Assessment

Study Rekindles Debate on Value of After-School Programs

By Jeff Archer — October 12, 2004 3 min read
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Researchers who drafted a hotly debated report last year that the Bush administration used to justify proposed cuts in federal aid for after-school programs have released further study results suggesting that such programs have little academic benefit.

Carried out by the Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research Inc., the new report again examines the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, a $1 billion federal initiative that finances after-school programs in some 7,000 schools nationwide.

“When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program,” is available online from Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Based on additional data, the analysis released last week bolsters Mathematica’s contention last year that students in the programs did not make significantly greater academic gains than their peers who did not participate.

Both reports used results on standardized tests and student grades to compare elementary and middle school students in the programs with nonparticipants.

“Generally, when we looked across the full spectrum of findings, the patterns don’t support the general sense of academic impact,” said Mark Dynarski, the researcher who directed the studies.

Federal education officials hired Mathematica to conduct the evaluations of the learning-centers initiative. A third and final report, based on another year’s worth of surveys and student-performance measures, is expected next year.

Fair Assessment?

Advocates for after-school programs called Mathematica’s two assessments to date unfair, because they were based on information collected before the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 forced grantees in the federal program to gear their after-school programs more toward academic improvement.

Jen Rinehart, the associate director of the Washington-based Afterschool Alliance, said that as originally conceived during the Clinton administration, the learning-centers program served a broader purpose. Until the advent of the No Child Left Behind law, she said, many centers used their federal money for a wide array of school-based family services, such as job-preparedness programs for parents.

“It was very much a recognition that we have these great public resources that pretty much close down at 3 o’clock, so let’s make it available to the whole community,” she said, referring to after-hours use of schools.

“They’re taking a pre-NCLB program and using an NCLB measuring stick to determine the quality of the old program,” she said of the Mathematica reports.

Mr. Dynarski countered that federal officials began demanding an emphasis on student performance from the learning centers’ after-school programs in the late 1990s under President Clinton. Most center directors and parents have long seen academic improvement as a major objective for the after-school programs, he said.

“This is not an inappropriate retrofitting,” he said.

Similar disagreements arose when Mathematica released its first report last year. Seven education experts who had served on an advisory board to the evaluation released a statement criticizing the methodologies used. (“After-School Report Called Into Question,” May 21, 2003.)

Department of Education officials stoked the debate when they cited the study in proposing to cut funding for the learning-centers program from $1 billion to $600 million for fiscal 2004. Congress rejected the cut, and this year, the Bush Administration proposed maintaining current funding levels for fiscal 2005, which began this month.

Neither of Mathematica’s two reports suggested changes in the budget for the program, which Congress first authorized in 1994.

While conceding that many centers have room for improvement, some program directors argue that student performance is only one gauge of their value.

Mathematica’s studies found, for instance, that elementary school pupils at the centers felt safer than their counterparts in other settings. Other findings showed parents of participating students were more engaged in their children’s schooling.

Mindy DiSalvo, who directs 24 of the federally financed centers in the 98,000-student DeKalb County, Ga., public schools, said those kinds of benefits are related to student learning.

“I can tell you that between 2:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., no one [in the program] has been shot, no one has gotten pregnant, and no one has used drugs,” she said. “So all of those things that affect what a child takes to the academic table are being enhanced.”

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