Out-of-school time (OST) programs, offered after school and during the summer, are intended to provide youth a safe space to go with adult supervision and a set of enrichment experiences that help youth build background knowledge, explore interests and develop skills. However, access to these opportunities is not equitably distributed.
In the United States, the highest-income families spend almost seven times more on enrichment activities for their children than low-income families. This spending disparity creates a substantial opportunity gap across a range of enrichment activities including sports, music, science and camps. Public investment in high-quality OST programming for low-income youth can help even the playing field. Programs primarily serving students from low-income families rely heavily on public funding.
The public’s support for this investment is high — a 2017 Quinnipiac University poll found 83 percent of those surveyed opposed cutting public funding for these programs. Despite this support, funding streams for OST are consistently at risk of being cut and the effectiveness of OST programs is hotly debated.
In a recent analysis of rigorous cause-and-effect research, we find the research base is clear: High-quality OST programs can benefit youth and tend to produce outcomes linked to program content. Specifically, we find consistent evidence that:
- After-school programs improve the supervision and safety of youth.
- Academic programs offered after school or during the summer, in which teachers deliver academic instruction, can improve student assessment scores. For example, an after-school program that provided 60-minute reading lessons four days a week for 23 weeks found positive reading outcomes.
- Programs with an intentional focus on improving youth behavior or social and emotional well-being can be successful.
Attendance, program quality crucial
However, OST programs are beneficial, not magic. Their effectiveness is driven by the content of the program and the experiences. Programs do not tend to generate benefits that are not directly related to program content. For instance, after-school programs offering homework help can help improve homework completion, but they do not improve state assessment scores in mathematics or English language arts. This is not surprising, given that research outside the OST field has found no significant correlation between the amount of homework completed and academic achievement at the elementary school level and only a small relationship between homework and academic achievement at the middle school level.
Further, attendance and program quality matter. Studies of academic and non-academic OST programs consistently demonstrate that greater benefits accrue to those with strong rates of participation, and studies consistently find stronger benefits from high-quality programs. Quality OST programs are intentionally designed to provide engaging activities that are sequenced and aligned with program goals and are taught by trained, dedicated instructors who work effectively with youth.
As researchers, we have had the opportunity to observe many OST programs. We have seen first-hand the opportunities youth have when attending high-quality programs. From sailing, to theater, to sports, to leadership camps, OST programs can offer experiences that youth, particularly low-income youth, are likely not getting elsewhere. These programs allow youth to gain these valuable experiences and can help to close the opportunity gap between low-income youth and their higher-income peers.
Taken as a whole, the research signals that quality programs are worthy of public support. Funders and policymakers could maximize benefits by providing adequate resources to support quality programming and prioritizing funding for programs that can demonstrate intentionality of design and quality characteristics. It could be a wise investment for America’s youth.
Jennifer McCombs is a senior policy researcher and director of the Behavioral and Policy Science Department at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
Ana A. Whitaker is a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.