One of the greatest challenges of working in the field of teen pregnancy prevention is the amount of controversy the topic can generate. On one hand, it is great to have passionate, candid, and thoughtful conversations about the best way to protect young people from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. On the other, the noise from the debate can drown out some important things.
Solid research and evaluation lends clarity to the debate about the best way to prevent teen pregnancy. As formidable as this issue is, we are fortunate to have very robust data that can guide how we help our young people. Instead of a conversation about morals or judgment, data lets us talk about which programs can be most effective and the youth at highest risk of pregnancy.
One of the great things data allows us to do is get perspective by taking a step back to see where we came from and to plan for where want to go. Taking a big step back may mean looking at national statistics and trends on teen birth rates; the most recent year’s data indicates that rates are climbing (http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/national-data/NBR-teens-15-19.aspx). When we are asked why, a possible explanation may be found in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which shows that condom and birth control pill use by sexually active high school students in South Carolina declined for the first time ever (YRBS 2008).
Or taking a step back may mean looking at national or state or county data that recently came out from Kids Count (http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/bystate/StateLanding.aspx?state=SC) to see how South Carolina or your community is faring. While this data includes teen pregnancy, it also covers a host of topics that we know are related to teen pregnancy, such as school readiness, poverty, and infant health outcomes. While no one statistic can give you all the answers, keeping up with a variety of indicators can help to put the work we do into perspective. For example, in 2008, a larger proportion of children started school ready for first grade than in years past (Kids Count 2009). However, at the same time a larger proportion of 3rd graders tested below the state standards in math (Kids Count 2009).
As a social worker, I am sometimes surprised that I ended up in the “math department” and spend much of my day working with numbers and thinking about how to measure things! But, the story behind the numbers is what is truly exciting about this kind of work. Numbers will never give you all the information we need, but it helps us to think about the right questions to ask and ways to move forward. It can also be a solid reason to support the important work of local organizations. If there are questions you have about how to find data or use the information that you have, our department would love to hear from you. Sometimes data can be a program’s best advocacy tool and we would be happy to help if we can.
by: Shannon Flynn, Director of Research and Evaluation, SC Campaign
Contact Shannon: firstname.lastname@example.org