Blog: The Educated Reporter

After-School Learning Advocates Hope Research Leads to More Federal Dollars

Learning doesn’t stop when the last bell of the day rings, but for most communities, money to support after-school activities is tight.

The largest federal grant program dedicated to learning outside of class – after school, before school and during summers – is roughly only $1.15 billion for the entire nation, for instance. The AfterSchool Alliance, an advocacy group, notes that of all the money spent on education outside of normal school hours, Uncle Sam only kicks in about a tenth. Parents, meanwhile, contribute three-quarters of the dollars spent in total.

Proponents of additional after-school spending say that with payments by households accounting for the majority of funding for such programs, the differences in quality between low-income and higher-income neighborhoods can be dramatic. And while recent research suggests that increased access to learning experiences outside of school can spur student gains in the classroom, the federal dollars to keep summer and after-school programs have stayed flat. At times, the Obama administration has approved measures that increased spending on after-school programs, but not all parties are happy with where the policy winds are blowing.

The recent federal budget reductions known as sequestration cut money that translated into nearly 60,000 kids losing access to after-school programs, according to the AfterSchool Alliance. The spending agreement in Congress at the start of 2014 brought nearly all of that money back, though the president’s 2015 budget proposal doesn’t call for increasing spending on the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program – the $1.15 billion pool. Data from 2014 indicate that 1.1 million students are in after-school programs funded by the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. Nearly a third of those students are in California, Texas and Florida.

Congress authorized nearly $2.5 billion for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program in 2007. But then the nation’s economy nosedived in 2008, and the program did not receive the $1 billion-plus injection that advocates had been expecting, even as many low-income families are priced out of for-profit alternatives.

“We cannot close the achievement gap without expanding access to quality summer learning opportunities for low-income children,” said Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, an advocacy organization. “And we cannot expand access to summer learning opportunities without providing the resources needed to make that happen.”

Numerous social scientists have shown the impact summer learning — or lack thereof — can have on students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. Perhaps the most influential study on summer learning loss was released in 2007 by Johns Hopkins University scholars, who asserted that half the achievement gap between rich and poor students can be explained by unequal access to high-quality summer learning programs. [EWA Webinar summary on Summer Learning Slide]

Research also suggests that high-quality after-school programs improve student learning. A 2008 research brief from the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) points to an uptick in attendance, academic engagement and improved social-emotional skills. Subsequent reports from HFRP and groups such as the Wallace Foundation (an EWA funder) have reinforced the positive impact of after-school programming on students.

The research “is telling us that there are a number of programs that produced gains for young people,” said Heather Weiss, founder and director of the HFRP. Those gains, she said, are related to academic success, “from the development of cognitive skills to attitudes toward learning.”

Some programs are better than others, of course, but Weiss said the research community has reached a point of maturity where it can not only identify the need for after-school and summer programs, but also can steer groups toward the kind of professional development that can improve student learning.

So what’s a good program? One that moves beyond academics, researchers say. Helping with homework can keep a student on task, but the best after-school programs give students a reason to associate schooling with fun. Incorporating art and games increases the likelihood kids will want to come back. An appealing reason to stick around at the end of the school day is especially important for older students.

“They can walk with their feet if they’re not having fun, so we have to get them there, and we have to keep them engaged,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the AfterSchool Alliance. “And we have to be really smart about how do we take the opportunity to make it about learning, too.”

The STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math also come up as one way to entice older students to think about school positively.

“It’s not just kids learning about robotics or engineering; it’s also about kids learning how to think scientifically,” said Grant of the AfterSchool Alliance. “So kids coming up with a hypothesis, testing a hypothesis and realizing that coming up with a hypothesis and testing it are really more important than being right.”

Weiss of HFRP acknowledged that there are bad after-school programs. “It’s a function of lack of money, a function of a lot of different things,” she said.

And the money is in short supply. During a period in which wealthier families far outspent poorer families on enrichment activities for their kids, government spending has not kept pace. In a 2011 research volume, University of California, Los Angeles scholar Meredith Phillips noted that children of wealthier parents spent as many as 1,300 more hours than poor children from birth through age 6 on activities such as music lessons, travel and summer camp.

Federal education grant programs such as Race to the Top, Promise Neighborhoods and the Investing in Innovation Fund have added more summer and after-school funding to the mix. But in recent years some federal incentives have actually encouraged states to pull money from after-school programs, advocates note. According to the AfterSchool Alliance, the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers have allowed nearly half the states to fund additional learning time during the school day using 21st Century Community Learning Centers funds.

The Obama administration would like to change the 21st Century grants so that states may choose to use the dollars for expanded learning time in the classroom without relying on waivers. “That’s not something that’s really pushed under current law, but we’d like to see that changed,” said Tom Skelly, a senior budget official at the U.S. Department of Education.

But where the Education Department sees states spending precious federal resources with greater flexibility, out-of-school learning advocates see a zero-sum game. “You’re basically cutting one program to pay for another,” Grant said.

Other players in expanded learning blame the very nature of government funding. Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, president of education nonprofit Say Yes to Education, says while there isn’t enough state and federal money to bankroll all the expanded learning and after-school activities that children need, too often providers are limited in how they can use the funds available to them.

 “We don’t have anything close to perfect market dynamics around resource flows right now,” she said of public grants. “Simplification is going to be a key part in thinking about what are the programmatic offerings” in the future. Schmitt-Carey says the New York City-based nonprofit has been successful in leveraging private and public interests to bring Say Yes’s offerings to scale.

Say Yes is active in two New York cities – Buffalo and Syracuse – where it helps the local school districts connect students and families with health, legal and mentoring support in addition to an array of education services. Say Yes also works toward securing full college scholarships for district students. Expanded learning and activities outside of the classroom are Say Yes mainstays.

Two recently proposed bills in Congress – one in the House and Senate – would supercharge 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants with new data monitoring tools, so that teachers and after-school practitioners can share information and spot problem areas for struggling students. Meanwhile reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, a Clinton-era set of dollars designed to help defray the cost of child care and after-school programs, is being debated in both chambers. 

Weiss says that in recent years more economists have begun scrutinizing the efficacy of after-school programs. She welcomes their research because she feels that policy makers are likelier to listen to economists. Early evidence suggests gaps in access to after-school activities can negatively affect student performance.

 “When kids don’t have something, they lose,” Weiss says. “When they don’t have good summer programs or after-school programs, they lose.”

As for the debate over whether federal dollars for after-school activities should be used for more time in the classroom, Schmitt-Carey said, “It’s an unproductive fight to get into.”


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