Interviewed by Cyanea Poon
Dr. Michael Karcher is a Professor of Educational Psychology in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He received a doctorate in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University (1997) and a doctorate in Educational Psychology, in the APA-Approved Counseling Psychology Training Program, from the University of Texas at Austin (1999). He conducts research on school-based and cross-age peer mentoring as well as on adolescent connectedness and pair counseling. Currently he is Principal Investigator of two OJJDP studies using the TEAM framework.
Chronicle (C): Can you tell our readers a bit more about your background and research interests? Having done this work for so many years, what keeps you going?
Michael Karcher (MK): I’m pretty loyal, even to my own ideas. It started with a few interesting ideas in the 1990s, and I never got answers that fully satisfied me enough to move on.
In 1990s, I was interested in the work of Carol Gilligan and Michael Nakkula, both professors at Harvard Graduate School of Education. They wrote about connections and connectedness, which led me to do an exploratory study of what kids considered to be the important “world of connectedness” (a phrase from Nakkula’s and Selman’s 1991 paper, “How people treat each other,” if I recall correctly). I conducted focus groups in 1995 with teenagers who answered this question for me, identifying 15 worlds to which they felt connected, and I spent the next 5 years collecting survey data from thousands of youth, factor analyzing it, over and over with new samples, until an empirically generated definition and reliable factor structure emerged for the 15 subscales included in what I called the Hemingway: Measure of Adolescent Connectedness. (That name came from a story Nakkula told me once about his high school English teacher, who once told him, “You write like Hemingway,” which contributed to Nakkula’s interest in pursuing a Journalism degree, as the first person in his family to go to college.)
Subsequently, I studied how these factor-analytically derived subscales of connectedness to different ecological worlds predict short and long-term indicators of competence among youth. I explored the degree of scale factorial invariance across sex and race, its relationship to the SEARCH Institute’s developmental assets, and its validity in predicting crime and post-secondary education 10 years out. Since 1995, lots of other scales of connectedness have emerged, though I don’t know of any with as much rigorous analysis of psychometric properties or as clear a definition. However, I still have a lot to do to understand the role of connectedness in youth development and its usefulness as a target of intervention. In fact, most of my work has looked at how domains of connectedness, like school connectedness, change in response to youths’ participation in mentoring programs.
The Cross-Age Mentoring Program (CAMP) was started in 1995 specifically to influence these 15 domains of connectedness, and the Hemingway has become the standard outcome measure for the program. Activities to strengthen youth’s connectednesws in each of the 15 domains are included in the CAMP Connectedness Curriculum that the teenage mentors and mentees use when meeting together.
Now, what keeps me going is my interest in cross-age peer mentoring? I don’t think the world will be any worse if my connectedness scale does not get to be widely used. But I do feel that, without the efforts by myself and others to ensure that peer mentoring programs adhere to a strict definition and employ rigorous implementation, kids could suffer. I’ve written for more than 10 years, in multiple distribution formats, that is so easy for the field to confuse peer mentoring with a variety of other peer programs (as evidenced by the vast number of studies that pop up when you search “peer mentoring” that are not at all mentoring programs). But my own experience tells me that close relationships with older peers, that are purposeful, engaging, and real can be life-changing, and that they are the “stuff” of a good life. I want to see more kids get these, whether through after school cross-age peer mentoring programs (like CAMP) or through other circumstances, such as through serendipitous encounters with counselors at summer camps or older peers in peer group settings.
C: Having designed and evaluated so many different mentoring programs, can you tell our readers what are the key elements for a “successful” mentoring program?
MK: I’ll tell you one thing I have learned in my 25 years in the field, which is this: Any program that starts with a mission statement that includes a number as the indicator of success is doomed from the start. I won’t even name the examples that come to mind, as that might sound rude. But every time I hear “We will mentor a million kids” or “We will get 10,000 mentors in this city in the next five years” I know that initiative is going to cave. That approach reflects an old-fashioned, industrial era or factory-style approach youth intervention programming. That’s why I’m so impressed by one organization, “Boy with a Ball,” who resists that notion. They view fostering intense, whole-hearted, all-in relationships with children and their families and teachers as the best way to provide the foundation for their mentoring program. Instead of going for the numbers, they go for reach, connection, influence, presence. That’s how they run their programs and train their mentors.
