The $1.2 Billion Program that Changed America’s Approach to Afterschool

We’re all for evidence-based policy making. But there are moments when the use of the “evidence” card just rings false. Brookings Senior Education Fellow Mark Dynarski’s reprised conclusion that existing research on afterschool programs does not support the current federal investment has that telltale clank.

The federal government’s investment in afterschool programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program is, as Mark Dynarski suggests, one of the rare examples of a funding program that has grown substantially with bi-partisan support and, equally important, diverse local support from elected officials, school administrators and community providers. The depth of this support for the program, however, is not irrational, misguided or naïve, as Dynarski argues in a recent article for Brookings. That support is linked to the fact that this targeted funding stream has fostered a commitment to making afterschool available that parallels recent trends for preschool and sparked the growth of local and state afterschool infrastructures with great social value.

Dynarski asserts that there is no objective evidence that the program has any effects on academic outcomes and points out that students attend programs only a few days a week. He discounts the value of customer satisfaction data from South Carolina. And he makes no mention of the documented contributions that afterschool and community programs have made to the “noncognitive” skills that, say his colleagues at the Brookings Brown Center on Education Policy, warrant serious policy consideration.

The problem with Dynarski’s argument – that the 21st Century program should be eliminated as a separate supplemental education funding stream because it’s redundant with the Child Care Block Grant – is more serious than simply how he frames the evaluation findings. The problem lies in his misrepresentation of the growth that this unique federal investment has sparked.

The 21st CCLC has not just funded afterschool programs. It has almost accidentally supported the development of afterschool systems and strengthened the demand for accountability which, in turn, has sparked the development of research- and practice-informed definitions and measures of program quality and youth benefits. Targeted, steady funding for school and community-based afterschool programs gave superintendents, mayors and community leaders the push they needed to make public commitments, to acknowledge the need for afterschool services and to craft coordinated responses to that need.

Those responses are evidenced in vibrant and growing afterschool systems across the country that partner with school systems to not only extend but to expand and enrich learning, and to share responsibility for learning outcomes. Afterschool networks like those in Oakland, Palm Beach, Nashville, Seattle, Kalamazoo, Louisville and Denver (there are many more) all include 21st CCLC sites, school district fee-for-service sites and a wide array of private providers who assure the quality of their services by using a shared standard for quality and continuous improvement.

Most researchers and many policymakers agree that the first Mathematica study was a premature evaluation of a “new and untested initiative.” Out-of-school time systems, however, are still haunted by the findings. These systems are bullish about demonstrating outcomes, both academic and social. They are committed to improving program quality within their provider networks. They are making progress. And they are making a difference.

We know from experience. The Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality (an affiliate of the Forum for Youth Investment) supports 105 quality improvement systems across the country, including more than 4,000 afterschool sites in 38 states. This scale of demand has come from the determined efforts of these state and city systems to get to and maintain high-quality experiences for the youth they serve.

Part of the problem is that some new evaluations of 21st CCLC programs, coming from American Institutes for Research (AIR), have not had a chance to inform the conversation. (See summaries of the findings here and here). The broader set of afterschool evaluation studies conducted by AIR’s afterschool team also suggest what much other research on the quality of learning environments has told us: That lots of important individual effects are associated with participation in high-quality programs – programs that provide safety, structure, supportive relationships, along with opportunities to explore interests, to work in groups, and to build and use academic and social skills in pursuit of student-selected goals.

Since the original Mathematica studies, 21st CCLC programs and the larger school system to which they are connected have doubled-down on the commitment to quality and stepped up efforts to make sure the students with the most to gain are enrolled in the programs that can best provide it. This may mean, as Dynarski states, that they decide to invest in more intensive programs that have a more explicit focus on academics. But they could also decide to integrate their community partners more deeply into the school day, step up data sharing between teachers and afterschool staff, increase training and supervision for weak programs, or wean out slow-to-improve providers.

The point is that very few of these options were possible a decade ago, before schools, mayors’ offices, local funders and community organizations began their remarkably rapid path toward shared accountability. It would be counterproductive to undo the funding stream that sparked this capacity building just as more and more educational decision makers are recognizing the need for shifts in practice toward the “noncognitive skills” that community based afterschool programs have focused on for decades.

The Brookings education team is right. There are “a handful of school systems and charter management organizations that stand out due to their coordinated, structured approaches to cultivating students’ noncognitive skills,” and these offer “potential models for the field as a whole.” But there are already dozens of afterschool and youth development systems working with educators to promote these very important shifts with schools and their networks. 21st CCLC is an important part of this process.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program  sparked state and local commitments to expand accountability for where and when students learn; now it’s pivoting to expand how and what students learn. It would be foolish to undermine the funding behind the systems that have been built at the exact moment they can be challenged to achieve their full potential.

Karen Pittman is Co-Founder and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment. Charles Smith is executive director of the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality.

© The Forum for Youth Investment