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Published in Print: February 12, 2003, as Study Critiques Federal After-School Program

Study Critiques Federal After-School Program

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The federal government's $1 billion effort to give elementary and middle school students a safe place to study and play after school has increased parents' participation in school, but has had little effect on academic achievement, according to a study of the program released last week.

Still, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers—an after-school program established under the Clinton administration—have helped increase the number of children being cared for by an adult instead of an older sibling during after-school hours, researchers at Mathematica Policy Research Inc. in Princeton, N.J., found.

But the study—the first of a multiyear analysis commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education—shows no drop in the percentage of children caring for themselves during those hours.

Released as President Bush was recommending a 40 percent cut in funding for the program, the study also suggests that the after-school initiative has not had a positive effect on students' behavior. For instance, although the number of incidents was low, participants in the programs were more likely than nonparticipants to report that they had sold drugs.

"The initial findings indicate that significant work remains to be done to develop after-school programs that improve children's academic, personal, and social skills," Mark Dynarski, a senior fellow at Mathematica and the director of the research project, said about the findings.

Financed at $1 billion in fiscal 2002, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program has grown rapidly from a budget of $40 million in 1998. Roughly 7,500 schools in more than 1,400 communities now take part in the program, which offers a range of academic, enrichment, and recreational activities.

For the study, researchers collected data from the 2000-01 school year. They conducted separate middle school and elementary school studies.

At the middle school level, the researchers compared students participating in the program with a similar group of students who were not participating—a total of 4,400 students. In elementary school, they randomly assigned 1,000 pupils to groups of participants and nonparticipants.

Middle school participants said that although they were encouraged to do their homework, they didn't think the after-school centers were a good place to get it done. And researchers who visited the centers said homework was generally done in large groups, and staff members didn't check the work.

The middle school students, however, did have slightly higher math scores than nonparticipants did. And those differences were even higher among African-American and Hispanic students, the study shows.

On the other hand, few differences were found between the program and comparison groups on the number of hours of television the youngsters watched, and on measures of behavior at school, such as suspensions and teacher reports of misconduct.

In elementary school, the authors found few differences between participants and nonparticipants on such indicators as homework completion, time spent reading for fun, and behavior in school. Elementary participants were also no more likely than nonparticipants to say they got along with their peers, were good at teamwork, and could set a goal and achieve it.

Advocates Respond

Advocates for after-school programs said they had hoped the study's findings would be used to help programs improve—not as a reason to cut funding, as the president recommends in his fiscal 2004 budget plan. ("Bush Proposes Ed. Funding Hike—Maybe," this issue.)

"To our dismay, the administration has chosen instead not to invest in after-school [programs]—which certainly doesn't help us address the fact that millions of kids don't have a safe place to go after school and that the after-school hours are when kids are most likely to be involved in violent crime, drug use, and other risky behaviors," says a response to the study from the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy organization.

Judy Samelson, the organization's executive director, said the study was based on data from a year in which most programs were still struggling with implementation issues and when academic success was not an explicit goal.

She added that under the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, the design of the program has changed, with more support and training being added.

"We really need to be figuring out what works for kids," she said, pointing out that there are many studies that show after-school programs have a positive impact on children.

She said that the study also downplays more positive findings about the program, including higher math scores for black and Hispanic students and for girls.

But Darcy Olsen, the president of the Goldwater Institute, a think tank in Phoenix, said the government should not be putting money into after-school programs and should instead be concentrating on improving what happens during the regular school day.

"The answer to low achievement is better basics," she said.

Vol. 22, Issue 22, Page 10

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