The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Volume 21 | Issue 2 | Summer 2014
Promoting Prevention

Written by Neil B. Guterman.

In late April, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a press conference about Chicago Public Schools’ rising high school graduation rate, touting the latest studies from SSA Professor Melissa Roderick and her colleagues at the UChicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Graduating from high school and accessing higher education is arguably the most reliable ticket to the middle class in the U.S., opening up a lifetime of opportunities. Students who drop out face far fewer job opportunities, and the jobs that are available for those who haven’t graduated high school and later college are far lower paid and less stable—thus acutely raising the risk of later unemployment, long-term poverty and long-term stress on the student and his or her family.


Several years ago, Melissa’s research found that freshmen who are “on-track” by the end of their ninth grade year (with enough credits to be promoted to the 10th grade and no more than one F in a core subject) are four times more likely to graduate than students who are off-track. With these findings in hand, Melissa and her team at SSA’s Network for College Success partnered with a collection of CPS high schools, delivering school and child-level data about freshmen, providing intensive peer consultation and support, and problem-solving to help keep kids on-track in school.

This deep evidence-to-practice partnership has driven dramatic improvements in CPS high schools: Since 2007 (when this work began), the freshman on-track rate has risen from 57 to 82 percent system-wide, representing an additional 6,900 students on-track to graduate high school. Melissa’s latest study shows that freshman on-track rates are, in fact, sustained throughout high school, validating the focus on ninth grade as a key window of intervention opportunity to solve the drop-out crisis in our urban high schools.

This type of work is but one exemplar of a growing trend in the field of social work emphasizing prevention. Though the profession has long worked to provide necessary support to those whose lives have been harmed or traumatized by poverty, mistreatment, loss, illness or misfortune, more recently evidence is accumulating on programs and policies that prevent harm from ever occurring, offering opportunities for social workers to help individuals and families in altering the long-term trajectory of their lives.

One reason that prevention efforts have not historically been a core goal of social work lies in what has, until recently, been a difficulty in measuring the visible impact of prevention strategies. While it is rather easy to see the pressing need to respond to an abused child or homeless adult, for example, it has been harder to see problems before they erupt, and therefore harder to make the case to fund proactive strategies which prevent social problems in the first place.

However, prevention research has moved far along in the last 10 to 20 years, and the science of studying prevention programs has changed the equation. For example, Professor Sydney Hans has used randomized controlled studies to test the impact of using a community doula for home visitation to provide support to very young, low-income mothers. In this issue of the magazine, we cover her recent research in this area, which finds a notable impact on rates of breastfeeding and on mothers’ encouragement of their infants’ learning, both key factors in helping a child get off to a better start to life. Sydney’s work is part of a broader portfolio of research examining the impact of early home visitation, which I am also studying, with an interest in measuring interventions that engage fathers in the process.

As prevention scientists have been able to document the visible impact of home visitation programs, state and federal funding has followed, including $1.5 billion to support home visitation programs in the Affordable Care Act. Research has also shown that effective prevention is a smart investment from a purely economic standpoint as well—for every dollar spent on home visitation, for example, several studies show that four dollars are saved in the future because children avoid the criminal justice system and use of unemployment insurance, as well as the health, mental health or child welfare systems. It’s a “win-win” situation for families and society.

As another example, the University of Chicago Crime Lab, directed by SSA faculty members Jens Ludwig and Harold Pollack, has conservatively estimated that the problem of violent crime costs the wider U.S. economy about one trillion dollars each year. They also have been able to estimate that “Becoming a Man-Sports Edition,” a mentoring intervention implemented by Youth Guidance in Chicago and evaluated by the Crime Lab, reduces re-arrest rates for violent crime by 44 percent and saves about $30 for every dollar invested. In times where we as a nation are having ongoing conversations about the role of government and the effectiveness of social welfare programs, these kinds of results inform and add clarity to an all-too-often overheated and polarized political environment.

SSA Professor Deborah Gorman-Smith, who recently completed her term as president of the Society for Prevention Research, also focuses on preventing youth violence, and in this issue’s Conversation, she talks with two leaders in Little Village who are using the findings from her research and a program developed and evaluated by her Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention. Deborah is a partner in their coalition’s efforts to provide youth services to prevent violence, and her work, which we will increasingly hear about, is documenting impressive progress in driving down violent crime in urban neighborhoods.

SSA is at the forefront in advancing the evidence base for prevention programs and policies, even at the international level. In this issue, for example, Professor Leyla Ismayilova writes about her work studying how to prevent child labor in Burkina Faso, and finally, in our feature on how some of our master’s students engage in research done by our faculty, Professor Alida Bouris talks about her study on how familial and social factors can help prevent HIV among young African-American and Latino MSM (men who have sex with men) and transgender women.

As we educate the next generation of social work practitioners, policymakers and researchers, our students are working with and learning from faculty who are leaders in the advancement of prevention strategies. Preventing social problems—not only responding to them after damage has already been done—will increasingly enter the heart of social work in the future, and SSA is unmistakably leading the way.