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Federal After-School Fund Is Not Effective, Argues Researcher

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A federal grant program that has spent more than $12 billion on after-school programs since 1998, has failed in its mission to improve student achievement and should be eliminated, argues a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center on Education Policy.

In an article published Thursday, Mark Dynarski, writes that as a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, he led a federally funded national evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) program, which concluded that "the program didn't affect student outcomes. Except for student behavior, which got worse."

Dynarski says studies conducted since then have also found that after-school programs are not effective, and that the U.S. Department of Education's own annual reporting indicates that many programs did not meet their targets. 

Despite this evidence, Dynarski notes CCLC funding has increased over the years—it's $1.15 billion this fiscal year, up from $40 million in 1998—and wonders why we're continuing to invest in programs that don't work. 

"[T]he history of federal after-school programs suggests that a program that was funded on its potential can continue to be funded based on a kind of wishful thinking in which evidence is viewed through rose-colored glasses," Dynarski writes.

He supports a proposal by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, the chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, to eliminate CCLC and all other nonacademic programs in Title IV of No Child Left Behind and fold them into a single block grant when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is reauthorized. You can read more about that proposal here in our post from last month.

CCLC is the largest federal funding source dedicated to before- and after-school programs and summer learning programs that are designed to provide low-income students with tutoring and other academic enrichment activities to help them meet state standards, particularly in math and English/language arts. Many of the programs also offer hands-on classes in the arts, sciences, and other activities that aren't often provided at high-poverty schools or available and affordable in low-income communities.

After-school advocates and other researchers say Dynarski's criticisms are unfounded. Neil Naftzger with the American Institutes for Research (AIR), has been designing and conducting evaluations of after-school programs more than a decade and says their findings and other reports indicate that when students regularly attend an after-school program, they have fewer disciplinary problems and are more likely than similar students not in the program to be promoted to the next grade. Studies in Texas and Washington found that students attending CCLC-funded programs are improving their math and reading scores on state achievement tests.

"To cut off 21st CCLC programs now, based on old or irrelevant information, would be doing a disservice to the 1.5 million young people who benefit from the programs each year and to the schools that have come to rely on it," countered Naftzger.

Jennifer Davis, a co-founder and the president of the Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning, opposes eliminating CCLC, but says it does need to be revamped to focus on what works.

"I think it needs to be better targeted. It needs to support creating excellent schools that provide extra learning opportunities that can move English/language arts and math scores but also provide a more well-rounded education," said Davis, who worked for former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley when CCLC was first launched.

She said research shows that expanding the school day and school year, as many charter schools do, has proven to be effective in improving academic outcomes for low-income children. 

"I believe that the program should be focused on what works and what we know works are high-performing charter schools that offer 60 percent more learning time to students," Davis said. "We have a school schedule based on an antiquated 200-year old model. It doesn't work anymore."

Some states have already received approval to use CCLC funds to expand the school day and year under their waivers from some of the provisions of No Child Left Behind.  The waiver application includes a check-off box that allows states to redirect some of their CCLC funds to add time to the school day.

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