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Based on the spending patterns of more than 3,000 school districts, U.S. schools are on track to spend more than $1.5 billion of their federal pandemic recovery funds on after-school programs, according to FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
This figure makes after-school programs the fourth most popular way to spend federal funds to address learning loss, behind summer school, software and instructional materials. (Technically, the after-school category also includes extending the school day, but I’m not seeing many examples of schools requiring all of their students to stay late into the afternoon.)
Working parents may welcome the additional, free childcare options or a safe, supervised place for their tweens to hang out after school. But the research evidence for reaping academic or other social benefits from after-school programs isn’t strong.
“After-school learning has had fairly limited impact and yet the law requires schools to spend money on it,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd. “There is the possibility that they [schools] are going to do afterschool right and better. But there’s the possibility that they’re not.”
Schools have received an extra $200 billion in funds since the pandemic hit. Congress approved a majority of it – $122 billion – in March 2021 and required school administrators to submit plans for how they intend to spend it over three years. Districts must use 20 percent of their funds to help students catch up. The legislation cites after-school programs as one way that schools can fulfill this requirement. States oversee the spending of a smaller $12 billion slice of this money and the law expressly requires them to spend 1 percent of it, or $120 million, on after-school programs. Another 5 percent of the state money is to be spent on overcoming learning loss, which can also be used on after-school programs.
The Afterschool Alliance – an advocacy group – was instrumental in securing the 1 percent set aside for afterschool and making sure that after-school programs would qualify for learning loss. When an earlier draft bill set aside money only for summer school, the Afterschool Alliance banded together with community organizations, such as the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, to persuade lawmakers that spending on afterschool should also be a required.
After-school programs might seem like a good idea to help students catch up because they give teachers extra time to cover material that students missed during the months of remote schooling. But getting students to attend regularly is a chronic problem. High quality after-school programs sometimes produce reading or math gains for students who do show up, but many programs operate with poorly trained teachers and lessons that are disconnected from what students are learning in their regular classes.
When researchers look across studies, they usually don’t see meaningful gains in reading or math achievement, according to a 2014 American Institutes for Research analysis for the Department of Education. The analysis also found no improvement in in social and emotional skills, although there was a tiny boost to student motivation.
The Afterschool Alliance gave me a draft brief about its view of the evidence. It makes the case that well-designed and well-delivered after-school programs can address learning loss and accelerate learning. The main citation is a 2010 meta-analysis of 68 after-school programs, which showed that a subset of 40 of them tended to help students improve their grades, test scores, attendance and social behaviors. But even the authors of this decade-old study, Joseph Durlak at Loyola University Chicago and Alan Weissberg of University of Illinois at Chicago, cautioned that many after-school programs are not effective. Only the ones they categorized as high quality “produced significant effects on any outcomes.” The others did not.
“There is much room for improvement among current programs,” the authors wrote.
The Afterschool Alliance also cited an unpublished conference paper from 2013, which tracked 1,000 elementary school students over time. The more time that low-income students spent in after-school programs, the more their achievement in math improved by fifth grade. The math achievement of middle-income children improved too, but not by nearly as much.
To be sure, high-quality programs with high attendance can work. But even the Afterschool Alliance is concerned by what they’re starting to see in the field: a fresh crop of brand new programs started by schools that don’t have much experience.
“The school district could have partnered with existing providers, and really built off of what they know about what works for young people in that community,” said Jen Rinehart, senior vice president of strategy and programs at the Afterschool Alliance. “In many cases, community partners have deeper reach in the community than the school does.”
In other words, a faith-based organization or a local recreation center might have better luck re-engaging kids who lost interest in school during the pandemic and have fallen the most behind.
Rinehart highlighted promising examples of how some communities are using their pandemic funds for after-school programs. Jackson, Mississippi, is working with a local children’s museum. Both Charleston, South Carolina, and Albany, New York, have established a grant program for local community organizations to expand after-school programs.
Rinehart recommends that after-school programs aimed at helping students recoup learning losses offer a mix of academics and fun. Without the fun, kids won’t come. Rinehart also says that kids need to attend regularly, almost daily, for a decent stretch of time. Students who come only once a week for tutoring, for example, are unlikely to see gains.
“You need enrichment opportunities that kids are really interested in to make sure that they are showing up,” said Rinehart.
Arts and sports offering are not just fun; they also help tweens and teens try different things and discover their life-long interests. “Middle school is a critical time to figure out who you are and who you want to be,” Rinehart said. “And after-school programs can really help.”
Indeed, the strongest arguments for afterschool may not be academic at all.
“We shouldn’t just focus on the academics,” said Reinhart. “After-school activities are playing a much broader role for young people and their families.”
This story about after-school programs was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.