C: Where do we go from here with mentoring research?
MK: Someone needs to do a randomized study, fully powered, with good fidelity of intervention checks, on some form of youth mentoring that randomly assigns matches to specific durations of mentoring, and that, ideally, captures very good data on the compliance of mentors with regular meetings and a formal closure practice at the end. Without that, we will always be under (what I view as) the misguided belief that longer matches are better. There are so many internal validity threats that make almost all of the available “evidence” of the research on match length unreliable. And this is one area of research that has real consequences for kids (e.g., when school-based programs believe, because of “the research,” that they should have mentors commit to 1-year matches rather that wrap up all matches at the end of the 9-month school years). More reliable is the hard-to-dispute-fact that roughly 50% of school-based matches that are intended to continue into the following year do not (I don’t recall the exact statistic, and it varies, of course across programs—but by not that much). And we all know the kind of kids who are less likely to see their mentors the following year—those highly mobile kids, for whom loss, abandonment, and disconnection are already common adverse childhood experiences in their lives, or the kids who are harder to “reach” because they’ve learned, based on experience, that they need to be a little more self-protective in this world than other kids believe. These are just the kinds of kids who don’t need another disappointment or loss in their lives. If someone could really tease apart the benefits and damages of match length and satisfactory match closure in programs, I bet we could run mentoring programs that are shorter in length and more consistently impactful for youth.
C: Do you have a book / article recommendation for the Chronicle readers? And can you tell us why you pick it?
MK: I could probably think on this and come up with some surprising, unfamiliar book or article if I put my mind to it. But the first one that came to mind, authored 20 years ago this year, by an amazing scholar who died prematurely and unexpectedly last year, Thomas Dishion, is “When interventions harm.”
Dishion, T. J., McCord, J., & Poulin, F. (1999). When interventions harm: Peer groups and problem behavior. American Psychologist, 54, 755–764. http://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.54.9.755
I have always wanted to ensure that my peer mentoring program has a high capacity for damage control. Dishion, McCord, and Poulin’s article has always been a study (really a series of studies) that reveal how easily we can do harm – when we intend to be helpful, when we don’t realize or take seriously the potential risks, and not just the rewards (an homage to the subtitle of Jean Rhodes’ classic book), of participating in the raising and development of all youth, generally, and other people’s kids, specifically. We need to take very seriously that if we do not do in our power to ensure no harm comes to the mentees, we have failed them, their parents, society and our professional colleagues. For instance, a failure to close a mentoring relationship, and depriving a mentee of the “gift of goodbye,” as passive harm. That’s why I’d rather have my kid in a program run by a few committed souls who will be deeply invested in his or her life and will take that responsibility seriously, than have my child involved in a program that claims it reaches thousands. In the end, mentoring is about one person, that mentor, providing a caring, consistent, and encouraging presence in the life of a child. It’s not a numbers game. It’s not a game at all.
To contact Dr. Karcher:
Michael J. Karcher, Ed.D., Ph.D., Associate Dean for Research
Professor of Educational Psychology
College of Education and Human Development
University of Texas at San Antonio
501 Cesar Chavez Blvd., Suite DB 4.337 (DT); or MB 3.304D (Main Campus, COEHD Dean’s Suite)
San Antonio, TX 78207
(210) 458-2032; 458-2650 (department)
visit websites for information on research
www.schoolconnectedness.com (e.g., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21133579 )
(e.g., US Dept. of Justice program review of CAMP at https://www.crimesolutions.gov/ProgramDetails.aspx?ID=432
(CAMP seen in action as Velocity in the Harlandale High School https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEsgOgvrm7Q )
(A free 1-hour youth mentor training is available at www.developingmentors.com Use as a supplement to basic training)