Re-Learning After-School, Re-Imagining Education Reform

By / 10.13.2010

Recent belt-tightening (forced or otherwise) in education has resulted in major casualties to after-school programs around the nation. As funding priorities shift to privilege teacher prep and accountability, after-school programs have been among the first to get the funding axe.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a federal framework to support programs that target under-served or at-risk populations, provide academic support to struggling students and create opportunities for exploring arts, sports, and music. They are emblematic of after-school programs everywhere—in what they do, what they don’t do, and how we understand after-school time at large. So a proposed budget increase of almost $100 million to the 21st CCLCs should come as good news, right?

Not necessarily, according to some in the broader education community. The proposed appropriations bill bundles 21st CCLC support with money to “expand learning time” by extending the school day, or year. A recent Education Week article notes the ambivalence among after-school providers, citing “fears that opening the program to extended-learning-time initiatives could come at the expense of high-quality after-school efforts.” The Afterschool Alliance, a national advocate for after-school programs, has taken up a standing opposition to the bill.

So, what’s going on here under the surface conflict of too many line items and too few dollars? Why wouldn’t the nation’s biggest after-school supporter want a huge network of after-school programs to receive more funding?

Even more buried than the defensive concern about diverted support, there is also a surfeit of competing ideas about what education could or should be—and not enough space, consideration, or funding to follow each of those ideas to any sort of fruition.

Current funding strategies are furthermore pushing after-school and other interventions (extended-day included) to fit themselves into the ever-more restrictive reform rhetoric of increased academic achievement. If programs can’t be shown to improve kids’ test scores, they’re passed over, slashed from the budget, and relegated to the “tried and failed” pile.

The expectations placed upon after-school programs in recent years (increasingly, say, with the advent and legacy of No Child Left Behind) have reflected this slow constriction of values. After-school hours are expected to be as academically enriching as the classroom hours from which children are directly coming—if not moreso, as after-school has increasingly been incorporated into NCLB’s “supplemental services” for remediation.

Once valued primarily as a safe space in the hours between school and home for kids in at-risk areas or circumstances, or as an outlet for the abundant energy and creativity that accompanies and overwhelms adolescence, after-school time has steadily been re-appropriated as school-time in a slightly different setting.

Research, however, has shown that after-school programs are perhaps not as up to this new task as their proponents (and funders) would like to imagine. Even among the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, research has shown the programs have “few impacts” on participating students’ academic performance. Reports from 2004 to the present, available through the Department of Education’s website, show that fewer than half of participating students’ grades improve, and less than one-third of students’ state assessment scores improve after spending time in a 21st CCLC.

Presumably, someone, somewhere is gearing up to use this data to add fuel to the competitive fire of education reform—and that might be what the Afterschool Alliance really fears. If these programs don’t work, toss them out, forget about ‘em, and bring on the extended day (or value-added teacher assessment, or private tutoring services, or those helper-monkeys they’re using at the Commonwealth Games)! But before we throw the babies out with the after-school bathwater, let’s look a little deeper. There is, in fact, research on the obvious flipside of the issue: what are after-school programs good at doing?

Robert Halpern of the Erikson Institute has spent significant time wrestling with this very question, in part by asking: why aren’t after-school programs good at academic enhancement?

Citing the heterogeneity of after-school programs, the lack of a cohesive professional “field” for providers, the mixed backgrounds of staff, and unstable or unsustainable relationships with the resources upon which they so heavily depend, Halpern argues that after-school programs are poorly equipped to take on academic remediation. In Halpern’s view, after-school programs are not extensions of schools, and shouldn’t be viewed as such. They should provide what schools can’t, not simply make up the difference.

Re-assessing after-school programs along these lines, as first and foremost spaces for acceptance, socialization, and exploration – a new spectrum of possibilities for after-school hours begins to emerge.

The strengths of after-school programming, in Halpern’s estimation, suggest to me the same rubric of what’s being variously defined as “deeper” or “student-centered” learning, or as “21st century skills”: self-guided learning, collaboration, problem-solving, and communication. The basics beyond the academic basics, if you will.

Furthermore, the development of many of these skills or competencies is in conflict with many of the institutional particularities of the modern school system (as Richard Halverson and Allan Collins suggest in their work on technology’s place in learning and education).

The debate over 21st century skills assessment is almost as hot as the debate over what exactly to call this skill set. But advances are being made, and indicators outside of test scores have also been tracked in after-school programs for as long as such programs have been assessed. In 2004, 21st CCLC after-school programs were shown to have some positive effects on student-adult interaction, parental outcomes, and feelings of safety and security among participating children.

The most recent 21st CCLC report, from 2007, shows the target goal of three-quarters of participating students “demonstrating improved homework completion and class participation,” has nearly been met. Other unexplored after-school indicators could include: increases in school attendance, elective or extracurricular participation patterns, creative output, community involvement, and perhaps eventually job placements and earnings.

After-school programs may be as necessary an experiment in improving American education as anything else—including the extended day, and value-added assessments (probably not those security monkeys, but who’s to say?). And we should be looking for ways to both support and improve that experiment by enriching the after-school field, creating professional development opportunities for staff, creating standards to which providers can reasonably be held accountable for their successes as much as their failures. We shouldn’t be blocking after-school support because we’re not sure if another solution is as valid—saying no to something that works because we’re not as sure about something else that could also work.

If education reform is really more of a series of parallel structures rather than a single declarative (to draw from my 8th grade grammar lessons)—if we have to try this, and this, and this, and this, to try to arrive at some answers, then after-school programming, 21st century skill development, and an extended school day or year all deserve both attention and funding. Otherwise we lose $100 million for after-school programs and an untold amount of intangible support for experimentation and innovation within a reform that will only, ultimately, be more than the sum of its parts.