After-School Programs Feel Heat From Congress, Critics
Conflict rekindles research debates
Brent Cummings' goal for the 400 low-income, at-risk students in the after-school programs he directs in Walla Walla, Wash., is to kindle their interest in learning with the same spark that lit his imagination years ago, when his high school chemistry teacher kicked off a unit on the periodic table of elements by filling a balloon with pure oxygen and igniting it.
Now, the programs in Walla Walla and at more than 11,000 other schools and community centers across the country are in limbo because of a congressional tussle over federal funding for after-school programs. The budget talks have reopened a decade-old debate on whether research shows any academic benefits for students enrolled in the programs.
At issue is the $1.15 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers, or CCLC, grant program, the largest source of federal after-school funding.
In his initial bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, called for consolidating CCLC and other nonacademic programs into a single block grant. His proposal was carried over into the new bipartisan version of the reauthorization bill released on April 7. However, CCLC supporters said several senators are planning to offer a bipartisan amendment to restore the program when the committee takes up the bill.
But the suggestion to eliminate CCLC has created an opening for critics and a rallying cry for advocates.
Mark Dynarski was part of a team at the Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research that evaluated the CCLC program more than a decade ago. In a paper published last month by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, Mr. Dynarski, now a senior fellow at center, said neither Mathematica's studies nor any national studies since have proven that after-school programs improve student outcomes.
He wondered why the federal government continues to spend money on a program that he said is not meeting its goals.
"When do you decide that this evidence is sufficient to actually bring a program to a head or to change it in some ways that make it different?" Mr. Dynarski told Education Week.
Other researchers dismissed his comments and rebutted the Mathematica studies, arguing that they're out of date and flawed because the program was too new to be appropriately assessed at the time.
"One of the first rules of evaluation is that you would not want to use the initial rollout of a program to do a high-stakes evaluation," said Deborah Vandell, the dean of the school of education at the University of California, Irvine. "The 21st Century programs today are not the same programs that they were 15 years ago. The research data are unequivocal about the role of organized after-school programs."
Her own research and a separate analysis of other recent studies, known as a meta-analysis, found that students who "regularly attended high-quality programs demonstrated significant gains in standardized mathematics-test scores as well as self-reported work habits," such as improved attendance.
In Walla Walla, an independent evaluation found students who attended CCLC-funded after-school programs for at least 30 days did better than similar students at the same schools who didn't attend them.
At one middle school, 80 percent of students in the program earned a C or better in science, compared with 48 percent of those who didn't take part. In math, the breakdown was similar: 70 percent of participating students and 48 percent of nonparticipating students earned a C or better. The after-school students also had a slight edge in reading.
A series of statewide evaluations by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research offers further support. In Texas, for example, the AIR found that high school students who participated in after-school programs for at least 60 days were 97 percent more likely to be promoted to the next grade compared with similar, nonparticipating students.
Mr. Dynarski discounts such evaluations, arguing that some local success stories don't trump lackluster national results. But his assertion that even federal education data collected from all of the programs found that most had missed their performance targets drew a rebuttal from the U.S. Department of Education.
"More recent data reported by states with 21st Century Community Learning Center grants show that students who participated in after-school programs for at least 30 days each year had better school attendance, saw fewer disciplinary incidents, and were more likely to be promoted to the next grade," the Education Department's press secretary, Dorie Nolt, said in an email.
Any effort to shift the purpose of CCLC funds faces formidable dissent from after-school advocates. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who launched a successful ballot initiative for an after-school grant program in his state, led a call to action last month at a conference at the University of Southern California.
"That's why we're here," said Mr. Schwarzenegger, "to tell Washington as one voice, 'Don't terminate after-school programs.' "
Vol. 34, Issue 27, Page 8Published in Print: April 15, 2015, as After-School Programs Targeted by Lawmakers, Critics