Demise of Pew Project Offers Lessons to Funders

By Deborah L. Cohen — June 01, 1994 8 min read

Although the demise of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ multimillion-dollar Children’s Initiative shows that promoting large-scale changes in the way states provide services to children is far from easy, experts both in and outside the foundation are urging that it not keep people from trying.

“We have a whole series of lessons for potential funders,’' said Sally Leiderman, a vice president for the Center for Assessment and Policy Development, which helped Pew design and administer the initiative. “But our experience hasn’t done anything to make us feel pessimistic about the value of a bold vision if you have the right supports and if you can temper that with realism.’'

The Children’s Initiative, begun in 1992, was one of the most ambitious models to help states revamp and coordinate fragmented human-services programs to improve education, health, and social outcomes for children.

Pew pledged to commit some $60 million over 10 years to help selected states create a network of school-linked family centers and foster more cohesive family policies. The foundation had spent $5 million and was working with five states--Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Minnesota--that were awarded planning grants.

Terminated in March

But the Philadelphia foundation announced in March that it was terminating the effort, based on an assessment that it was not likely to meet its goals within the time and resources allotted. (See Education Week, April 6, 1994.)

Other factors that may have contributed, observers speculate, included leadership changes and staff dynamics at Pew and concern about the political feasibility of proceeding if the plan did not produce strong evaluation results.

How to judge the success of integrated-services efforts is a subject of controversy. Moreover, other efforts have faced roadblocks that forced a scaling back or rethinking of their missions.

But experts say the states involved in the Children’s Initiative were making important progress. Pew’s decision does not warrant a conclusion that such efforts are futile, they add.

The incident “does point up some of the problems and challenges’’ in the integrated-services field, noted Judith Langford Carter, the executive director of the Chicago-based Family Resource Coalition, which provided technical aid to states under the initiative. “But it is not the final word on what is going on in that area or even in those states.’'

“It would be a mistake to conclude that, because a foundation, which has the right to make its own judgment about its investment strategies, made a determination not to proceed at this time, that the activities generated in states and communities were unimportant,’' said Ann Rosewater, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and external affairs for the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

Ms. Rosewater worked on the initiative as a consultant to the Center for Assessment and Policy Development prior to her current job.

Balancing Act

State officials have said they will keep working to develop collaborative-service systems, and Pew is considering awarding up to $4 million to help Georgia and Minnesota pursue those efforts.

The Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based policy-development center, meanwhile, is preparing to release a series of “lessons learned’’ documents, including a curriculum for family-service workers developed by the Family Resource Coalition.

Pew is also one of five foundations that have been supporting an expert roundtable, housed within the Aspen Institute, on comprehensive community initiatives for children and families.

New federal efforts are also likely to spur more state agency coordination. A bill passed by Congress last year, for example, provides family-support services aimed at curbing foster-care placement.

Some experts say Pew’s experience underscores the need to focus on building up successful community programs that bring resources and providers together to improve family services.

“All the focus on the top-down aspects of integrated services is missing the point,’' Ms. Carter of the Family Resource Coalition said. “The most important thing is what happens to families on the front lines.’'

Others say the crisis conditions threatening increasing numbers of children, particularly in poor urban areas, demand systemic-reform strategies at least as comprehensive as the one undertaken by Pew.

“I see absolutely no plausible argument to scale back these efforts if the object is to significantly contribute to changed outcomes for kids,’' said Douglas W. Nelson, the executive director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “There is greater consensus on solutions on a broad, systemwide scale than ever before.’'

Pew officials say the outcomes envisioned under the Children’s Initiative would have required even broader reforms to address such pivotal issues as housing, jobs, and drug abuse.

“The balance is in trying to select a system that is large enough to achieve significant goals, but manageable enough to be feasible,’' said Carolyn Asbury, the foundation’s director of health and human services.

Measuring Milestones

Lisbeth B. Schorr, the director of the Harvard University Project on Effective Services, said research suggests that “when you put together school reform, community development, reformed services, and community supports, you will get better results than from any of those.’'

