GAO Says Education Dept. Should Up Its Oversight of Federal After-school Program

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GAO

A report released this week from the U.S. Government Accountability Office looked at the objectives of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative and recommended that the Department of Education update its performance measures to fully align with the objectives of the program.

As after-school programs across the country fear loss of federal funds, a new report from the Government Accountability Office could muddy the waters.

The GAO released a report Wednesday saying the Department of Education needs to improve its oversight of the program by updating the way it measures program outcomes.

Supporters of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which provides after-school and summer enrichment for 1.6 million children across the nation, are not surprised.

“We don’t disagree with the recommendations,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, an after-school advocacy group. “Some were already addressed in the new Every Student Succeeds Act.”

“The [GAO] report makes it pretty clear that [21st Century] programs are making a real difference,” Grant said. It cites research showing that participation in after-school programs improves student behavior and school attendance, she said. These are “key building blocks of long-term student success,” she said.

However, the report could have looked at additional research that has already been done, Grant said.

The 21st Century program’s three big objectives are to show student improvement in educational, behavioral and social areas. But the Department of Education only measures educational outcomes and some behavior outcomes, the GAO report said.

For example, its academic measures include math, reading scores and state test scores. Its behavioral measures are homework completion, class participation and teacher-reported classroom behavior. The GAO said the Education Department should also be measuring school attendance and disciplinary incidents, as well as social and emotional outcomes for kids.

Ellie Mitchell is executive director of Maryland Out of School Time, a network for after-school providers in the state.

“We don't disagree that the DOE hasn't done the job it needs,” Mitchell said. “It takes lots of research dollars to do proper research, and the funding isn’t there to do everything.”

A great deal of research outside the Department of Education has been done on after-school programs “proving how effective these programs are,” she said.

The requirements of the federal law and the grants themselves are strict, so programs involved are constantly evaluating what works and what doesn't, Mitchell said.

The GAO report said the department needs to better manage and use its data so it can make good decisions about the program. It should provide guidance to states on program evaluation, it said.

The Department of Education said it has not updated its performance measures because federal authorization for the 21st Century program lapsed from 2008 until 2016, according to the report. The program was reauthorized under the Every Student Succeeds Act last year.

The report could be seen as giving ammunition to opponents of the program or it could be seen as pushing the Education Department to take action.

Mitchell takes the latter view.

"So even if the Education Department isn't doing everything, it's preposterous to say that 21st Century Learning hasn't made a tremendous improvement to the lives of kids and their families,” she said. 

"You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are things you don’t need research to tell you. It's just common sense that kids in safe, caring environments, being fed maybe their only good meal of the day, are going to have better outcomes,” she said.

John Holland contributed to this article.