Student Achievement

Q&A: Quality Still a Challenge in After-School Programs, Says Top Researcher

By Kathryn Baron — September 15, 2015 6 min read
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When Deborah Vandell first started examining the effects of after-school programs on low-income children in 1985, she had the field to herself.

Vandell was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time. She recalls often being the only person discussing the issue at national education meetings in the early 1990s, such as the annual American Educational Research Association (AERA), where literally hundreds of research papers are presented.

That changed when Vandell and UW-Madison colleague Jill Posner published a seminal article in the April 1994 issue of the journal Child Development:"Low-Income Children’s After-School Care: Are There Beneficial Effects of After-School Programs?

Since then, she has written and co-authored more than 150 articles and three books, and has become an internationally recognized expert on after-school and summer learning.

Nearly 4 million students are enrolled in after-school programs today, a 60 percent increase in just seven years, according to America After 3PM, a report published by the Washington-based Afterschool Alliance.

The AERA now has a special interest group devoted to out-of-school time and meetings include a series of sessions devoted to organized before- and after-school programming.

In 2006, Vandell founded the school of education at the University of California, Irvine, and became its first dean. She infused it with a mission to explore learning in and out of school and across a lifetime, from early-childhood education to memory development in the elderly.

To earn a teaching credential in California, students have to attend a post-baccalaureate program that usually takes one year. Vandell created a program at UC Irvine where students can complete a major in one of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), and earn a teaching credential, all as undergraduates.

She also developed an undergraduate certificate program in after-school and summer education and a foundations in after-school and summer learning program with a capstone course requiring students to work in the field.

Vandell stepped down as dean this summer, in order to concentrate on her research. Education Week spoke with her about her work and the growing emphasis on after-school and summer learning as a way of helping to close the opportunity gap. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

EW: How has the perception of after-school and summer learning changed since you began your research?

Vandell: Back 30 years ago, I don’t think people had really thought about the out-of-school time space. Certainly people in education didn’t think about it as having developmental implications.

As school budgets started to get more constricted, one of the things you’ve seen happening over the last 40 years is a decrease in programs and activities that are part of the school but happen after school. We started seeing many of those activities disappear [and] you had this decrease in after-school, extracurricular activities.

The literature on unsupervised time with peers is very strong and robust, indicating what could be happening with children who are not supervised after school.

[There are] problem behaviors on the health side with obesity, or acting out behaviors, victimization, delinquent activities, and substance abuse.

The recognition that these activities have an important role in children’s development for good or for not so good, has been an area where we’ve seen change starting in the 1990s and the 2000s, with funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Center programs (federal grants for after-school programs), and some of the state-funded, after-school programs.

EW: Have you been suprised by any of the findings in the growing body of research in this field?

Vandell: There’s growing recognition, much more so than, say, the early 2000s, where the focus was narrowly on academic outcomes, of a variety of outcomes—health, behavioral, cognitive, motivational, as well as academic skills that can be supported by high-quality, after-school programs. That’s really gratifying and good.

I think that the challenges facing the field are those of how to support the development of high-quality, after-school program staff. Actually, I would say [that] is a challenge that faces education more broadly.

Which is why schools of education are really thinking about the preparation of teachers, preparation of after-school staff, and what we can be doing to ensure that that’s happening to scale in programs around the country.

EW: What can after-school and summer programs do to help close the opportunity gap?

Vandell: I think closing that achievement gap is going to take a multipronged strategy. Our work on high-quality, early-childhood programs is part of that strategy.

But what we find in some of my research, and we’re seeing it in other research as well, that another part of the strategy is high-quality, after-school programs and summer programs.

We see that consistent participation in high-quality programs across elementary school is associated with gains in math achievement for low-income children that are eliminating. at least in statistical analyses, achievement gaps.

The key on each one of these domains for children is the quality of those experiences and also that they are occurring in sufficient intensity or dosage for a sustained period of time to have an effect.

The other thing is that my work, and work of others in the after-school field, suggests that after-school should not be just more school, that it should be approaching learning and development in a different way.

After children have been having a structured school day for six hours, seven hours, they really need to be able to have greater autonomy in choosing areas to focus on, to be able to experience physical activities, sports, art, hands-on science, hands-on math or robotics, whatever kinds of areas that might be of interest to them in a different sort of way than the standard school day.

EW: How close are we to attaining the goals of quality and quantity?

Vandell: There is an awareness of the importance of after-school and summer that was not there 10 years ago. That awareness is important. I think for middle-class children and upper middle-class children, they’re there.

The place where we need to be doing more is to ensure that our low-income children have these same opportunities.

EW: Now that you have time to focus on your research, what are you studying?

Vandell: I am concerned about the inequity in opportunity that children are facing.

I’m doing several things; one is on the political side. As the debate over the 21st Century Community Learning Center funding continues (in Congress), I am talking about the importance of funds to support after-school programs for low-income students.

The second is how we go about improving the quality of programs.

The third thing I’m doing is research on the short-term and long-term effects of after-school programs [and] the quality and intensity of those programs in relation to youth outcomes.

One of the things I’m doing right now is this project for [California] that’s looking at the impact of a professional development program in the state for after-school staff in the STEM learning area. We’re looking at about 200 to 300 programs across the state.

For me, in the next ten years, I really want to finish those studies and get them in the academic literature.

Photo credit: Courtesy of University of California, Irvine

A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.