The final report in a three-year study of the federally supported 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program affirms the researchers’ controversial earlier findings that the program offers students little or no academic benefit.
Most of the elementary and middle school pupils who attended the after-school program showed no academic improvement, although the lowest-performing K-5 students did show slight gains on English achievement, says the report by the Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research Inc., released last week.
Compared with children not in the program, participants showed no difference in how often they completed their homework or got help working on it. And the program’s academic activities coordinated only weakly with classwork before the 3 p.m. bell, the report says.
The elementary school participants were more likely than those not in the program to say they felt safe after school. But they were also more likely to engage in behavior that warranted discipline during the regular school day.
The program did not affect the likelihood that children would be caring for themselves after school. The control group’s activities showed that children would most likely be at home with a parent if they weren’t at the centers, the study found.
“The programs are successful in the sense of caring for students after school,” said Mark Dynarski, the researcher who directed the study. “They have academic content, but they don’t actually have academic effects.”
The findings echoed those from two earlier stages of the Mathematica study of the program. (“Study Rekindles Debate on Value of After-School Programs,” October 13, 2004, and “Study Critiques Federal After-School Program,” Feb. 12, 2003.)
The inquiry was conducted for the U.S. Department of Education. But an Education Department spokesman declined to comment on the report’s summation last week, saying officials had not yet had a chance to review it in depth.
Off the Mark?
The program has generated national attention in part because of the amount of federal money channeled to it: nearly $1 billion this fiscal year. Observers have followed the evaluations closely to see if the program can benefit the largely low-income, minority population it serves in 7,000 schools nationwide.
The first report, in February 2003, prompted President Bush to call for a cut in the program’s funding, a move rejected by Congress. It gets about the same level of support in fiscal 2005 as it did last year.
The Afterschool Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group, criticized the report as technically flawed, and called it “of little use to the education community.”
In a statement, the group’s leaders said the results were questionable because, among other perceived flaws, the centers studied did not represent typical 21st Century Community Learning Centers.
Ursula Helminski, the group’s director of public awareness and outreach, said the study examined outcomes that were not emphasized in the initial design of the learning-centers program. The concept, which originated during the Clinton administration, was to use schools as community resources, providing a broad range of services such as recreation and homework help, she said.
Only recently have they been expected to put an emphasis on academic improvement, she said.