Programs that Work
Teen Outreach Program
Healthy and Safe Children
Children Succeeding in School
Students performing at grade level or meeting state curriculum standards
Youths abstaining from sexual activity or not engaging in risky sexual behavior
Age of Child
Type of Setting
Out of School Time
Community-Based Service Provider
Health Care Provider
Type of Service
Type of Outcome Addressed
Cognitive Development / School Performance
Teen Sex / Pregnancy
Evidence Level (What does this mean?)
The Teen Outreach Program (TOP) is a broad, developmental intervention that attempts to help teens understand and evaluate their life options. The program is designed to prevent problem behaviors in adolescents. It is based on the notion that a heightened awareness of life options, increased knowledge of those options and how to effectively pursue them, and enhanced and diverse experiences with various life options will lead to a variety of positive outcomes—primarily scholastic success as measured by reduced course failure and suspension rates and a decrease in pregnancy rates.
TOP includes three essential program components: classroom/group instruction, community service, and service learning. Classroom/group instruction involves small group activities and discussions on age/stage-appropriate topics of special interest to young people, allowing them to examine their values and master life skills within a supportive peer group guided by a trained adult facilitator. Community service offers participants a variety of service and volunteer roles, which provides youths with an opportunity to help others, reconnects young people to their communities, challenges them to learn new skills, and authenticates their strengths and talents. Service learning links the community service experience to the classroom or group instruction—and ultimately to students' lives—by allowing youth to process and reflect on their service activities.
In operation since 1976, TOP is currently being administered at approximately 400 program locations across the United States, the Virgin Islands, and the United Kingdom, reaching an estimated 20,000 youth. Historically, the program was school based and was offered most frequently during school hours as part of a health education curriculum or other core course programs. More recently, the program has expanded to numerous after-school and community-based settings. While the particulars of the formats may vary among the different sites, local programs should offer participants at least one to two group discussions per week and a minimum of 20 hours of community service per program year in order to realize the level of outcomes found in the TOP evaluation.
The program is designed for use with youths aged 12 through 17. Program impact has been rigorously evaluated for high-school-age youths only.
Allen et al. (1997) conducted a study between 1991 and 1995 involving 25 TOP sites nationwide. All active TOP sites were invited to participate in the evaluation. The 25 participating sites represented roughly 10 percent of all the TOPs. Teens at each site were randomly assigned to treatment or control status, usually at the student level and less frequently at the classroom level. Analysis of demographic characteristics of the TOP and control groups found that the groups were similar at program entry. More than 80 percent of the participants were female, approximately 67 percent were black, and approximately 46 percent resided in two-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of the study population was in grades 9 and 10, approximately 20 percent was in grade 11, and approximately 11 percent was in the 12th grade.
A total of 695 students were randomized at the start of the study, with 342 students in the treatment group and 353 in the control group. All participants were assessed via questionnaire at entry (one to two weeks into the course) and upon completion of the program (at the end of the school year) on their background characteristics and histories of problem behaviors. Despite random assignment procedures, at baseline the control group was found to have significantly higher levels of prior course failure, school suspension, and teen pregnancy than the treatment group. A site-by-site inspection of the 25 sites found that one site had a control group with a significantly higher prevalence of risk factors and prior problem behaviors, and two sites had failed in efforts to track control students. As a result, these three sites were excluded from the study, resulting in a total of 22 program sites included in the analyses.
Study dropout rates were 5 percent in the treatment group and 8 percent in the control group. Analyses of this population indicated that students who dropped out of the study did not differ significantly at program entry from those who completed the program in terms of ethnicity, parents' educational attainment, or household composition (single-parent versus two-parent household). Dropout students, however, were found to be significantly younger and more frequently male than were completing students, and they were more likely to have had or have caused a pregnancy, and to have been suspended from school.
In addition to analysis to determine program impact, analysis was also conducted to determine whether there was a "dosage effect" (that is, whether variations in program intensity, particularly more or less volunteer hours, were related to outcomes).
Key Evaluation Findings
The study by Allen et al. (1997) found the following:
- The TOP participants' school suspension rate decreased by 24 percent over the course of the study (from 17 percent at baseline to 13 percent at posttest), while the control group experienced a 21 percent increase in suspension rate (from 24 percent at baseline to 29 percent at posttest).
- The TOP group's course failure rate decreased by 12 percent after the study (from 30.3 percent to 26.6 percent), whereas the control group experienced a 24 percent increase in failure rate (rising from 38 percent to 47 percent).
- Program participation had a significant impact on the pregnancy rate among female participants, with the TOP pregnancy rate decreasing 31 percent (from 6 percent at baseline to 4 percent at posttest), and the control group's pregnancy rate decreasing only 2 percent (10 percent at baseline to 9.8 percent at follow-up).
- There was no significant relationship between program dosage and pregnancy rates or program dosage and suspension.
High schools, middle schools, after-school and community-based youth organizations, teen pregnancy prevention coalitions, local health departments, and social service agencies
The program is funded primarily through local funding sources. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund supported evaluation of the program.
According to Allen et al. (1997), the cost of implementing TOP for a full academic year to a class of 18 to 25 students ranged from approximately $500 to $700 per student (in 1997 dollars). These figures include costs for facilitator and site-coordinator time. When facilitator/coordinator time is provided as an in-kind contribution by schools and community volunteer service organizations, the direct program costs drop to approximately $100 per student.
- The "changing scenes" classroom or group component takes place at least once per week.
- Group discussions allow students to share and learn from others' volunteer experiences.
