Reading Between the Studies

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"System building is slow. ...The diversity of the field has all kinds of implications. ...Only a modest percentage of low-income children participate. Revenues to programs serving low-income children fall short - sometimes far short - of resources needed to maintain even minimal-quality programs..."

These are the first five pull-out quotes from the recently released final evaluation report on the MOST (Making the Most of Out-of-School Time) Initiative. The report goes on to discuss the challenges and successes of the initiative, the goal of which was to "contribute to the supply, accessibility, affordability and quality of after-school programs, especially for low-income children, and to strengthen the overall functioning of after-school programs as a 'system' in three cities." The report reveals important lessons; see

Many people in youth work resist being forced into the after-school program nomenclature, much like teenagers resist sitting at small desks. But the term has caught on among policy-makers and the public. One challenge is to link the need for quality after-school programming for 6- to 12-year-olds with the need for quality opportunities for teens. We can. There is growing evidence that teens benefit from structured, voluntary activities:

A recent Child Trends' analysis of National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) data shows that young people who consistently participate in extra-curricular activities between 8th and 12th grades are 2.5 times more likely to enroll in college; two times more likely to volunteer; and almost two times as likely to vote, even after controlling for achievement, socio-economic status and parental involvement.

A University of Illinois study headed up by Reed Larson shows that youth activities, not schools, are the most likely places where teens are both cognitively and emotionally engaged - the ingredients of self-initiated learning. 

A second challenge is to define quality, which requires defining outcomes and articulating practice philosophies. Whatever age group they target, program leaders must be clear about goals and realistic about outcomes. Supervision, remediation, prevention, enrichment and participation are all legitimate program goals. But they suggest different structures, imply different costs and produce different outcomes. Equally important (and more difficult) is the need to distinguish between program content and how that content is delivered.

A case in point comes from the early findings of Public/Private Ventures' Extended-Service Schools Evaluation. A homework help program run by one person was engaging (with math games, poetry and a web page). When the next instructor did traditional homework help, interest dropped significantly. The two types of help both count as academic activities. But the practices, the engagement level and (presumably) the "outcomes" would all be different. 

This is no minor point. A cornerstone argument of the "youth development approach" is that delivery is as important as content.  Math, soccer and safe sex messages can all be delivered differently - with direct and indirect effects on cognitive, social and emotional outcomes.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers evaluation spearheaded by Mathematica looks for two types of intermediate outcomes (academic/cognitive, social/emotional) and five types of program inputs (safety, academic activities, adult interactions/activities, social/ cultural/recreational activities, links with the school day). But it will be tempting to see these as activity categories rather than practice ingredients that should be present within every activity. Evaluators may get accurate measures of academic outcomes but false measures of academic inputs if they look only at activities labeled academic, and fail to distinguish between engaging and non-engaging academic activities.

The most formidable challenge is time. System building is slow. Quality is expensive.  Expectations are high. Even if the Mathematica study yields an unambiguous statement that high- quality after-school programs produce lasting, stellar academic and non-academic results, and that low-quality programs can cause harm, the youth fields will have a problem. Even by minimal definitions, quality is embarrassingly low (says the P/PV study). But policy-makers, the public and parents have been lulled into thinking that quality after-school experiences cost about $1,500-$2,000 per child annually - half the actual cost estimated by Chapin Hall.

We need more than a study to create the public will needed to double that figure.

Karen Pittman is chairperson of Youth Today's board of directors and executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. Contact: