Mixed results for 21st Century after-school programs: Students feel safer, but have more behavior issues

Girlfriends going to schoolStudents in 21st Century Community Learning Center after-school programs in both rural and urban areas feel safer after school, but their academic performance is not affected and boys had more incidents of negative behavior, according to a national evaluation of the program. The incidents included suspensions, teachers calling students’ parents about behavior, and students being disciplined by teachers.

“The study’s findings are consistent with a mixed picture of effects of after-school programs,” write researchers Susan James-Burdumy, Mark Dynarski and John Deke of Mathematica Policy Research in a recent issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

21st Century was authorized by Congress in 1994 to open up schools for broader use by their communities and to provide academic enrichment and recreational activities for students after school and also before school, on weekends, and during the summer. The percentage of public schools offering “extended day” programs more than tripled between 1987 to 1999 from about 16% to 47%, the authors write.

“When the 21st Century program began its growth, various research studies were cited as showing that after-school programs can increase academic achievement and safety and reduce negative behaviors such as drug and alcohol use,” the researchers write.

One of the study’s virtues is that it eliminated selection bias by using as controls students who had applied to oversubscribed after-school programs. There are no doubt differences between parents and students who decide to attend and decide not to attend after-school programs, the authors write. Some 2,308 elementary school students who were interested in attending a center were randomly assigned either to the treatment or control group and data for the students analyzed over a two-year period. The participants were from 12 school districts and 26 after-school centers in eight states in four regions of the U.S. (58% in rural areas and 42% in urban areas).

The second year of the study showed evidence of higher levels of behavior problems among students in after-school programs compared with controls. Teachers reported having to call parents about behavior problems for 28% of treatment students and 23% of control group students. Some 22% of treatment students reported they had to miss recess or sit in the hall compared with 17% of control group students. First-year effects were similar, but not statistically significant; 12% of treatment group students were suspended compared with 8% in the control group. The negative behaviors were concentrated among two subgroups: boys and students with high levels of disciplinary problems (measured at baseline).

Treatment group students also were less likely than control group students to rate themselves highly on working with others on a team or group and teachers reported that treatment group students were less likely to get along well with others.

Two other studies reported similar patterns. A Massachusetts study reported significant increases in negative behaviors while students were in after-school programs (Massachusetts 2020 & Boston Public Schools 2004) and researchers studying a school district in suburban Dallas reported that children who attended day care centers after school (including after-school programs) were more likely to be viewed negatively by their peers (Vandell & Corasaniti, 1988).

However, a 2004 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network did not find a connection between behavior and nonmaternal care, including after-school programs.

No effect on homework completion

There were no statistically significant effects of the program on reading test scores or course grades in math, English, or science. There was also no effect on homework completion. Classroom effort and teacher reports of achievement were lower for treatment group students. For example, teachers reported that 47% of treatment group students “usually try hard” in reading and English compared with 52% of control group students.

Completing assignments to the teacher’s satisfaction, coming to school prepared, and performing at or above the student’s ability level all were similar. The researchers caution, however that there were differences by gender. They note that boys in the after-school program were significantly less likely to come to school prepared and ready to learn. Girls’ preparation was not significantly affected by the program, researchers say.

Researchers offer several potential explanations for lack of improved academic outcomes, including:

  • No evident coordination between after-school programming and the regular school-day curriculum
  • Weak coordination with teachers about homework assignments especially when the centers relied on outside staff
  • (Coordination was smoother when program staff were teachers in the same school.)
  • Students’ attendance may need to pass some minimum threshold before gains are realized. (Outcomes appeared to be more positive for those students who attended more, but researchers could draw no definitive conclusions on this point.)
  • After-school time may be too fragmented to allow students to spend enough time on activities that could benefit them.

Students feel safer

One notable positive effect of the after-school programs, is that treatment group students reported feeling safer after school than control group students. Of treatment group students, only 3% reported feeling “not at all safe” after school compared with 7% of control group students.

Researchers acknowledge that they are not sure why students felt safer. The study did not measure whether programs reduced the total amount of time students spent in self-care, but rather the frequency of days in which they experienced the self-care. Researchers speculate that “A reduction in time spent in self-care could generate improved feelings of safety even though the incidence of self-care is unchanged.”

A typical center operated 10 or more hours a week (usually after school); was located in an elementary or middle school; provided reading, math, science and enrichment activities; served more minority students than the average school; was more likely to be located in a high-poverty school than the average school; collaborated with local organizations to provide services; worked with the host school to recruit students and set goals and objectives; and included many staff who were teachers in the school.

“When Elementary Schools Stay Open Late: Results From the National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program,” by Susanne James-Burdumy, Mark Dynarski and John Deke, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, December 2007, Volume 29, Number 4, pp. 296-318.

Published by ERN March 2008 Volume 21 Number 3

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