By Helen Janc Malone
Child and youth programs tend to be on the fringe of school reform discourse; yet, they can be a positive influence on student learning, particularly in high-poverty communities. Since NCLB, there has been increased pressure on such programs to prove their relevance in education by quickly improving students' grades and standardized test scores. While some programs are able to make such links through supplemental homework assistance and tutoring services, there are other programs that could positively shape both short- and long-term student learning outcomes but are often discredited as "extra," "luxury," or "nice, but not necessary."
A problem facing many child and youth programs is that they are largely absent from mainstream education conversations and the popular media, which are dominated by debates about teacher unions, test scores, and school budgets. This is not too surprising, given that school reform and out-of-school time supporters, although serving the same constituency--K-12 students--operate in silos with separate advocacy groups, government funding streams, and human capital structures, and are guided by a distinguishable body of research. As a result, what is often considered tacit knowledge within the child and youth development fields is often misunderstood by the public, policy-makers, and even some school reformers.
Anecdotes and personal perceptions still tend to guide much of the public's thinking about the purpose(s) of child and youth programs. Out-of-school time programs face an array of perceptions--from being considered glorified babysitters on one end of the spectrum to being viewed as essential vehicles for helping students prepare for their post-secondary futures on the other. Variable program quality, the paraprofessional staffing model, and diversity of foci are cited by some school reformers as key concerns and primary reasons for keeping such services on the periphery of the education reform debates. Out-of-school time learning supporters often push back, noting that programs vary as much as school classrooms do, and that the field has over the past decade invested in rigorous evaluations, made professional development delivery improvements, and increased quality programming that together help create diverse learning pathways for children and youth, particularly in low-income communities.
A popular phrase coined a few years back, "schools can't do it alone," suggests that we, as a society, place too high of a burden on our schools to both alleviate all the negative influences that play a role in student learning, such as those associated with poverty, and, at the same time, prepare every student to access and graduate from college. For schools feeling pressure to "do it all," having community partners that offer learning opportunities, provide enrichment activities, and engage children and youth in positive developmental experiences seems appealing; however, school-community partnerships continue to be sporadic, and the government response to include out-of-school time programs into the education fold continues to be largely haphazard and reactive.
The push to "prove" the worthiness of out-of-school time programs to have a seat at the education table tends to boil down to demands for immediate causal links to standardized test scores, grades, or school attendance. This shows a misunderstanding of what these programs are designed to do, a narrow definition of what constitutes learning, and an over-eagerness to measure every form of knowledge acquisition against the same yardstick. And, while there is growing rhetoric to move beyond the test scores and invest in the twenty-first century education system(s), the school reality and access to a wider set of learning opportunities for many students in resource-poor communities by and large remain unchanged.
So, what can be done to "prove" that out-of-school programs play a role in the school reform movement? Internal to the child and youth development field, there should be greater knowledge production, from longitudinal evaluations, value-added and cost-benefit studies, to data-driven on-the-ground practices. Externally, the education and child and youth development fields should engage in intentional knowledge sharing about effective models of learning and school-community partnerships. Research on out-of-school time learning should be disseminated to a wider range of stakeholders, from teachers, families, front-line program staff, to the general public and media in order to create congruence in language, new images of what learning looks like and could be, and what learning experiences lead to college and career-ready adolescents. Knowledge sharing could build a wider support for diverse content and skill-building delivery mechanisms and acknowledge the roles both schools and non-school institutions play in student learning.
Helen Janc Malone is an advanced doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the project manager for the Futures of School Reform initiative. Her upcoming edited volume Expanded Learning Time and Opportunities is due out in the fall (Jossey-Bass).