- The role-playing component of the curriculum helps students to practice and prepare for their volunteer service experience.
- Participants must take part in a minimum of 20 hours of community service during the program year.
- A wide range of volunteer activities is available, including work as hospital and nursing home aides, peer tutoring, and fund-raising activities.
TOP is made up of classroom or group-based activities and community-based volunteer components. Trained youth workers, classroom teachers, and guidance personnel act as facilitators in implementing the TOP classroom/group curriculum, "changing scenes." The curriculum focus is twofold: (1) helping students prepare for their real-world volunteer experiences through fostering self-esteem, confidence, social skills, decisionmaking, and discipline; and (2) personal and social developmental growth and guidance through an exploration of personal and life values, understanding oneself and others, building life skills, mechanisms for coping with stress, communication skills, and the transition to adulthood. Four levels of "changing scenes" curricula are available to ensure age/stage-appropriate activities, and the curriculum content related to adolescent health and development was updated in June 2006. Core curriculum activities include values clarification, relationships, communication, influence, goal setting, decisionmaking, adolescent development, and community service learning.
The curriculum also includes a community service learning guide. This guide provides facilitators with tips on getting students involved in community service, as well as lesson plans focused on planning, engaging in, evaluating, and reflecting upon one's service experience. The curriculum uses a variety of experiential methods to engage youth, and it includes small-group discussions and role-playing. Youth are encouraged to share their experiences.
TOP can be adapted to meet the needs and strengths of a given community, both in terms of the volunteer component and curriculum content. Facilitators are given considerable latitude in covering topics in the curriculum. For each subject area, the curriculum contains a variety of activities and materials for discussion, so that implementers may select those that seem to be the most relevant and helpful for their particular youth population.
The program is most commonly implemented by trained youth workers, classroom teachers, or guidance personnel.
Issues to Consider
This program received a "promising" rating. Despite positive outcomes for both academic achievement and teen pregnancy, the program evaluation had a number of methodological limitations regarding sample selection and comparability of treatment groups.
When considering the results of this study, there is a significant issue of self-selection bias. Only 10 percent of the TOP sites chose to participate in the study. Allen and colleagues provided no information on how these sites and their populations compare with TOPs in general. It is possible that the sites that chose to participate had a history of greater program success and/or served higher-functioning populations. If so, the results found may not be indicative of implementation of TOP in all settings.
A point of concern is the fact that despite random assignment to treatment status and similar sociodemographic profiles, the treatment and control groups differed significantly at entry on all measures of problem behaviors. At initial data collection, the control group showed higher levels of prior course failure (38 percent versus 30 percent), suspension (24 percent versus 17 percent), and pregnancy (10 percent versus 6 percent) than the treatment group. Although an attempt was made to control for these differences in the statistical analyses, these discrepancies could suggest that the TOP group was "better off" from the start and may have been predisposed toward more favorable outcomes.
Consideration must also be given to the gender composition of the participant population. Although intended to work with all teens, this program seems to favor participation by female students. In the 1997 study, the sample had large numbers of females, with the treatment and control groups being 86 percent and 83 percent female, respectively. This makes it difficult to conclude that the program would work as effectively with a male population. Further, as the classroom component is based on discussion and sharing and, to some extent, is shaped around the experiences, interests, and needs of the participants, there is a question of just how effective it would be (both in terms of subject matter covered and the open participation of students) with a more equally balanced gender mix. It is possible that some of the program's exhibited success results from the ability to target the common needs of the female population. Thus, it may not be appropriate to conclude that the program works equally well with male and female teen populations.
Another issue to consider is the lack of longitudinal data. Conclusions are based on data collected upon immediate conclusion of the program. It may be easier for a teen to "stay on track" while he or she is the direct recipient of focused attention, such as the kind of attention provided by the program. There is no measure of whether participation in the program carries into continued improved performance and reduced risk of pregnancy beyond the boundaries of direct program involvement.
Allen and Philliber (2001), using a somewhat less rigorous design with a sample that included the same students assessed in Allen et al. (1997) as well as additional students, suggests that the program's effects are particularly robust for youths at higher risk of the specific types of problem behaviors being measured. For example, the authors found that the program had a larger effect in reducing pregnancies among youths who had already given birth to a child (compared with those who had never given birth). For this group of study participants, the likelihood of an additional pregnancy was less than one-fifth as large in the intervention group as in the comparison group. Similarly for the outcome of academic failure, TOP had a larger impact for youths who had been previously suspended than for those who had not. The program also displayed greater effectiveness for members of racial ethnic minority groups than for Caucasian students.
Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York City, New Orleans
Resources to support the development and implementation of local TOP programs, including curriculum, implementation training, training of trainers, technical assistance, and self-assessment program evaluation materials, are available from Wyman at www.wymanteens.org.
Philliber Research Associates offers data analysis services for those who are interested at www.philliberresearch.com or by contacting Philliber Research at:
16 Main Street
Accord, NJ 12404
phone: (845) 626-2126
fax: (845) 626-3206
Allen, Joseph, and Susan Philliber, "Who Benefits Most from a Broadly Targeted Prevention Program? Differential Efficacy Across Populations in the Teen Outreach Program,"
Journal of Community Psychology,
Vol. 29, No. 6, 2001, pp. 637-655.
Allen, Joseph, Susan Philliber, Scott Herrling, and Gabriel P. Kuperminc, "Preventing Teen Pregnancy and Academic Failure: Experimental Evaluation of a Developmentally Based Approach," Child Development, Vol. 68, No. 4, 1997, pp.729-742.