The After-Effects of After-School

Does learning only happen during school hours, behind school house doors?  For years, the education community has debated the impact of after-school programs on student achievement.  Today, Education Week’s Debra Viadero has a story on a new research study showing dramatic achievement gains for those students who regularly attend and participate in “top-notch” after-school programs. 

The story can be found at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/11/28/13afterschool.h27.html

The findings seem common sense to Eduflack.  Take at-risk students.  Put them in a high-quality after-school program that reinforces the curriculum and learning strategies they are getting in the classroom.  Ensure that they come to all of their after-school sessions.  Observe the benefits.  Repeat.  More instruction, particularly if it is proven to work, is bound to help even the most at-risk student.  That’s why we advocate for more instructional time or for parents to reinforce classroom lessons at home.

As is now par for the course in education reform, the critics are out, attacking the methodology.  The driver for this — a 2005 study that showed no measurable effects for after-school programs.  Questioning how experimental groups and control groups were chosen and the legitimacy of comparing students from group A to group B is destined to quickly turn this report, known as the Promising Afterschool Programs Study, into yet another inning of inside baseball, where researchers will continue to throw brush-back pitches as those students in need aren’t even allowed a ticket in.

Education reform is about improvement.  We advocate for what works, and we push to adopt what is proven effective in schools and with kids like ours.  As we look at the pool of at-risk students, can anyone — with a straight face — honestly say that the current classroom instruction is enough to turn those kids around, have them catch up to their cohort, and achieve on assessments?  Of course not.  They’ll always be a step behind without additional help beyond school hours.

When an affluent student struggles in the classroom, his parent is quick to hire an after-hours tutor to turn things around.  Some after-school sessions and special attention (and much money) later, the student gets the concept and is able to keep up in trig or biology or physics. 

So why would it be any different for an at-risk student in a low-income community?  Research-based after-school programs are designed to provide students that same sort of instruction and attention, giving them a boost in the classroom the next day.  If such programs are proven effective (and the Promising Afterschool Programs Study is posting eye-popping positive results) then shouldn’t we encourage their continued use?

Research can often be a double-edged sword in education.  Yes, we can and should use it to measure the effectiveness of a school, a class, or a student.  We should use it to ensure that instructional programs are effective and are proven to work.  We use it to validate our decisions, when faced with vocal resistance.  It is a powerful communications tool.

But research can also be used to tear down.  Yes, the 2005 study found after-school programs to have no effect on student achievement.  But that doesn’t mean this new study is wrong.  If anything, it tells us we need to take a closer look at the type of after-school program we’re looking to.  Like everything else, there are good and bad programs.  If continued research of after-school programs gets us closer to replicating the good and eradicating the bad, it’s a win for researchers, a win for the schools, and a huge win for the students.

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