researchers have found evidence consistent with the idea that reduced automaticity helps explain program impacts—BAM appears to be working at least in part by getting youth to recognize their automatic responses and change their decision-making processes in certain situations. These results suggest that it is possible to generate sizable changes in outcomes by helping at-risk youth slow down and make better decisions in high-stakes situations.
It is possible to cost-effectively improve outcomes for disadvantaged adolescents. This research also suggests that programs designed to do this need not break the bank. BAM (and other programs that help youth manage automatic responses to difficult situations) seem to hold great promise for cost-effectively reducing youth violence, improving educational outcomes, and changing the life trajectories of disadvantaged youth in Chicago and beyond.
To scale up BAM and programs like it, it is critical that we understand why the programs work, and additional research in this area is needed. Despite encouraging evidence from these two studies, a key challenge is determining how to scale up BAM and other similar programs to reach many more youth in Chicago and in cities across the country. A central barrier to scaling this type of intervention is the currently limited understanding of the key programmatic ingredients. Researchers have not determined exactly which CBT ingredients are critical for impacting youth outcomes, and so it is not yet known how the model can or should be adapted to fit local contexts. To support scale up, future research is needed to generate additional evidence about which components are essential to program effectiveness. This evidence would help policymakers identify, invest in, adapt, and scale up the most promising approaches. This in turn would help ensure that scarce public resources could do the most social good per dollar spent, with the ultimate goal of improving the long-term life outcomes of disadvantaged youth in Illinois and throughout the United States.
- Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of our Nature. New York, NY: Viking. ↩
- Murnane, R. J. (2013). U.S. high school graduation rates: Patterns and explanations. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 18701. ↩
- The results of these evaluations are forthcoming in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, and a working paper presenting these results is available at: http://www.nber.org/papers/w21178.pdf. The co-authors of this paper include: Sara Heller (University of Pennsylvania), Anuj Shah (University of Chicago), Jonathan Guryan (Northwestern University), Jens Ludwig (University of Chicago), Sendhil Mullainathan (Harvard University), and Harold Pollack (University of Chicago). ↩
- The ideas of automaticity, and system 1 and system 2 thinking, are well summarized in psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). ↩