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Harvard Family Research Project explores connections between workforce development and child outcomes in four human service sectors.

In the current era of performance management and transparent accountability, public, nonprofit, and private providers of human services are attempting to understand what contributes to a high performing workforce, and in turn, improved outcomes for children and youth—and to use this knowledge to strengthen the workforce and improve child outcomes. In the belief that workforce quality contributes powerfully and directly to better service outcomes, many providers are examining how training, advanced education, and other organizational supports enhance frontline staff.

A random sample survey of over 1,200 frontline child care, child welfare, employment and training, juvenile justice, and youth service workers revealed that over 75% described their work as frustrating, 51% felt unappreciated, and 42% estimated that 1 out of every 10 of their coworkers was not doing his or her job well.1 These data suggest that the frontline human services workforce is at risk of burnout, high turnover, and poor performance. An interrelated set of individual and organizational issues—including poor or lack of training and advanced education, and inadequate compensation and career advancement opportunities—contribute to what has been described as a state of crisis in the human services workforce.2

In response to this crisis, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, working with Cornerstones for Kids (C4K), has developed a multiyear project to learn more about enhancing the human services workforce. C4K has engaged Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) to examine the connections between the workforce and child outcomes. To accomplish this task, we at HFRP are conducting a literature review and interviewing thought leaders in order to look at the linkages between professional workforce development and child outcomes in four sectors—child welfare, early childhood, juvenile justice, and youth development.

We are examining the human services sector as a whole as well as similarities and differences across the four sectors. Our work is focused on finding existing evidence of a connection between the human services workforce and child outcomes. In instances in which empirical evidence is lacking, we are identifying future directions for research that will provide evidence of this link. Through these activities, we are attempting to answer five research questions:

In each sector, what evidence is available to test the hypothesis that a better trained and supported human services workforce will result in improved services and better child outcomes?

  1. What are the strengths, limitations, and gaps in the evidence, and what, if any, research is in progress to address them?
  2. How strong a case can be made for or against this hypothesis?
  3. What are the most strategic future research priorities?
  4. What does the evidence suggest are the proven or the most promising ways to strengthen the performance of the human service workforce?

After reviewing the literature and pooling findings across the sectors, we have arrived at four assumptions about the workforce as it relates to child outcomes:

  1. Professional staff development is one key activity in a larger system of overall workforce development.
  2. Policy and organizational support activities are necessary for improving child outcomes.
  3. High quality relationships and interactions between staff and children/youth in all the service sectors lead to better child/youth outcomes.
  4. Some activities that lead to improved outcomes are likely to differ across the service sectors.

Pathways Linking the Professional Workforce with Child Outcomes
Our preliminary findings suggest that the path connecting the workforce with child outcomes is more complex than we originally thought. The early childhood literature is full of citations that link increased teacher education and training to improved quality of the workplace.3 Often, the link is between one type of staff development (e.g., increased level of teacher education) and improved quality of the workplace. Most of the earlier research, however, does not make a direct connection between staff development and changes in young children.

In contrast, more recent research on prekindergarten programs looks at the connection between the level of teacher education and student achievement. Findings from a multistate study show a small association between the two.4 Another new study finds that in addition to enhanced teacher education, incentives for teachers, the content and processes of training, and integrating the early education system with the K–12 education system are necessary to improve the quality of early learning classrooms and to achieve increased achievement of young children.5 These studies support the idea that there are multiple activities and pathways linking the professional workforce and improved child outcomes.

Implications to Date

For Research
• We need to know more about who makes up and how to improve the human services workforce (e.g., who are existing workers, why they enter the field, why they leave the field).
• We need to know what specific organizational and policy supports positively affect children and youth outcomes.
• We need better measures to assess outcomes.
• We need new research with strong designs to test the logic model and proposed pathways linking professional workforce all the way to children and youth outcomes.

For Practice
• It is necessary but not sufficient for staff to have the qualifications (i.e., training and level of education) to implement best practices in their workplace.
• Staff need organizational supports, such as supervision and peer and administrative support, to implement these practices in their workplace.
• To impact children and youth, organizations need to have the capacity to recruit and retain good staff.

For Policy
• Policies are needed to increase the professionalization of the human services workforce through appropriate staff education, training, and certification.
• Policies should promote stability in the human services workforce by supporting adequate compensation, benefits, and a positive worker environment.
• Policies need to target increasing the quality of the workforce, evidenced in positive and effective interactions between staff and those they are serving. Policies should invest adequate resources in workforce development and hold organizations accountable for improving outcomes for children and youth through certification, accreditation, and high standards.

Creating a Logic Model
HFRP has created a logic model to begin conceptualizing what the linkages and pathways between the workforce and child outcomes look like. Using a logic model can help inform decisions about both program and funding priorities. A logic model is also useful for mapping the research to date in order to understand the different pathways and identify knowledge gaps. Logic models that focus on outcomes show the interrelationships between activities and their outcomes, using arrows to indicate which sets of activities are believed to contribute to specific outcomes.6 In our model, professional staff development is one of the inputs that contribute to a professional workforce. Professional staff development, however, is not equated with professional workforce development; rather professional staff development is one key component of professional workforce development. This holds true for all four sectors. In each of the sectors, contextual factors such as characteristics of the workforce shape workforce inputs and outcomes.

