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May 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 8

Research Says. . . / After-School Programs Can Pay Off

Students spend about three-quarters of their waking hours outside school. For some, these hours include sports, music lessons, or other activities that promote learning; for others, however, much of this time is spent disconnected from constructive activities.

What's the Idea?

After-school programs can provide enrichment activities that develop students' academic and social skills. For students who lack adult supervision or learning opportunities after school, such programs can offer an environment that is safe and nurturing as well as educational.

What's the Reality?

After-school programs have grown exponentially in the last 15 years. They vary enormously in their quality and in their ability to get students to attend regularly. Many are poorly designed, lack clear objectives, and suffer from high staff turnover. Such programs tend to come and go as sources of funding appear or dry up. The strongest programs complement, rather than duplicate, school activities and knit families, schools, and community agencies together around student interests and needs.

What's the Research?

The vast number of after-school programs is matched by a vast array of research studies. Findings from these studies run the gamut from strong positive effects to none at all on a variety of academic and social measures. Evaluations using random assignment find few significant effects overall on student test scores and behaviors (Zief, Lauver, & Maynard, 2006). However, such general evaluations provide little insight about program quality or which programs may work well to achieve particular goals for particular students. Some researchers, taking a different tack, have sought out after-school programs with strong reputations to document their effects on students and to discover what makes them successful.
The federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers, intended to link schools and communities to bolster school performance, have been the subject of numerous studies. Recently, Huang, Cho, Mostafavi, and Nam (2010) identified 53 Community Learning Centers that were highly effective in terms of student achievement gains. Looking across these programs, the researchers found they shared features similar to those associated with effective schools: strong leaders, clear goals and structures aligned to meet those goals, low staff turnover, and staff ability to motivate and engage students.
In a study of 35 recommended programs serving either elementary or middle school students, Reisner and colleagues (2007) found positive academic outcomes as well as social and behavioral benefits. Students who attended regularly for two years showed improvements in work habits, task persistence, and social skills (such as the ability to refrain from aggressive behavior). Students also demonstrated significant gains in mathematics achievement, even when math was not the focus of the program. Features that stood out across these successful programs included tightly knit partnerships between the after-school programs and students' schools and communities and a focus on high-quality arts, enrichment, and recreation rather than academic subjects.
Durlak and Weissberg (2007) reviewed studies of 73 programs that targeted personal and social skills, all using control groups. The researchers identified a subset of 39 programs that used what they defined as "sound" training approaches—sequenced activities to achieve skill objectives, active learning, and an explicit focus on personal or social skills. These programs showed significant positive benefits in terms of student self-confidence, positive social behaviors, and achievement test scores. In contrast, programs that did not use these approaches failed to produce success on any of the outcomes.
In their synthesis of several dozen studies of after-school programs, Little, Wimer, and Weiss (2008) identified three key features necessary for successful programs: sustained attendance, quality programming and staffing, and strong partnerships between the program and other places where students learn, including schools, families, and community institutions.
Together these studies suggest two important conclusions. One is that programs without an academic component can nevertheless demonstrate increases in student achievement, whereas many programs focused on achievement fail to do so. The other is the importance of building partnerships among key community institutions, including schools, nonprofit agencies, and families.

What's One to Do?

Research calls into question the assumption of many program funders and designers that student test scores will rise if after-school programs are tied closely to what goes on in the classroom. Students tend to be attracted to programs that provide something different from their school day. Research supports investments in well-constructed programs focused on subjects that are underemphasized in school, such as art, music, and hands-on activities. Research also supports an explicit focus on building social and behavioral skills; increased task persistence and self-control often translate into improved academic performance.
Designing enticing and effective afterschool programs is not easy. Such programs require thoughtful planning based on knowledge of the students, as well as collaboration with community agencies and families. Whether afterschool programs are located in schools, churches, public libraries, recreation centers, or other settings, collaboration between schools and community organizations can help bridge the gap between students' school lives and their home lives. Schools need to be willing partners, providing their expertise and support.

Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2007). The impact of after-school programs that promote personal and social skills. Chicago: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Retrieved from www.casel.org/downloads/ASP-Full.pdf

Huang, D., Cho, J., Mostafavi, S., & Nam, H. H. (2010). What works? Common practices in high functioning afterschool programs across the nation in math, reading, science, arts, technology, and homework—A study by the National Partnership (CRESST Report 768). Los Angeles: University of California, Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

Little, P. M. D., Wimer, C., & Weiss, H. B. (2008). After school programs in the 21st century: Their potential and what it takes to achieve it. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project. Retrieved from www.gse.harvard.edu/hfrp/projects/afterschool/resources/issuebrief10.html

Reisner, E. R., Vandell, D. L., Pechman, E. M., Pierce, K. M., Brown, D. D., & Bolt, D. (2007). Charting the benefits of high-quality after-school program experiences: Evidence from new research on improving after-school opportunities for disadvantaged youth. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates. Retrieved from www.policystudies.com/_policystudies.com/files/Promising_Programs_policy_paper.pdf

Zief, S. G., Lauver, S., Maynard, R. A. (2006). Impacts of after-school programs on student outcomes: A systematic review for the Campbell Collaboration. Oslo, Norway: Campbell Collaboration Policy Review. Retrieved from www.campbellcollaboration.org/library.php

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