Jane L. David
After-School Programs Can Pay Off
Students spend about three-quarters of their waking hours outside school. For some, these hours include sports, music
lessons, or other activities that promote learning;
for others, however, much of this time is spent
disconnected from constructive activities.
What’s the Idea?
After-school programs can provide enrichment
activities that develop students’ academic and
social skills. For students who lack adult supervision or learning opportunities after school,
such programs can offer an environment that is safe and nurturing as
well as educational.
What’s the Reality?
What’s the Research?
After-school programs have grown
exponentially in the last 15 years.
They vary enormously in their
quality and in their ability to get
students to attend regularly. Many
are poorly designed, lack clear objec-
tives, and suffer from high staff
turnover. Such programs tend to
come and go as sources of funding
appear or dry up. The strongest
programs complement, rather than duplicate,
school activities and knit families, schools, and
community agencies together around student
interests and needs.
The vast number of after-school programs is
matched by a vast array of research studies.
Findings from these studies run the gamut
from strong positive effects to none at all on a
variety of academic and social measures. Evaluations using random assignment find few significant effects overall on student test scores
and behaviors (Zief, Lauver, & Maynard, 2006).
However, such general evaluations provide little
insight about program quality or which programs may work well to achieve particular goals
for particular students. Some researchers, taking
a different tack, have sought out after-school
programs with strong reputations to document
their effects on students and to discover what
makes them successful.
The federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers, intended to link
schools and communities to bolster school performance, have been the subject of numerous
studies. Recently, Huang, Cho, Mostafavi, and
Nam (2010) identified 53 Community Learning
Centers that were highly effective in terms of
student achievement gains. Looking across these
programs, the researchers found they shared
features similar to those associated with effective
schools: strong leaders, clear goals and structures
aligned to meet those goals, low staff turnover,
and staff ability to motivate and engage students.
rather than duplicate,
In a study of 35 recommended programs
serving either elementary or middle school
students, Reisner and colleagues (2007) found
positive academic outcomes as well as social
and behavioral benefits. Students who attended
regularly for two years showed improvements in
work habits, task persistence, and social skills
(such as the ability to refrain from aggressive
behavior). Students also demonstrated significant
gains in mathematics achievement, even when
math was not the focus of the program. Features
that stood out across these successful programs
included tightly knit partnerships between the
after-school programs and students’ schools and
communities and a focus on high-quality arts,
enrichment, and recreation rather than academic
Durlak and Weissberg (2007) reviewed
studies of 73 programs that targeted personal
and social skills, all using control groups. The