There are differences in how the model applies to each of the sectors. One difference is the degree to which existing research demonstrates linkages throughout the logic model. Studies in the early childhood field show how the pathways connect all the way to outcomes for children.7 In the other sectors, studies do not extend to the ultimate impact. In child welfare, there is evidence that increasing professional development through education and organizational support, in the form of reasonable caseloads and opportunities for advancement, results in increased staff retention8—an intermediate outcome—but no empirical evidence yet exists that such an intermediate outcome results in improved child outcomes. In youth development, one study of promising practices in after school programs puts forth a theory of change that emphasizes the importance of structural and institutional features, including staff qualifications and support, in providing meaningful and enriching activities for youth, which in turn have the potential to yield positive youth outcomes.9

Another difference across sectors is in the amount, rigor, and sophistication of the research available. In juvenile justice and youth development, the empirical evidence is more often from quasi-experimental than from random selection, experimental, and control-group designs. A recent study examining the evidence of effectiveness for training after school staff in a participatory learning model found evidence that participation in training led to higher program quality rankings and more positive outcomes for program participants.10 Although this new study begins to unpack the pathways through our logic model, most of the youth development workforce research to date does not.

The youth development field is in a nascent stage of development vis-à-vis understanding its workforce. Right now, the field is primarily focused on understanding the characteristics and needs of this workforce sector and has yet to examine its workforce's impact on youth outcomes. As we continue our work, we expect to provide greater detail about the pathways in the overarching logic model, as well as offer individual logic models for each of the four sectors. We will further elaborate on implications for research, practice, and policy as we complete our literature reviews and synthesize the findings across sectors.

Click here for a larger version of the logic model.

A supplementary bibliography from our review of research about the human services workforce is also available.

1 Light, P. (2003). The health of the human services workforce. Washington, DC: Center for Public Service, The Brookings Institution and the Wagner School of Public Service, New York University.
2 The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2003). The unsolved challenge of system reform: The condition of the frontline human services workforce. Baltimore, MD: Author. Available at
3 NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). Pathways to reading: The role of oral language in the transition to reading. Developmental Psychology, 41(2), 428–442; Burchinal, M., Cryer, D., Clifford, R., & Howes, C. (2002). Caregiver training and classroom quality in child care centers. Applied Developmental Science, 6(1), 2–11; Whitebook, M., Howes, C., & Phillips, D. (1990). Who cares? Child care teachers and the quality of care in America: Final report of the national child care staffing study. Oakland, CA: Child Care Employee Project.
4 Early, D., Barbarin, O., Bryant, D., Burchinal, M., Chang, F., Clifford, D., Crawford, G., et al. (2005). Pre-kindergarten in eleven states: NCEDL's multi-state study of pre-kindergarten & study of state-wide early educations programs (SWEEP). New York: Foundation for Child Development.
5 Pianta, R. C., Howes, C., Burchinal, M., Bryant, D., Clifford, D., Early, D., & Barbarin, O. (2005). Features of pre-kindergarten programs, classrooms, and teachers: Do they predict observed classroom quality and child–teacher interactions? Applied Developmental Science, 9(3), 144–159.
6 The W. K. Kellogg Foundation. (2004). Logic model development guide. Battle Creek, MI.: Author. Available at
7 Campbell, F. A., Ramey, C., Pungello, E. P., Sparling, J., & Miller-Johnson, S. (2002). Early childhood education: Young adult outcomes from the Abecedarian Project. Applied Developmental Science, 6(1), 42–57; Gormley, W., Gayer, T., Phillips, D. and Dawson, B. (2004). The effects of Oklahoma's universal pre-K program on school readiness. Washington, DC: Center for Research on Children in the U.S. Available at; Schweinhart, L. J., Martie, J., Xiang, Z., Barnett, W. S., Belfield, C. R., & Nores, M. (2004). Lifetime effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool study through age 40. Ypsilanti, MI: High Scope Press.
8 Zlotnik, J. L., DePanfilis, D., Daining, C. & Lane, M. M. (2005). Factors influencing retention of child welfare staff: A systematic review of research. Washington, DC: Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research.
9 Marzke, C., Pechman, E., Reisner, E, Vandell, D. Pierce, K., and Brown, B. (2002). Study of promising after-school programs: Theory of change guiding the research. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates and Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.
10 Smith, C. (in press). Evidence of effectiveness for training in the High/Scope participatory learning approach. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Educational Research Foundation.

Heather Weiss, Founder and Director, HFRP

Lisa Klein
Hestia Advising
P.O. Box 6756
Leawood, KS 66206
Tel: 913-642-3490


Priscilla Little, M. Elena Lopez, Caroline Rothert, Holly Kreider, and Suzanne Bouffard, HFRP

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