“But there is no one place that has actually shown what happens when you put it all together,’' she said, adding that people trying to do that find “it takes much longer than any one of us ever thought.’'

“There is a need for re-education among policymakers about what can be achieved and the amount of time it takes,’' said Patricia Patrizi, the director of research and evaluation at Pew.

Mr. Nelson of the Casey Foundation pointed to one lesson that he said the Casey Foundation has learned from efforts such as New Futures, which was designed to revamp children’s services in several cities but has undergone significant revamping. It takes a few years, he suggested, just to form strong local collaboratives. (See Education Week, Sept. 25, 1991.)

But such milestones, experts say, are often overlooked.

New Beginnings, a service-reform effort led by the San Diego schools and county government, has been seen as a disappointment by some because it has not generated a chain of family centers or produced concrete outcomes data from a pilot school-based center. (See Education Week, Jan. 23, 1991.)

Jeanne Jehl, an administrator on special assignment to the office of the San Diego school superintendent, conceded that the program has been buffeted by changes in the local political leadership and the departure of key players, and did not initially seek enough community input.

But the effort, which has had to work mostly with existing funding, has touched families, helped ease bureaucratic barriers, and fostered new kinds of collaboration, Ms. Jehl said. It has also served as a model for other state efforts.

‘More Work To Do’

Frank Farrow, the director of children’s-services policy at the Washington-based Center for Study of Social Policy, said successful systemic reform should spur changes not only in how dollars are spent and decisions are made, but also in “core interactions with families.’' But often reform efforts simply add programs and services, he noted.

Experts are also struggling with how to gauge the success of large-scale service reforms. There is disagreement in the field over how to monitor such variables as readiness for school or changes in family relationships.

And while healthy births, higher rates of school success, and reduced rates of teenage pregnancy are important long-range goals, Ms. Schorr of Harvard noted, people also need interim measures to show whether they are on the right track.

“Our evaluation technology is not yet robust enough to capture the kind of changes over time that these large-scale, comprehensive strategies are attempting,’' Ms. Rosewater of the federal Administration for Children and Families noted. “But that just suggests we have more work to do.’'

Pew officials say they were not confident that they could have shown that the interventions promoted under their initiative were improving outcomes in child health, child development, school readiness, and family functioning. When such doubts arose, Ms. Asbury of Pew said, “there were real questions about whether it was compelling enough to do an entire replacement of existing services.’'

Tolerance Urged

Others stress that reform plans must be designed to be adaptable.

“All projects should have self-corrective mechanisms that are data driven and consumer driven,’' said Katharine Briar, a visiting professor at Miami University in Ohio who has helped run school-based-services initiatives in Florida and Ohio.

As a result of lessons learned from New Futures, for example, the Casey Foundation has adopted a multiyear grantmaking strategy that allows different sites to have different planning periods.

Another important lesson from the Pew experience, Ms. Asbury suggested, is that “there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to working with states.’'

Mr. Farrow of the Center for Study of Social Policy said he is convinced that the most significant policy changes are likely to be generated by “people in a site feeling the urgency to change,’' rather than by “big amounts of outside money.’'

But since large grants can be a catalyst for collaboration, Mr. Nelson said, strategies should be based on “the politics, problems, and perspectives of particular places.’'

Janet Levy, a program director at the Danforth Foundation, also argued that promoters of large-scale service reforms need to build more “tolerance for innovation.’'

“Foundations in general as they move into aggressive innovation need to go into it understanding that a high level of risk and certain level of ‘failure’ is to be expected,’' she said.

“We have to know when the jig is up and call the shots,’' she said, but “we can’t afford to go weak-kneed.’'

Foundations have a key role to play, she and others agreed, in tackling complex reforms.

“The state of the art is getting better and better every time we try,’' Ms. Leiderman of the Center for Assessment and Policy Development said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1994 edition of Education Week as Demise of Pew Project Offers Lessons to Funders